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20/01/2015

South Florida tourism promoters courting same-sex wedding business

Tourism boosters around Florida are hearing wedding bells - and seeing dollar signs - now that same-sex marriage is legal in the state.

Already major players in the competitive destination wedding industry, some of state's top tourist draws are promoting their beaches and grand hotels as the perfect spots for gay and lesbian couples to wed.

While tourism bureaus have long courted LGBT visitors, who tend to be affluent and well-traveled, officials say the legalization of weddings will give them new avenues.

For the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, that means the annual wedding-focused "Miami Romance Month" in February will include promotions for same-sex weddings; in Broward, a mass beach wedding in February for straight and gay couples is in the works. And the promotional arm of the Florida Keys was to start running banner ads on hundreds of websites that reach LGBT audiences.

Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for Miami-Dade's CVB, said the bureau has already been promoting the Miami area as a destination for commitment ceremonies between same-sex couples as well as a perfect spot for honeymoons.

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"But of course with this, we have a tremendous opportunity to elevate that part of the discussion - and the timing is perfect," he said.

The Miami-Dade bureau planned to start running a social media promotion this month asking gay and lesbian couples for their love stories; the winners will get a weekend stay in Miami Beach.

While a spokeswoman for Visit Florida said the state's official tourism marketing corporation is not planning any immediate marketing or ad blitzes related to LGBT weddings, South Florida tourism offices were rushing to reiterate their history of support for same-sex travelers and their excitement about the court rulings legalizing gay marriage.

"One of the things we really wanted to do is let our friends in the LGBT community around the country know that we have finally gotten the opportunity we have been working for and fighting for, which is to have them legally married in one of their favorite places to vacation," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The tourism office recently announced a "Love is Love" initiative that will launch with the mass sunrise beach wedding in Fort Lauderdale.

Grossman said the bureau's wedding point person - called an "Ambassador of Bliss" - will be available to help additional couples plan their events across Broward County. Grossman said she expects to see as many as 100 same-sex weddings a month over the next year.

A report from the Williams Institute, a national think tank at the UCLA School of Law, estimates that 24,248 same-sex couples will marry in Florida during the first three years it is legal. Those weddings, according to the report, would generate $182.2 million to the state and local economy and create between 875 and 2,626 jobs in the tourism and recreation sector.

In Broward, 1.3 million LGBT travelers visited the county in 2013, according to the tourism bureau. Richard Gray, the CVB's managing director for the LGBT market, said he expects the legalization of weddings to drive that figure up even more.

"We can grow the market even more now in my opinion," he said.

The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables will reintroduce a campaign it ran in 2013 during the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival featuring photos of three couples - straight, gay and lesbian - getting married on its lavish grounds.

"There's no doubt that this was going to happen, regardless of when it was going to happen," said Natalia Plasencia, the hotel's director of catering. "So I wanted to make sure that our position was clear and not that it was something we were jumping on the bandwagon after the fact."

Plasencia said the hotel has hosted small, intimate commitment ceremonies in the past for same-sex couples, but she expects more locals to plan huge blowout events now.

In the Florida Keys, where cities from Key Largo to Key West already do a booming destination wedding business, promoters will fold same-sex weddings into marketing campaigns. In addition to digital ads that were to start running this month, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council will run print ads in upcoming months.

"The whole destination wedding is a lot of money, not only from all the guests that come down from everywhere and stay in our lodgings and accommodations, but also all the facets around weddings," said Harold Wheeler, director of the council. "That just puts a lot of money within the community."

Bobby Kyser, whose Wilton Manors event planning company Panache Style is responsible for decor at next month's giant beach wedding in Broward, has been anticipating this moment since last year.

In August, he organized a Gay Nuptials expo for same-sex couples preparing to get married. At that point, he said, many were flying to New York to legally exchange vows and then returning home to South Florida for celebrations.

"That's what they did before," Kyser said. "But now it's all going to happen here."

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