The election of Annise Parker as Houston's first gay mayor has given a boost to the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau's push to attract gay visitors.
In her 12 years as an elected city official, Parker rarely centered her public policies on her sexual orientation, but the visitors bureau still hopes to capitalize on it.
Houston historically has not been a popular destination for gay and lesbian travelers, according to U.S. Travel Association data. Last month, independent of mayoral politics, the visitors bureau launched an online effort to reach out to them.
Regardless of whether Parker's election boosts that effort directly, at the least it could help change the perception of Houston, according to a longtime tourism consultant. Houston drew international attention earlier this month when it became the largest U.S. city to elect an openly gay mayor.
It “makes Houston seem more tolerant and gay-friendly,” said David Paisley, senior program director of Community Marketing, a San Francisco-based marketing and consulting firm that works primarily with the gay and lesbian tourism industry.
On the convention-business side, Paisley said gay- and lesbian-specific conventions will be more likely to book Houston. There are more than 100 gay and lesbian trade associations.
Having Parker officially welcome their gatherings — as mayors often do at conventions — would be a plus, Paisley said.
It is possible Parker's election can also bring more mainstream conventions to Houston, he said. When planning conventions, organizations in the social sciences and legal professions look for cities that welcome diversity.
“The election of Parker will be on the radar of these organizations,” said Bob Witeck, CEO of Washington-based Witeck-Combs Communications, a public relations and marketing firm that researches the gay and lesbian community for the U.S. Travel Association.
Though Houston is not about to replace cities such as New York or San Francisco as gay and lesbian vacation destinations, Paisley said, it has an opportunity to become a stronger second-tier destination.
In this region, New Orleans and Dallas have been bigger draws, Paisley said, although Austin and Houston have made some recent gains.
“It's going to take some work,” he said, but the election of Parker will help.
‘Online welcome mat'
A wise approach for any city's convention and visitors bureau is to go after both vacationing families and two-income couples with no children because the two groups tend to stay at different hotels and visit different venues, Paisley said.
Many gay men and lesbians are in dual income-no children relationships, he noted.
Holly Clapham, vice president of marketing at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it is going after gay and lesbian travelers because “it's about growing the economy.”
Gay people go on vacation more often per year than the national average and spend more on each vacation than the national average, she said, referring to U.S. Travel Association data.
In November the Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a “My Gay Houston” campaign, mirroring its “My Houston” campaign that began last year.
In the “My Houston” campaign, Houston-born celebrities and other local professionals give testimonials about their city. The My Gay Houston campaign is similar.
The bureau isn't planning ads promoting My Gay Houston, but it created a Web site, mygayhouston.com, and hopes word will spread.
“It's an online welcome mat,” Clapham said:
It's too early to say how Parker as mayor will affect gay and lesbian travel to Houston, Clapham said, but “her brand is now associated with our product.”
The reaction among many outsiders when they heard Parker was elected was, “‘Wow, this happened in Houston!'” Clapham said. “Certainly there is buzz and awareness out there.”
People won't come here just because of her election, she said, “but this could open windows to them considering Houston.”
Parker: ‘Behind the curve'
When the Houston Chronicle asked Parker about the bureau's campaign, she said Houston has been “behind the curve” in reaching out to gay and lesbian travelers, and she is glad the bureau is making an effort.
Asked whether she'd be willing to be part of the online campaign with other local gay and lesbian professionals if the bureau asked her, she said: “I just want to promote Houston” and later added, “I'm proud to market this city in any way I can.”