Monday, February 1, 2010

Expanding LGBT Tourism and Business in the Berkshires

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The Forum on LGBT Tourism drew a crowd from area hotels, guest houses and arts groups.

"But don't they know we are a gay friendly place?"

"Not if you don't tell them."

When gays and lesbians think of Massachusetts, they think of Boston, Provincetown, Springfield and Northampton. Older, more affluent gays certainly visit Tanglewood, Jacobs Pillow and the like. But beyond this smallish slice of the LGBT pie, the Berkshires aren't even on the radar. They should be.

Since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, a few of our area hotels and guest houses have hosted weddings and their guests. It could be considered "doing business by accident." Imagine if we did it on purpose. Here is but one source of LGBT business that has barely been tapped. There are many more. To explore some of the possibilities, the Berkshire Visitors Bureau hosted an open forum on LGBT travel last week.

Gay weddings mean gay families who will return again and again.

Attracting LGBT dollars is not as simple as touting the beauty of the Berkshires and its cultural attractions. Despite stereotypes, more gays like rock than Rachmaninoff. Gays and lesbians like many of the same things as everyone else, that's for sure, but they also like to find places to eat, stay and visit in which they can find a warm welcome, and hopefully see others in their extended families.

There are a handful of gay owned guest houses in the Berkshires, and a few larger establishments that are "gay friendly." Some list themselves in gay lodging directories. It is a good start. One of the points made in the discussion was the need to include same-sex couples and families in one or two photos on websites, brochures and the like. It telegraphs that they are part of the mix here.

Having done a festive gay wedding, Pittsfield's LGBT friendly Crown Plaza Resort hopes to attract still more.

Special gay events, like the City of Pittsfield's "Out in the Berkshires" celebration last Columbus Day went a long way to providing a focal point for the extended community to get together. The Laramie Project at Barrington Stage, Boston Gay Men's Chorus in concert and the QQ dance with four live bands were all well attended.

Last Fall, the Williamstown Film Festival included half a dozen gay films in its lineup and I noticed a large contingent of gay boys from New York at the after-party at the Clark. Gay and lesbian filmmakers were in attendance, and some were guest panelists who had their films screened at Images cinema.

Lady Ha Ha, Kate Clinton, comes to Pittsfield's Colonial Theatre November 13.

This year, the Cultural Development office in Pittsfield hopes to pull together another Out in the Berkshires Weekend. I think that single promotion might have started a trend. Here's why: not announced yet is news that the Colonial Theatre has booked Lady HaHa, Kate Clinton in for a November 13 performance. This could bring together a reverse migration from Northampton for the Berkshire's first "Women's Weekend".

Gay ski weekends were discussed, as were other activities such as hiking and kayaking. The Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition features a different hike every month for those who are interested. With some promotion this could become one of the Berkshire's LGBT attractions.

Attending the meeting were Ken Brissette and Serge Gojkovich from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. The state's website has a special mini-site for LGBT travelers with listings of events and places of interest to us. It is expected that Berkshire businesses will find ways to tap into this market via the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, and the state.

Facilitating the forum was Lauri Klefos from the BVB who made sure a full range of thoughts and options were discussed. Members of the BVB can contact her - or staffers Debbie Mossman and Dara Kaufman for questions about how your business can market to this market segment.

The more Berkshire businesses understand, develop and pursue the LGBT market, the more quickly this new business will begin to materialize. One of the keys is highlighting events of interest to the community. I can not tell you how many otherwise smart marketers completely miss this opportunity. Some still are shy about using the words Gay or Lesbian in their PR and promotional materials. But the acronym LGBT helps, as does the subtle placement of such symbols as a rainbow.

In Sheffield, the 1802 House is gay owned while in Adams the eco-friendly Topia Inn is the creation of two lesbians. They successfully serve both mainstream and LGBT markets.

Some of the upcoming opportunities are hosting a Berkshires table at the huge Boston Gay Pride Parade in June. There is also a phenomenal Gay Expo March 20-21st at the Javits Center in New York which provides access to what seems like millions of gay New Yorkers.

The state has a presence at both events and if you have targeted promotional materials you would like distributed, or would like to share the Massachusetts booth/table, contact the BVB to explore this further.

The Catskills are already actively promoting to this market to build their numbers. We have the same natural beauty, plus four resident theatre companies, dozens of world class museums and historical sites and some of the most glamorous - and historic - lodging to choose from. Not to mention the thrills and excitement of climbing Mount Greylock, finding our hidden waterfalls and picnicking in the seclusion of our mountain hideaways.

The focus for this activity is the Berkshire Visitors Bureau. You might also consider joining if you are not already a member. Call Dara Kaufman at (413) 743-4500 or write her at dkaufman "at"

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