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Hotels Are Hoping to Capitalize on a Gay Marriage Boom

After San Francisco's rush to wed lifted occupancy rates, firms aim to attract couples in other locales friendly to same-sex matrimony.

March 28, 2004|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In certain corners of this city, last month's same-sex wedding bells had a nice echo: ka-ching!

The Handlery Union Square Hotel counted more than 80 walk-ins on the first weekend the marriages were offered. Reservations for several wedding parties of 30 had been booked at Max's Opera Cafe by the time the marriages had been halted.

"We had about a 10% bump in business," said Andrew Freeman, a spokesman for the Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants Group, which has 13 boutique hotels in the city. "People were flying in from all over, and not just the couples but their friends and families."

In the 29 days before same-sex marriages were stopped, 4,037 licenses were issued. To gays and lesbians, the weddings were civil disobedience in action; to the tourism industry, they were signs of what could be.

Although the boom came and went too quickly for it to have a large-scale effect on the struggling local economy, the block-long lines outside City Hall held the promise of a niche in the making.

Some hotel chains, in fact, have already applied the lessons of San Francisco to other locations as the marriage bandwagon has moved on.

Kimpton has been marketing a $139-a-night "Vintage Romance" package at its Hotel Vintage Plaza in Portland, Ore., where more than 2,000 same-sex couples have been married, Freeman said. In Seattle, which has announced that it will recognize same-sex marriages from other municipalities, Kimpton's Hotel Monaco is offering an "Oh Baby Baby" couples' special -- including champagne, chocolates, a massage gift box, late checkout and a "Barry White's Greatest Hits" CD -- for $255 to $295 a night. In Cambridge, Mass., $219 a night will buy a "Love in the City" package at Hotel Marlowe.

The specials stem partly from a Kimpton corporate decision this year to market the chain more to gay and lesbian consumers, and partly from the success of similar packages in San Francisco.

"We're also opening a hotel in June in Boston," Freeman said. Noting that same-sex marriages could begin as soon as May in Massachusetts under the terms of a recent court ruling, he murmured, "Hmm. We should get their packages going soon...."

The U.S. tourism industry has long appreciated the $54.1-billion gay and lesbian travel market, but as same-sex marriage has become a national issue, growing attention is being paid to its intersection with the wedding industry. For example, Community Marketing Inc., a market research firm in this city's Castro District, plans to conduct a survey on gay wedding and honeymoon spending.

Past surveys have found that gay and lesbian couples spend significantly more than the average American on travel and leisure. In one of the firm's recent samplings, 37% of gay and lesbian respondents said they had taken a long vacation in Europe in the last year, compared with 9% of the general population, and 66% of gays and lesbians said they vacationed at least three times a year.

Tom Roth, president of Community Marketing, said that level of spending pointed to a same-sex wedding and honeymoon market in the U.S. that, even conservatively, could be worth as much as $1 billion a year.

"So far, people haven't been able to plan weddings and honeymoons with any confidence, really, but once you can, you'll see the big hotel parties, the big cruises," Roth said. At a gay and lesbian tourism conference in West Hollywood this month, the buzz was "all about gay and lesbian weddings -- airlines, cruise lines, tour operators. San Francisco, as sudden as it was, had quite a nice influx for its hotels and restaurants, and in Massachusetts, it looks like they'll probably be legal for at least two years."

In the wake of the Massachusetts court ruling that has legalized the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses as soon as May 17, the Cape Cod resort of Provincetown has already made headlines marketing itself as the "gay Niagara Falls."

"We are seeing a lot of activity in terms of same-sex weddings," said Rob Posner, executive director of the Provincetown Business Guild, a local small-business organization. "Caterers are getting calls, guesthouses are being booked and, as a business guild, we ourselves are getting a lot of inquiries about a couples weekend we're doing in June that will include a group wedding and a wedding expo."

At www.gayweddings.com, a website that connects couples with local services and suppliers for weddings, "everybody's gearing up for Massachusetts," said Carrie Kowalski, assistant to the owner of the site. "In the past month, we've quadrupled the number of vendors, and about 75 of the new ones are from Massachusetts. We've doubled our advertising base in the last two months."

In San Francisco, aggregate economic figures won't be ready until next month, according to the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau. Thomas Callahan, Western regional chief executive for PKF Consulting, which monitors the tourism market, says he expects the figures to show "a positive impact, no question, on hotel business" though not a huge windfall, because of the limited time frame.

In any case, Jon Handlery, whose 377-room Union Square hotel was 55% full on Valentine's Day last year and 80% full this year, was grateful -- and hopeful: "It's a source of business that wasn't there a year ago."

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