After Indiana Debacle, States Are Showing Off Their LGBT-Friendliness

For many destinations, inclusive marketing is now a top priority

It's been about three weeks since Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act ignited a media firestorm around the country. The measure, decried by many as permitting gay discrimination on religious grounds, has been patched with a hastily written amendment. But when it comes to the state's travel and tourism industry, the damage—at least in a public relations sense—has already been done.

In the wake of travel boycotts, icy letters from corporations like the Gap, Levi's and Apple, and outright divestitures such as Angie's List's cancellation of its planned $40 million expansion in Indianapolis, it's clear that even a perceived anti-gay bias can do plenty of damage. On April 14, Indiana's tourism agencies pooled $2 million and hired PR giant Porter Novelli, hoping to "remind the world that Hoosiers welcome everyone."

While Indiana sifts through the ashes of its lost travel and tourism dollars, another part of the story's been unfolding. Destinations across the country are sending the message that LGBT visitors are more than welcome, either by activating new campaigns or simply emphasizing the gay-inclusive marketing already in place. Whatever the method, one thing's clear. "Many states have learned from what happened in Indiana," said Mike McDowell, vp of cultural tourism at the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, "and what not to do to attract tourism."

In other words, if you're going to be a gay-friendly destination, now's a pretty good time to show it.

Real-life Houstonians star in the campaign.

In Texas, for example, the state's largest city has launched a print and digital extension of its "My Gay Houston" campaign, which started five years ago as a website. Now, ads starring real Houstonians will run nationally in Out magazine and The Advocate, and on regional platforms like Austin's L Style G Style. A digital video component is slated to debut by month's end. Holly Clapham, svp of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, stressed that Houston's latest efforts to lure gay travelers were not spurred by events in Indiana, but "given what's happened [there], it doesn't hurt to make sure you show the welcome mat."

That applies to more than just big cities. As the Springfield News-Sun reported on March 31, officials in Dayton, Ohio, "hope to capitalize on backlash against Indiana by attracting companies and individuals who are looking to flee the Hoosier state." Cleveland is busy building on its LGBT-friendly reputation in the wake of hosting the 2014 Gay Games. And cities in southwest Michigan, according to a Detroit News item from March 23, "are looking to market themselves as LGBT-friendly."

Add Atlantic City to that list, too. "Atlantic City Beckons LGBT Tourists," read a headline in the Press of Atlantic City on March 30—four days after the religious freedom act became law in Indiana. Jeff Guaracino, who heads the Atlantic City Alliance, told Adweek that the controversy didn't cause his agency to "turn up the volume as you've seen other places do," but added that Indiana's law "does send a big message about who you are."

Stonewall, birthplace of gay rights, in a new NPS ad.

In Atlantic City's case, that's meant an open appeal to LGBT travelers since 2012, when the Alliance formed to help reposition the city as its gaming dollars disappear. In the coming months, Guaracino said, Atlantic City is preparing to welcome three huge LGBT events to the boardwalk, including the Black Out, a gay African-American event lured away from New York's Fire Island.

The National Park Service has joined the fray, too. Its "Find Your Park" campaign, which launched on April 2, stresses both the diversity of the country's 407 national parks and the diversity of its visitors. With a creative assist from Grey Advertising, the National Park Service selected a number of celebrity ambassadors, including lesbian singer and songwriter Mary Lambert, who stars in a video on the Find Your Park site, reading one of her poems inside of Boston's Faneuil Hall.

"In targeting the next generation of Americans, we aimed for our ambassadors to be reflective of that generation," said Amy Tunick, president of Grey Activation & PR. "We were happy with her public advocacy of LGBT rights, but she was selected for many reasons."

Though the Parks campaign has been in the planning stages for some time, National Park Service spokesperson April Slayton said that, in the wake of events in Indiana, "the timing is very salient, because so many people are looking at this [issue], interested in where people are and are not welcome."

You don't need to remind McDowell about that. He points out that gay visitors to L.A. spend four times as much as the average tourist. L.A. recently lured the annual convention of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association to the city, though the PR mess in Indiana sends a shiver of familiarity down his spine.

"I know exactly how [businesses in Indiana] feels," McDowell said, recalling the five-year period between 2008 and 2013 that Proposition 8—a measure banning gay marriage—was the law of California, and made the otherwise inclusive city of L.A. look like anything but. "All of our destinations, including the gay-friendly ones, were tarred with the same brush," McDowell said.

Anticipating Prop 8's Supreme Court defeat in 2013, the organization had secretly built a gay-friendly microsite, which it launched within hours of the Supreme Court's decision. Now, in view of the Indiana debacle, McDowell is feeling fortunate.

"I'm glad we had a message of inclusion in the marketplace—it was serendipitous," he said. "Within a week of Indiana, we welcome the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association to L.A., and nothing says love like hosting the most important gay travel event."

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.