Key West Recruits Gay Spring Breakers

Key West
MIAMI – First came the Conch Republic. Then Margaritaville. Now, some in Key West hope to claim another title for the island’s tourism repertoire: Gay Spring Break Capital of the World.
Faced with an aging corps of gay vacationers, some island business leaders want to reach out to the next generation of that increasingly coveted demographic. This week, Key West’s “Gay Spring Break 2007” got into full swing with same-sex-friendly pool parties, barbecues and best-body contests that defy the island’s long-standing policy against marketing to the college crowd.
“It’s so much nicer to be with people who are the same, and who understand,” said Jill McDonald, owner of the Aqua gay and lesbian bar on Duval Street, where police will cordon off streets March 16 for a Gay Spring Break block party featuring DJ Tracy Young. “College is hard enough.”
This week marks the height of spring break season, a 14-day stretch when nearly 3 million college students will be on vacation, including those attending Florida State University, the University of Florida and the University of Miami. Though South Florida’s tourism bureaus shun the road-tripping college students, some destinations have begun eyeing gay spring-breakers as a lucrative – and manageable – niche.
The new attention comes as gay Web sites and publications offer their takes on a collegiate rite of passage famous for boozy antics and sexual shenanigans.
“We’ve covered it the last three years for fun,” said Ed Salvato, travel editor of gay.com, which this year ranked Key West the country’s top destination for gay spring break. “Let’s take something that screams heterosexual and try to own it.”
The Key West campaign will test whether a tourist destination can learn to like gay spring breakers more than their straight counterparts.
Fort Lauderdale chased off spring breakers in the 1980s with stricter drinking rules and boasts of replacing them, in part, with affluent gay travelers. Though a popular spring break destination, Miami-Dade does not pursue that market.
And the tax-funded tourism bureau charged with promoting Key West does not support the spring-break campaign launched by the local Business Guild, saying it prefers older vacationers who spend more money – regardless of sexual orientation.
“The spring breaker is looking for a room with a bathroom and clean sheets. Then they spend their money on fast food and beer,” said Harold Wheeler, director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “Somebody can say (gay spring break) is different. I don’t know if it is.”
Key WestOrganizers at the gay-oriented guild mailed college campuses about 5,000 glossy cards featuring a shirtless young man facing away from the camera. “Bring Your Sexy Back,” reads the invitation to visit Key West for the “World’s Premier Gay Spring Break Event & Destination.”
A guild Web site, gayspringbreak.org, advertises events nearly every day through March, from a “Beef on the Reef” male-dancer show at the Bourbon Street gay bar to a `Where the Girls Are’ happy hour at the Pearl’s Patio lesbian bar.
The average Key West hotel room cost $225 a night last March, hardly the kind of price most college students can afford. But some gay-oriented hotels are marking down spring rates in hopes that their young guests will return once they’ve entered the workforce.
“We tried to put together a package of things with discounts so younger people can afford to come down for a few days and experience Key West – and maybe come back,” said Jon Allen, co-owner of the Island House, which is offering 20 percent discounts to guests with college IDs.
With room rates rising across Key West, “our clientele has gotten older on average,” Allen said. “And as a business person, I think that it is kind of limiting if you are not bringing in a new group of younger people.”
A 2005 survey found that Key West’s gay tourists averaged in age from 36 to 45, and Wheeler said the entire segment’s share of the vacation industry has held at about 15 percent. However, a declining inventory of exclusively gay guest houses has some concerned about Key West’s future share of the increasingly competitive $50 billion gay tourism market.
Last year, organizers of the Palm Springs, Calif., White Party – an April stop on a circuit of gay festivals – renamed it White Party Spring Break to attract the college crowd. And Community Marketing, a San Francisco research company focusing on gays, is talking with Tempe, Ariz., and other cities about targeting gay spring breakers interested in urban getaways, said project manager David Paisley.
“It’s something that’s on the agenda of tourism boards across the country,” Paisley said. “I would suspect you’re going to get competition from nonbeach destinations.”
Key West first tried to establish itself as a magnet for gay spring breakers 10 years ago, but the effort never gained traction, Smith said. In recent years, though, some business leaders on the island saw an opportunity.
`We decided, `OK, we’re rated as the No. 1 gay spring break travel destination. We really do have a lot to offer,'” said Ian Whitney, the Business Guild’s chairman of new events.
Jonathan Vatner, 27, plans to be there later in March, blogging for gay.com. The New York writer for a meetings trade magazine went to Daytona Beach in college with some straight friends. He called it “terrible.”
“We stayed up all night in these dungeonous bars drinking free beer and making out with girls,” he recalled. “For many reasons, it was not very fun for me.”
The Key West trip, Vatner said, “sounded like a really great opportunity to reclaim my spring break experience, even though I’m five years out of college.”
from The Monterey Herald

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