June 11, 2008 -- Across California, hotels, event planners and tourism professionals are rolling out the red carpet for gay couples, hoping to lure lucrative new business from their wedding celebrations, once the state begins issuing same-sex marriage licenses on June 17.
"They're saying 'the gays are going to save our business,'" said Cindy Sproul, co-owner of the Rainbow Wedding Network, about her wedding vendor clients. Since the May 15 ruling, which cleared the way for legalizing gay marriage in California this month, Sproul says visitors to her site, which specializes in gay weddings, have doubled, and so have the amount of advertisers.
While most Americans are cutting back on travel in a souring economy, the anticipated boom is a hotly sought-after growth sector for the travel industry.
"Spending by resident same-sex couples on their weddings, and by out-of-state couples on tourism and their weddings, will boost California's economy by over $683.6 million in direct spending," over the next three years, according to a new study from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA School of Law, based on the experience of Massachusetts and Vermont, after they extended marriage or civil unions to same-sex couples.
"Vermont was the first destination that allowed civil unions and -- 'boom' -- right away, there was a demonstrable increase, a big uptick, in travel to Vermont, by couples going there to have a civil union. ... You'll see the same thing with California. ... It's kind of a no-brainer," said Ed Salvato, editor in chief of The Out Traveler.
The study estimates that more than approximately 67,000 gay couples will flock from out-of-state to get hitched in California, bringing with them more than $200 million in tourism and hospitality revenue.
Unlike in Massachusetts, where out-of-state residents cannot officially wed, California law welcomes visitors who want to get married in the state.
"We're expecting to see the most from New York and New Mexico, because both those states have very strong language saying they will recognize marriages from other states," explained Brad Sears, executive director the Williams Institute.
"The people who are traveling out-of-state are usually having a smaller wedding, getting that license and then going back to their home state for the big celebration," said Sproul. The Williams Institute predicted out-of-state couples would spend approximately 10 percent of how much the average in-state couple would.
"Really, Really Gay-Friendly"
Now, communities big and small are marketing themselves as the ideal gay wedding destination, while hotels tout packages with offers specifically for the occasion.
San Francisco, the most popular gay destination in the country, is currently working on an advertising campaign targeted to gay and lesbian couples with the slogan, "Celebrate liberty, justice and marriage for all. Come to the city where it all began."
Further south in Los Angeles, the West Hollywood Marketing and Visitors Bureau is also launching national advertising, with print and online aimed at drawing gay nuptuals. Their president, Brad Burlingame, says the West Hollywood standard tag line "living forward" applies to this new initiative, too.
In his community, Burlingame says he's seen a frenzy of preparation on the part of wedding service providers, from florists to photographers to musicians. "They're all scrambling to be in place and get ready for this," he said.
Even the Macy's department store chain is trying to get in on the action. Last week, they ran a full-page ad in both the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle for its wedding and gift registry, captioned: "First comes love. Then comes marriage. And now it's a milestone every couple in California can celebrate."
"Gay Elopement Package"
Gay-geared travel offers are nothing new for California or even high-profile nationwide resorts, for that matter. The W hotel chain has offered its "Pride 365" package for years, which includes gay-friendly extras, such as a one-year GLAAD membership and one-year subscription to OUT and OUT Traveler.
Now, California accommodations such as The Hope-Merrill House in Sonoma County have their sights set on the wedding and honeymoon business of gay couples. They currently offer a two-night "Gay Honeymoon" ("continue the love story, as you celebrate your long-awaited marriage," the Web site says) and will shortly offer a "Gay Elopement" package, a slight variation on their current "Elopement" offer that includes a non-denominational minister for a gay wedding ceremony, a gay wedding cake, couples aromatherapy, and much more.
Joie de Vivre, a hotel group with properties across the country, is currently orienting many of its California lodgings to provide services for gay nuptials.
Starting on June 16, four of their hotels will offer the "Summer of Love" package. Ten percent of the revenue from those bookings will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign fund "to help finance their efforts to defeat the November initiative," which is widely expected to be on the California ballot to outlaw same-sex marriage, said Joie de Vivre spokesperson Dawn Shalhoup.
"The bottom line is that they are putting the packages together to help people who want to get married here," said Shalhoup.
In San Francisco, gay couples are invited to "celebrate your love and freedom this summer at the Hotel Carlton." Newlyweds who stay there will receive a copy of "Gay by the Bay," a book chronicling the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history of the San Francisco Bay area.
Hotels and wedding vendors are showing so much interest that the Rainbow Wedding Network currently has three gay and lesbian wedding expos planned for California in July alone. (The company has held only 19 expos in total since 2003).