Members of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's LGBT tourism task force are sworn in March 11, 2015.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s newly minted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) tourism task force isn’t content to compile a list of gay-friendly businesses or generate lavish travel packages.
Either alone would squander an opportunity to have a lasting impact on a state that historically has not been seen as an LGBT-friendly destination, says Sen. Adam Ebbin, (D-Alexandria), the first openly gay member of the state’s General Assembly.
Ebbin and the rest of the 21-person task force, which will develop recommendations for attracting tourists, met for the first time Wednesday at the State Capitol. Initial discussion focused on how the task force could better market the state’s outdoors, arts, culinary and, of course, history, to LGBT singles, couples and families.
“It’s the same assets,” says Rita McClenny, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corp. “It’s a matter of talking about them in a way that makes the LGBT traveler want to come here.”
“Research shows that LGBT people travel for the same reasons that heterosexual people do,” says Katherine O’Donnell, vice president of community relations for Richmond Region Tourism.
The likes of Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco have rolled out successful marketing campaigns targeting LGBT tourists. Smaller cities like Huntsville, Alabama, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, have had success, as well.
However, few states have mounted comprehensive marketing efforts. Hawaii, California and Illinois have dedicated resources and seen positive results, says Esra Calvert, director of research for the Virginia Tourism Corp. With the task force, Virginia is positioning itself to be the first Southern state to do so — if it can shake its reputation.
In 2014, a court decision legalized same-sex marriage in the state. Since taking office, McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring have taken several stands on discrimination in the workplace and schools. Despite the policy victories, members of the task force voiced concern about the long-wrought image of the commonwealth as an unwelcoming state, one where an employer can still fire a person for being gay.
“This isn’t perception we’re dealing with. It’s the reality,” says Virginia Lamneck, program director of Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization.
Of primary concern for many in the room was delivering on any expectations created through a marketing push, meaning that if the task force or state tourism corporation endorses a town or establishment as LGBT-friendly, it actually is LGBT friendly.
“I come across a lot of businesses who will raise their hand and say ‘Yes, we’re LGBT friendly,’ ” says Tammy Freeman, founder of the Say I Do! LGBT Wedding Expo, “but if you go to their website, it’s very hetero-normative. There’s a disconnect there.”
Others spoke of the opportunity to engage business owners in smaller communities outside of the traditional tourism destinations of Northern Virginia, Central Virginia and Hampton Roads.
“I want that hotel in Lynchburg, which needs tourism, to say, ‘This is a positive group of people. This is a positive thing,’ ” says Jim Schuyler, executive director of the Virginia Community Action Partnership.
The task force’s next meeting is scheduled for June 24.