The New ‘It’ Gay Destination: St. Pete Set to Host Global LGBT Travel Convention

By : Aaron Drake
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St. Petersburg will be the first on Florida’s Gulf Coast to host the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s Annual Global Convention. Sunshine City will doubly welcome LGBT travelers and the LGBT travel industry as a whole when travel professionals convene at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort and Golf Club on May 3-6, 2017.

“In recent years, this event has been held in Brazil, Madrid, Los Angeles—and this coming year to Cape Town, South Africa. Now St. Petersburg joins the list,” St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement to Watermark. “We are honored and look forward to sharing with the LGBT travel community the many diverse offerings we have to offer.”

Of course, being a top gay destination in Florida is nothing new to the city of St. Pete, which welcomed more than 250,000 people to St. Pete Pride this year as the largest Pride celebration in the state, according to a release. But word is finally spreading around the globe about all the destination provides to its LGBT visitors.

“We have one of the top Pride parades and one of the only nighttime parades now in the country, which is pretty awesome,” says David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. “I think there’s just a laid-back vibe here that resonates with the LGBT traveler, in as much as it’s not like a circuit party headquarters—there’s not a huge volume of gay nightlife per se—but there’s a very strong LGBT presence throughout the destination.

“I think the Gulf Coast is not anywhere as well-known as the East Coast of Florida,” Downing continues. “I travel internationally a lot, and there are two things people tend to know about Florida: Mickey and Miami. I have friends in New York that come down and their response is, ‘How did I not know about this place?’ We have a growing international market—we market internationally heavily—and are a growing millennial destination as well. [With] the rest of Florida tourism on a statewide level, visitation is trending upwards in terms of average age of visitors. Our visitation is trending downwards in terms of average age of visitors. There’s a lot of growth to be had in this market and I think we’re just realizing that right now.”

IGLTA, which was founded in 1983 by gay and lesbian travel agents, operates around the world to expand LGBT tourism by representing LGBT-friendly hotels, airlines, cruise lines, convention and visitor bureaus, tour operators and travel agents. The association alternates between U.S. and international destinations for its annual global convention. St. Pete was selected from a pool of four North American bids for 2017.

“We have a [request for proposal] which is sent to the tourism boards that are members of IGLTA asking them to bid on the convention and giving them the criteria of what we are requiring and what we’re looking for to host our convention and some background about the attendees,” says John Tanzella, board president and CEO of IGLTA, which is based in Ft. Lauderdale. “It only goes to our member destinations and then they basically have a timeline to create a bid on what they would do with their destination as the host city for the convention. Our convention is made up of a very international mix, typically up to 30 countries of tourism and hospitality professionals, as well as travel media, travel writers, bloggers, etc. Then the board of directors actually looks at the bids and makes a decision based on the overall package that’s being offered.”

When representatives of IGLTA visited the city in consideration of St. Pete’s bid to host the conference, they were eager to choose the destination.

“We met with IGLTA board members earlier this year and toured them around the city, from the downtown waterfront to our local LGBT attractions and the beach, and they loved our warm hospitality and the welcoming reception they received here across the board,” says Robert Danielson, the mayor’s LGBT liaison.

“I’m super excited because I love St. Petersburg,” Tanzellasays. “I think it’s a gem of a destination that a lot of people don’t know about. Although the tourism office has done a really good job of marketing the destination overseas and domestically, there are still a lot of people that haven’t actually been there. They’ve been to Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, but they haven’t been to St. Pete, so I think there will be a lot of excitement of people wanting to come and see what St. Pete and Central Florida in general have to offer for tourism.”

The excitement of the announcement has quickly spread to the city’s community at large, with some praising the local leadership who stepped forward to help make it happen.

“Since Mayor Kriseman took office and appointed Robert Danielson as the city’s LGBT liaison, and Ed Cassidy joined Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, they have been more aggressive in searching out ways to market the city and bring more attention to the area,” says Brian Longstreth, owner of Gay St. Pete House and co-owner of newly opened Punky’s Bar and Grill in the Grand Central District.

“Embracing the city’s diversity is one of the pillars of Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration,” Danielson says. “Since he has been in office, St. Petersburg’s Municipal Equality Index grew from a disappointing score of 58 three years ago to a perfect 100 the last two years consecutively. He’s made a strong commitment to leveling the playing field for the LGBT community.”

St. Pete’s iconic pink Vinoy Renaissance, the historic luxury hotel that sits on downtown’s waterfront and will be the convention’s host property, is indicative of the unique charm the city extends to its visitors.

“We are so honored that we were able to secure this bid and that IGLTA saw in St. Pete what I’ve seen in St. Pete the entire time,” Downing adds. “It’s not anything that’s immediately apparent; you have to get here, you have to experience and understand the allure and how the LGBT traveler really fits into this destination. There are some destinations where it’s very obvious—you take Ft. Lauderdale, for example, or you take Provincetown, New York or any of the longtime, well-established LGBT vacation destinations and those are more apparent because they have a history. We have a history, too, but it’s not as well-known. I think that they saw that is huge for us and I think it’s the beginning of a new era of recognition for the destination.”

Downtown St. Pete has grown exponentially in the past few years with new restaurants and shopping popping up. It will soon welcome a newly constructed pier that could potentially even be the backdrop for future St. Pete Pride celebrations.

“We’re excited to see this conference hosted here in St. Pete, home to the largest LGBT event in the state of Florida,” says Eric Skains, executive director for St. Pete Pride. “St. Pete has been the best kept secret as a destination for LGBT individuals, and that secret will be no more as we welcome attendees from all over the world who are the leaders in LGBT travel.”

St. Pete Pride has some very exciting news of its own that the organization will be releasing in early 2016 that will further fuel St. Pete’s effort in becoming one of the most welcoming destinations for LGBTs the world over.

Skains is keeping a tight lid on the news for now but shares, “I will say that LGBT Pride festivities over the next eight to 10 years will change significantly for St. Pete and Tampa Bay, and will be matched by few others.”

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