More Michigan cities embracing LGBT-friendly tourism

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — There are lots of untapped tourist dollars to be had if Michigan markets itself as an appealing and inclusive destination for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Speaking at state travel conference Monday, Thomas Roth, founder and president of Community Marketing Inc., said the LGBT community is especially interested in family-friendly destinations because many same-sex couples now have children.

“Now we’re experiencing what we call a ‘gay-by boom,’ ” said Roth. “Does your destination cater to the family market? If so, please market to the LGBT family, because they are waiting for someone to invite them.”

Of the 45,000 LGBT people his firm surveyed last year, Roth said, 69 percent said they are more likely to visit a destination because its tourism office or visitors bureau reaches out to them. Of those, 39 percent said they spend more at LGBT-friendly destinations.

Communicating inclusivity will be critical in marketing Michigan to the LGBT community, said Xavier Persad, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for equality for those in the LGBT community.

“LGBTs and family, friends and allies want to know when they visit a city, a hotel, a business, that their quest for fun and relaxation isn’t going to be marred,” said Persad. “People want to ensure their hard-earned dollars are supporting inclusive places.”

Roth, whose organization works specifically with those in the LGBT community, says the reality of the market has changed over the years, but the desire to travel and the income to do it have mostly remained consistent.

“Travel is part of our cultural identity,” he said. “We’re very loyal. If we go to your hotel or destination and we like it, we’ll tell our friends and come back.”

Although there are no clear numbers, because the U.S. Census doesn’t ask about sexual orientation, it is estimated that 3-6 percent of all Americans identify as LGBT. This accounts for $790 billion in buying power, according to Roth.

Some cities have embraced the idea that the LGBT community isn’t a monolith. East Lansing was voted a top city for LGBT equality by the Human Rights Campaign.

“East Lansing is home to Michigan State University, and we have a lot of diversity in the students and community. It’s just been ingrained in the community,” said Tracy Padot, vice president of marketing for the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

In 1972, East Lansing was the first city in the country to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Other cities are looking to market themselves as LGBT-friendly.

Rose Szwed of the River Country Tourism Council, which represents an area in southwest Michigan, is excited by the prospect of making her area more open and accepting.

“This is long overdue,” said the Three Rivers resident. “This gives us an entirely different market we can appeal to and we can do things we’ve never thought of doing.”

Putting it into practice isn’t that difficult, said Jonathan Schreur, who owns the Hidden Garden Cottages & Suites in Saugatuck with his partner, Gary Kott.

Saugatuck, along with neighboring Douglas, has a reputation for being LGBT-friendly and recently was voted USA Today’s “Best Coastal Small Town in America.” But the reputation doesn’t mean the inn serves strictly LGBT visitors.

“A lot of people think it’s all gay here. We probably only have 10 percent of our business that is gay,” said Schreur. “Why limit yourself? I think it’s just good, smart business.”

But there is a big difference between lip service and actually committing to being open and accepting, says David Schulz, who runs the Bellaire Bed & Breakfast in Bellaire, near Traverse City, along with his spouse, Jim Walker. The two have run the inn for 18 years.

“ ‘Gay-friendly’ is a nice, trendy thing, but it’s more about ‘the gift of welcome,’ ” said Schulz.

Schulz said the thread that runs through all of it is making people feel comfortable as they are.

“If people want to label themselves as gay-friendly and they are looking at the dollar signs, they probably shouldn’t do it,” he said. “The folks that are gay or lesbian, or the interracial couple, or the elderly man with the much younger girlfriend are going to see right through that.”

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