As more states make same-sex unions legal, giving marriage equality, many businesses with a stake in weddings are looking to the segment as a burgeoning new revenue stream.
In 2012, the New York City comptroller’s offices estimated a $142 million boost to the city’s economy as a result of same-sex marriage legalization, according to a report by the Williams Insitute, a national think tank at UCLA focused on independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. The institute predicted that revenues would jump as states legalize gay marriage, as happened in Massachusetts, which experienced $111 million in the first five years of legalized same-sex marriage, and Washington, which saw $88 million in the first three years.
According to The Knot wedding website, gay couples spend an average of approximately $9,000 on wedding plans and ceremonies. More than 30% of same-sex couples spend over $10,000 on weddings, and the economic benefits go beyond nuptials.
The Guardian Liberty Voice reports that travel, sightseeing, dining, and lodging have increased in states that have legalized same-sex marriage.
For hoteliers looking to capitalize on the added wedding business opportunities, it isn’t a simple cash-grab; trotting out the same show to couples and planners as they would for “traditional” weddings rings insincere. Understanding the dynamics of the gay and lesbian wedding market and some subtle nuances is key.
One state seeing a significant uptick of same-sex marriages is New Mexico, where unions became legal through a ruling by the state Supreme Court on December 19, 2013. Since Santa Fe County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the total number of licenses issued by the office has more than doubled, the Santa Fe New Mexican recently reported, noting that 55% of all licenses issued for marriage have gone to same-sex couples.
When the ruling first came down, the Santa Fe Courtyard Marriott seized upon the opportunity by scheduling, for the very next month, the first gay and lesbian wedding expo in Santa Fe. To help ensure the event would bring in the right vendors and tactfully personalize the event for gay and lesbian couples, Dominic Silva, director of sales and marketing, partnered with The Perfect Wedding Guide, an online resource for brides and planners. “They put me in touch with many of their vendors,” Silva says. “I attribute a lot of the success to the partnership we developed. They were very knowledgeable about this segment. Initially, the conversation was that same-sex couples were disgruntled because there was nothing personalized for them. Everyone wanted their business, but it didn’t seem like the sincerity behind truly earning it was there [at other hotels].”
The discussions then moved to making the event gender-neutral, creating a “more friendly environment” for same-sex couples, Silva says. “We made it special and very exclusive to that segment, and it worked well.” A fashion show component featured different formalwear than would be seen in a traditional expo, such as a female couple attired in tuxedos and men in dresses. “It felt like a very comfortable place for couples to come and engage,” says Silva.
Creating a friendly one-stop shop of outside vendors is important, but, of course, the hotel needs to highlight its own services as part of that package. The Providence (Rhode Island) Marriott Downtown held an expo last year and another this year, each with a simple but effective layout. The event was separated into a vendor area and an adjacent showroom to present the hotel’s offerings.
In the showroom, close to the expo entrance, DiOrio set up tables with different looks and centerpieces ranging from tailored to flamboyant. The space featured a dance floor with a DJ and dance instructor, who, says DiOrio, came away with a number of leads. “[The attendees] found it helpful,” she says. “I had a wedding cake, so it looked like a wedding. I had hors d’oeuvres set up so they could taste and see the quality of the product we provide at our property.” DiOrio also featured a photo of the hotel’s award-winning chef, with his bio.
In other words, the expo presentation was much like it might be if directed toward traditional couples. But the rub is in the differences: The hotel was able to recruit gay-friendly vendors and embellish the atmosphere with subtle but effective touches specific to appealing to same-sex couples.
“In the expo room, I had a large-screen TV showing various shots of weddings we have done for gay couples; of course you have to get the couples’ permission first,” DiOrio says. That was at the second expo, after the hotel had photos from three gay weddings under its belt. But they also used a TV screen at the first expo, featuring photos from same-sex celebrations at other Marriott properties. Both presentations included photos of the pool area venue Aqua, where parties can congregate for cocktails before dinner.
“It told a story of a wedding,” DiOrio says. But that story isn’t the same for all, and generalizing about same-sex couples’ preferences would be misguided, she notes. “We really try to stress that every reception needs to reflect the couple’s personalities and likes and dislikes, just as you would with a [traditional] couple. But you have to be a little more sensitive, not being too masculine or too feminine sometimes.”
The Santa Fe Courtyard Marriott has seen at least a 25% spike in weddings business since its same-sex expo. Silva classifies his event as a major success for a first attempt, without much of an advertising and marketing budget. Because of the immediacy of the event after the change in law, the Santa Fe Courtyard Marriott expo received massive local media coverage. The next is slated for January 2015, a time of year he says gives them a jump on competitors who typically wait until after mid-February to host wedding expos.
While the first expo drew visitors from Santa Fe and northern New Mexico, the event also attracted couples from states including Texas, Colorado, and Arizona, who want to get married in New Mexico because same-sex marriage isn’t legal back home. “But to say we really capture that business [of the latter] wouldn’t be true,” Silva says, because those couples typically bring only a few family members and close friends for the nuptials, then go back home for the celebration of the union.
Another hotel group in Santa Fe, however, seeing that glass as half full, is proactively marketing to out-of-staters, enjoying the incremental revenue increase even if each couple’s spend isn’t huge.
“The biggest thing we’ve done is focus on surrounding states that do not allow same-sex marriages,” says Christen Gentry, citywide sales manager for Heritage Hotels & Resorts-Santa Fe, which encompasses the Eldorado Hotel, Hotel Chimayo de Santa Fe, Hotel St. Francis, and the Lodge at Santa Fe. “We’ve had huge interest from Texas, and most of our couples come from there. We advertise there in different publications.”
All Heritage properties offer same-sex wedding packages (and each of their websites features the logo “I Am an LGBT Pride Guide Friendly Business”), but the real attraction at the Lodge at Santa Fe is that since right after New Mexico welcomed gay marriage, Heritage has offered free gay wedding ceremonies at the hotel.
“With the promotion, we’ve performed more than 75 ceremonies now,” says Gentry. “We have two officiants with us who are same-sex friendly, and we pay them a small fee for the ceremony.” It nets the Lodge room bookings, F&B revenue, and more. Gentry says some weddings bring only a few people; many couples using the free ceremony spend a little money at the hotel but return home for a bigger celebration with friends. Around 20 of the 75 couples have booked a reception, and most bring only 20 to 30 guests.
“It’s usually their closest friends and family coming to support them,” Gentry observes. “Even if they’re not booking a reception, sometimes it’s five rooms we didn’t have before. There hasn’t been a single one that hasn’t booked a room.”
Silva advises just being sensitive to the gay and lesbian demographic. “The real factor here is having the comfort level that these individuals had at the expo,” he says. “It was laid-back. I’ve been to traditional wedding expos, and it just didn’t feel like that. This segment is unique, so focusing on the differences in this market is the important thing… The first thing I heard from someone in the gay community was that they are more inclined to do business with true supporters of the gay community.”
If anyone could be deemed an expert on the right tack for gay and lesbian wedding expos, Cindy Sproul and her partner Marianne Puechl would qualify. The couple came up with the idea for an online resource for gay and lesbian couples in 1999—a time when no state legally recognized such unions—when they were planning their own wedding and couldn’t find any type of online resource of businesses that were gay- and lesbian-friendly. So they launched Rainbow Wedding Network that year from Atlanta, later moving to North Carolina, and produce about 30 expos around the country, for a total of 122 as of press time.
“We hear horror stories of couples attending a bridal fair, because they don’t feel comfortable walking into a bridal fair that’s just for heterosexual couples,” Sproul says. “Businesses aren’t expecting it, so [a lesbian couple] gets asked if they’re sisters or which one is planning a wedding, and gay grooms don’t want to go to a bridal fair.”
The Providence Marriott Downtown has used RWN for help with both its expos, the first of which was one week after Rhode Island legalized same-sex marriage, and DiOrio, like Silva, vouches for the value of a turnkey solution from experts if the hotel has no existing rapport with the gay and lesbian community.
“I was shocked at how many people attended the first one and then again this year,” says DiOrio, whose first expo, in 2013, brought around 200 and around 250 for the second, this year. “We did do an email blast to the lists we had, but we really didn’t have the connections [RWN] has. They know where to go. They were able to obtain lists I couldn’t get. The success of the program is the number of people who come and ultimately book.”
For the Providence Marriott Downtown, that booking number was three weddings after the first expo and three tentative but strong prospects after the second with couples who haven’t set the date yet.
To state the obvious, same-sex couples, like traditional couples, love good food and drink. However, hotels may consider creating smaller packages for a percentage of their same-sex wedding clients.
“Gay and lesbian weddings are very similar [to traditional weddings],” Sproul says, in terms of F&B. But, she says same-sex couples tend to plan and pay for their own weddings and are keen on trends. “You don’t usually have the mom and dad of the bride that’s shelling out X amount of dollars for their daughter’s wedding and inviting all of dad’s networking buddies. Couples pay for their own weddings and are really involved.”
Because of the frequent occurrence of very small groups for weddings at the Lodge at Santa Fe, Heritage put together a smaller F&B package, for five to 10 people, as an alternative to banquet and catering menus designed for large groups.
“We did things such as a smaller Champagne, fruit, and cheese reception or a chocolate and cheese reception,” Gentry says. “It’s scaled down but still nice.”
Perhaps, after all these years in the shadows, many gay and lesbian couples are focused simply on the meaning and joy in finally tying the knot and less on the pomp and circumstance prevalent in many mainstream celebrations. “We see people who have been together 20 or 30 years, and they just want to get married,” Gentry says.
Tad Wilkes is managing editor of Hotel F&B.