Can gay tourism keep A.C. afloat?
ATLANTIC CITY - Will the "Golden Penis" become a symbol of this beleaguered gaming capital's revival? City officials and marketing mavens certainly hope so.
According to Rich Helfant, president of the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance, the gilt-topped cupola that caps the landmark Claridge Hotel has, for decades, been known in the gay community as the "Golden Penis," and has been a landmark for those searching for the hotel's strip of beach that traditionally has been the spot where gay, bisexual and transgender sun-worshippers have gathered to soak up the rays.
Yesterday, Helfant, Mayor Don Guardian and others announced a ratcheting up of AyCee's marketing efforts to attract the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender crowd. Under the umbrella of "Gay A.C.," the city will officially host three events this year, two of which are new to Atlantic City.
The first is Sand Blast, three days (July 18 to 20) of citywide parties, entertainment offerings and gay-oriented competitions, including what's billed as the Lez Volley beach volleyball tournament. For the past 12 years, Sand Blast had been staged in Asbury Park, but its popularity caused it to draw crowds larger than could be handled by that seaside resort's minuscule hotel-room inventory.
Sand Blast will be followed by StandOUT Expo (Sept. 26 to 28), a business-to-business networking exposition. The third event is the Sept. 28 Miss'd America drag pageant, which has its roots in the 1990s and was revived in January 2010 after a four-year hiatus caused by the move of the Miss America Pageant from Atlantic City to Las Vegas (it returned last September).
The Gay A.C. strategy is the latest move by city muckety-mucks to resurrect the town's fortunes in the wake of massive gaming-revenue losses caused by increased competition in neighboring states, particularly in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Since its 2012 creation, the casino-industry-funded Atlantic City Alliance (ACA) has devised and promoted nongambling attractions and events as a counterweight to the flood of red ink that has engulfed the gambling business since 2008. Evidence suggests that GLBT tourism may be one of the best shots AyCee has yet taken to reverse its fortunes. According to the website communitymarketing.com, GLBT tourism in the U.S. is a $70 billion-a-year industry because that market is among the country's most affluent and sophisticated - exactly the kind of people this city's post-gambling economy desperately needs in order to survive.
Noting AyCee's longstanding status as a "gay-friendly" destination, Guardian, the city's gay Republican mayor, told those assembled at Park Place that, "We don't just love our diversity, we embrace it." To that end, Guardian dedicated the midtown beach that fronts the Claridge as the resort's official "gay-friendly" stretch of the strand.
"What you have is the continuing transformation of inviting all people here, not just gamblers," said Jeff Guaracino, the ACA's chief strategy and communications officer who, as author of Gay and Lesbian Tourism, literally wrote the book on GLBT travel. "I think there's a giant opportunity to get tourists here who haven't been to Atlantic City or haven't considered Atlantic City."
At least one Atlantic City hospitality-industry analyst sees Gay A.C. as a positive step in the town's evolution from gambling mecca to full-service resort.
"Everybody knows GLBT is a very lucrative market niche," said Israel "Izzy" Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Atlantic County's Stockton College. "Even places you would think would be very [conservative] - India, Brazil - are jumping on the [GLBT] bandwagon.
"It's not as if we're breaking new ground, but I think it's perfectly fitting that Atlantic City recognizes the historical significance" of the gay market. "There's no question this is a very important niche. It may not involve large numbers of people, but it's going to be important because of the kinds of capital this can bring into town."
On Twitter: @chuckdarrow