Nashville: Could it be the next GLBT travel destination?

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Nashville is pretty gay. Even the hit ABC television show Nashville has made closeted-country-star-wannabe Will Lexington a series regular for its second season. It’s fair to say that anytime an area is bolstered by the arts and entertainment industry, music in this case, you can expect the GLBT community to play a significant role in the area’s inertia.

And while its “Music City” moniker hinges upon the success of primarily the country genre—a genre whose industry and fans are traditionally viewed as anti-GLBT—it only takes a spin on the radio dial today to hear the impact that out songwriters are making on country music.

Earlier this year, hit songwriter Shane McAnally (Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere with You,” Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call”) was profiled in the New York Times as an out and proud songwriter. In fact, McAnally told the New York Times that his career really took off when he came out and that when he stopped hiding who he was, he started writing hits.

Couple that with country queen Carrie Underwood’s endorsement of marriage equality in 2012 and the recent letter signed by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Kenny Alphin (better known as “Big Kenny” of Big & Rich) supporting Illinois marriage equality, you might presume that Nashville has become a GLBT travel destination.

Unfortunately, while Nashville was bestowed with the title of an ‘It City’ by the New York Times in January of this year,  the jewels of our community—from our thriving music-based economy and burgeoning local theatre and culinary scene as well as our diverse GLBT nightlife scene—are still awaiting discovery by the nation’s GLBT community.

Corporations around the world have recognized the power of the GLBT dollar over the last decade. From major sponsorship of Pride events—for example, Bridgestone and Coors Light were just two major sponsors of this year’s 25th anniversary of Nashville Pride—to ad campaigns specifically geared toward the GLBT community (see the adorable Amazon Kindle ad from this spring), companies are speaking to the gay consumer. Estimated to be between $55 and $70 billion dollars this year, the GLBT travel market is no different; the GLBT community has money and is ready to spend it.

So what helps make a city a GLBT tourist destination? According to John Tanzella, President/CEO of International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), “The reality is that LGBT travelers are as varied as straight travelers, so art, culture, food and adventure factor in right along with gay nightlife and businesses. What makes a place even more attractive though is pro-LGBT legislation and a welcoming attitude that extends beyond the desire to simply cash in on gay tourism dollars.”

In fact, according to the 2012 Community Marketing and Insights (CMI) Travel Survey which surveyed nearly 6,000 participants, 40 percent of participants who identified as gay and close to the same number of lesbians said a destination’s degree of GLBT-friendliness was the main factor influencing their travel destination choice. This factor ranked behind warm weather, beaches, cultural attractions and cuisine.

While it can be argued that Tennessee as a whole, thanks in part to the national coverage of Sen. Stacy Campfield’s infamously dubbed ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, does not rank nearly as high as other states when it comes to being GLBT-friendly, it can also be argued that Tennessee’s metropolitan areas are much more progressive. In 2009, Metro-Nashville added sexual orientation and gender identity to its city government non-discrimination ordinance. Knoxville and Memphis followed suit in 2012 and most recently Knox County amended their county ordinance to prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.

According to David Paisley, Senior Research Director at CMI, GLBT travel is experiencing a third wave of momentum. “The first was people you would expect—15 years ago it was San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam and London and sort of big metropolitan areas you would expect to be outreaching to the gay market. Second was the other major cities that maybe weren't San Francisco and New York but they were Philadelphia, they were Chicago and Las Vegas. Now we're in the third wave, which is smaller cities and some rural areas; St. Louis and Richmond, Virginia are now actively outreaching to the gay and lesbian community.

And Paisley isn’t the only one watching smaller areas solicit GLBT travelers. Tanzella pointed out Door County, Wisconsin and the inevitable explosion of “specialty marketing within the broader range of LGBT travel” including LGBT wedding and honeymoon travel. “LGBT popular destinations won’t be confined to major cities, a trend that is already well under way,” Tanzella remarked.

So the question remains as Paisley pointedly asked, “The question is we're in the third wave right now. Nashville should be a part of that third wave: are they going to be or not?” $70 billion dollar industry? How can we sign up and more importantly what steps can Nashville take to get their fair share of the travel pie?

St. Louis reaches out to GLBT travelers

Named one of the gayest cities for 2013 by The Advocate, St. Louis launched a 2013 campaign geared towards attracting GLBT visitors to experience “The Gateway to the West.” According the Brian Hall, Chief Marketing Officer of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission (CVC), they viewed the “LGBT market as very vital to the tourism growth of the St. Louis economy,” and wanted “to see what [they could] do to create additional opportunities to attract LGBT travelers to the community.”

And so the process began.

It took more than a year but Hall described the lengthy process which St. Louis undertook to attract GLBT tourists. “First and foremost we wanted to understand the extent our community believed we were doing a good job at being welcoming and hospitable to gay and lesbian travelers. We conducted a lot of research not only inside our community but outside our community to understand attitudes and perceptions of St Louis.”

Hall and his team assembled a community task force that included an Alderman of St. Louis city, a publisher of one St. Louis’ GLBT periodicals and the sister of the mayor of St. Louis in order to better understand the community’s needs. Hall also alluded to additional factors in their campaign including making sure more area hotels were TAG approved and that employers were extending health benefits to same-sex partners.

After tapping members of their advertising agency that identified as GLBT, St. Louis launched a national print campaign in Out before launching a smaller print and online campaign in several feeder markets, including: Nashville, Kansas City and Indianapolis.

Additionally, a GLBT microsite within the larger St. Louis CVC, provided electronic resources for prospective travelers.

And the extensive campaign has paid off. Hall cited not only a significant increase in web traffic for the overall St. Louis CVC web site but also the GLBT microsite as well as what he perceived to be a marked increase in attendance for St. Louis Pride.

Nashville and Beyond

So can Nashville take a few lessons from St. Louis? Certainly so. But a GLBT marketing strategy is not one-size-fits-all as Tanzella described, “It’s possible for any destination to raise its LGBT profile. Many cities misstep because they try to be what they’re not instead of focusing on what makes them authentic. Nashville is not San Francisco and it doesn’t need to be.”

So where does Nashville stand today? Currently there are little to no resources for GLBT travelers on the Nashville Convention and Visitor’s Corporation (CVC) website. A simple search for the term ‘gay’ results in an outdated word document describing the Nashville GLBT community. Furthermore, it takes some work to find the Nashville Pride festival in calendar listings, but clearly there is certainly no easy way to obtain GLBT travel information.

Deana Ivey, Chief Marketing Officer for the Nashville CVC, explained that there was no specific plan for marketing to any specific groups at the moment, including GLBT travelers. “We have been so fortunate to have such great tourism—really, really strong for the last three years—so we haven’t designed any special campaigns. It is something we could look into for the future.”

“Everything we do is really more all-inclusive,” Ivey continued. “We promote Nashville as Music City—the music, the arts, the history, the culture, definitely the culinary scene now—and it appeals to everyone.”

Could that future be closer than Ivey expects? The Nashville CVC has built partnerships with local GLBT organizations including Nashville Pride and the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLBTCC)—the latter of which Paisley pointed out could be beneficial in the long run. “What I've found through the years when we're working with more conservative bureaus, it's the gay and lesbian business chamber that makes the greatest leeway. That sort of cooperative relationship between local gay business chamber and the tourism bureau can be a great way for a smaller community with a more limited budget to approach this.”

As a member of the Nashville CVC, Lisa Howe, Executive Director of the NGLBTCC, has worked alongside the Nashville CVC to ensure visibility of NGLBTCC members’ to Nashville GLBT tourists.  “If the Chamber or [CVC] are able to measure some of the statistics of the LGBT tourists, I think that will continue to lead to bigger and better opportunities for our Chamber members and any LGBT-friendly businesses,” Howe said. “Is it the GLBT Chamber's intention to make Nashville an LGBT tourist destination?  Not really.  But it is the Chamber's goal to make sure that LGBT visitors have easy access to our members.  If we do it right, then maybe we take the next step, but it will take a collaborative effort between the NGLBTCC, the NCVC, and other organizations and businesses.”

And business owners across Nashville (and Tennessee) are starting to see the positive indications of GLBT travel. One chamber member, Steven Talbott, owner of Vacationside.com, a budding travel business specializing in GLBT travel, said, “I can’t pick up a travel trade publication these days without reading the words: ‘specialize to survive.’ Identifying in the gay market is specializing but now, savvy gay travelers are looking for further specialization within the gay market.”

Talbott recognizes the strength of the GLBT dollar and travel desire not just inside the United States but international as well. He is currently under construction with a new website WonderGay.com which will host GLBT-travel related news, articles, ideas, suggestions, advice, packages and anything else of relevance to the GLBT traveler.

And that is not all. A simple search and inquiry for GLBT-friendly accommodation, not only in Nashville but in Tennessee, turned up several gay-owned and gay-friendly accommodations for travelers, including Nashville’s own Mulberry House and Big Bungalow B&B, located in East Nashville.

So from TPAC to the Schermerhorn, to Canvas, Tribe and Play (the latter two which were recognized as Top 200 Gay Bars in the World by Out Magazine) to the plethora of urban core and outdoor adventure activities that surround Nashville, we certainly have the foundation for an exciting GLBT travel destination. Now we need to find a way to disseminate the information. While it seems an actual campaign from the Nashville CVC may be far-off, maybe it’s up to us or the right entrepreneur to come along.

So could Nashville be the next GLBT travel destination? Sure.

Will it be? Time will tell.