Mayor Rahm Emanuel's announcement April 5 that Chicago is ramping up its efforts to attract tourism is welcome news for businesses throughout the city, given that for years we've spent less than any other major U.S. city to promote our town as a tourist destination.
For now, the city is opening up three new international tourism sales offices -- in Brazil, Germany and Japan -- to go with the five offices Chicago already has in Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Toronto and Beijing.
But it was Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau Chairman Bruce Rauner's additional comments that should perk up the ears of LGBT community and business leaders. Rauner said CCTB is launching a strategic process to "find out where we're strong, where we're weak, where might we want to enhance our offerings..."
A good place to look would be in the LGBT community. For years, Chicago has spent virtually nothing to attract LGBT tourists. Meanwhile, cities such as Toronto, Montreal, New York, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and many more have poured considerable resources into doing just that.
Why? A look at the annual travel survey of more than 10,000 LGBTs by San Francisco-based Community Marketing, Inc., spells it out pretty clearly. The most recent survey, conducted last fall, shows that LGBTs travel a lot -- on average, gay and bisexual men reported taking 3.9 trips for leisure in the 12 months before taking the survey, and lesbians and bisexual women weren't far behind at 3.3 trips.
Where do they want to go? When asked to describe their travel profiles, 50 percent of gay men said they are "urban core travelers," meaning they like vacationing in big cities. The number was even higher -- 57 percent -- for LGBT Canadians, who should be top targets for Chicago given the proximity and direct flights from all over Canada. And when LGBTs come just for an LGBT event, such as Pride, they stay an average of three nights.
What motivates LGBT destination choices? More than 62 percent cited a destination's "reputation for being LGBT-friendly" and almost half said "LGBT bars, clubs, parties, etc." And we know Chicago already meets both those requirements as well or better than most other destinations.
The kicker? Spend money to attract LGBT tourists and they'll return the favor by multiplying your dollars with free advertising online -- 68 percent of gay/bisexual men and 70 percent of lesbian/bisexual women said they post trip updates on Facebook while vacationing, and most of those also post trip pictures and videos on Facebook. And get this -- a whopping 86 percent of gay and bisexual men and women under age 35 post news and, in most cases, pics and videos about their vacations on Facebook. It can't get much better than that for tourism officials hungry to maximize their dollars.
Does targeting LGBT tourists work? Just ask Philadelphia. Ten years ago, almost no one thought of the City of Brotherly Love as an LGBT destination. Philadelphia didn't show up at all as an LGBT destination in CMI's annual surveys. A year later, they launched an aggressive campaign, one they've maintained.
"When we started in 2003, we weren't even on the list," said Bruce Yelk, of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. "We are now tied for ninth."
On top of that, Yelk said from 2005 to 2010 spending by LGBT tourists in Philadelphia increased 21 percent. And Yelk said once they come, they come back, with surveys indicating that 84 percent of first-time LGBT visitors to Philadelphia say they'll return for another vacation there.
So how do we get more LGBTs to Chicago? The city can do several things we've never done and get results almost immediately. One way is to bring LGBT travel writers here to spread the word with articles, pics and videos of Windy City attractions. In CMI surveys, 80 percent of gay/lesbian/bisexual men and women cited articles on LGBT websites or in LGBT print publications as having an influence on their travel choices.
Ad campaigns can be effective, too, with about 75 percent of LGBTs citing those as an influence. Smartphone apps promoting Chicago and offering help can also bring in LGBT tourists, especially with the under-35 crowd -- more than 60 percent of that demographic said smartphone apps influence their travel decisions.
Don't think for a second, though, that we should just convince the city to spend money to do things like this and then sit back and wait for the hordes to come. Chicago's LGBT community has to be an equal partner with the city, matching the city's effort and investment. Right now, Chicago's LGBT business and community leaders should be sitting down to come up with ways we can help the city make this work.
We can do that by coordinating with the city to promote special events such as Pride, Market Days, International Mr. Leather and the Windy City Rodeo. To bring LGBT travel writers here, businesses can work with the city by offering rooms during off weeks, discounted dinners and comped drinks. It's pretty simple -- the more our businesses and institutions coordinate and cooperate in this effort with the city, the more favorable the impressions and, more importantly, the better the travel articles about LGBT Chicago will be. And the better they are, the more tourists will come.
Our LGBT community needs a plan for this, just as the city does. What are our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to attracting and impressing LGBT tourists? LGBT business and community leaders should come together to figure this out and then implement a plan to take the appropriate steps.
This should include the whole city, too. We have marvelous communities all over Chicago, each with their own attractions. Along with Halsted, there are thriving LGBT nightlife areas in Rogers Park, Uptown, Andersonville and Downtown, and other LGBT nightspots dotted all over town, too. They all need to be part of this.
As for North Halsted, LGBT business and community leaders should think about developing a plan to ensure the area's longterm status as an international LGBT destination. The city invested in the late-1990s streetscape that gave us the rainbow pylons, and The Legacy Project's concept to use them to commemorate LGBT history is nothing short of brilliant.
But there's never been a plan on how we maintain and enhance Halsted's LGBT focus, and doing that isn't just a matter of community pride. North Halsted's LGBT nightlife and the related businesses associated with it has been a remarkable economic engine for Chicago. It won't stay that way unless business leaders and city officials develop a plan that includes attracting similar businesses and excluding development that doesn't fit in. The massive proposed complex at Halsted and Bradley, for example, seems entirely out of place in such a plan.
The mayor's new tourism effort is welcome news and can be a boon for Chicago and for Chicago's LGBT community. It's up to us, though, to help the city make that happen, and today is the time to start doing that.
Photos by Anthony Meade