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For Gay and Lesbian Couples, Checking In at the Front Desk Can
 be Uncomfortable - Teaching Hotels to Be Gay-friendly

By Gail Shister, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 29, 2007 - Have you heard the one about the hotel clerk and the gay tourists?

Not funny.

For gay and lesbian couples, checking in at the front desk can be the most uncomfortable part of a trip. (One bed or two?) For hotels, it can mean the difference between building loyalty and losing customers.

The Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus hopes to encourage that loyalty with a sensitivity-training program believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.

Already, at least one marquee travel corporation wants to license the interactive program nationally as an educational model for increasing gay tourism.

Ka-ching!

Designed for hotels and related businesses, the hour-long presentation features skits of situations commonly encountered by gay travelers. Actors stay in character throughout.

The program made its debut Thursday at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown before 45 managers. The 1,408-room Marriott -- which claims to be the largest hotel in the state -- markets itself as gay-friendly.

In one skit, an African American man and his white partner, cradling their black baby, argue with a check-in clerk who questions their request for one king-size bed instead of two doubles.

It's not just a skit. On a recent trip to Calgary, Alberta, Philadelphia marketing executive Tami Sortman and her partner ran into almost the same situation.

"The clerk said, 'But there's two of you,' " Sortman said. "I said, 'That's correct. We're here to be in one room, in one bed, together.' She was very embarrassed and didn't know what to say. It was awkward."

Jeffrey Miller, general manager of the Park Hyatt Hotel, says he or his partner frequently hangs back at check-in to avoid such moments. "It makes you feel like a second-class person."

In another skit, a homophobic waiter gives lousy service to a lesbian couple at their anniversary dinner. In another, a clueless repairman makes a lesbian couple uncomfortable in their room at night.

Debra K. Blair, a professor in Temple's School of Tourism and Hospitality, helped create the program and served as moderator for the Marriott presentation.

"This is a necessary piece of diversity education," she says. "It's a timely topic, with the emergence of gay marriage and rise of hate crimes. We hope to motivate business to get on board and train their people."

Ultimately, of course, it's all about the Benjamins.

If the downtown Marriott's 900 full-time employees become more responsive to gay travelers' needs, "we'll have a competitive advantage over everybody else in the city," general manager Bill Walsh says.

Thus far, the Sofitel and Park Hyatt also have signed up for the training. Of 35 convention hotels in Center City, 13 designate themselves as gay-friendly, says Jeff Guaracino, vice president of communications for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. and cofounder of the caucus.

Gay tourism is big business.

Typically, gays and lesbians stay at better hotels, spend more money, and stick around longer than do their heterosexual counterparts, according to a 2006 survey by the Travel Industry of America.

They tend to shop more (especially the men), eat at fine restaurants, and partake of nightlife and cultural activities, the survey says.

In Philadelphia, gay tourists more than double the spending of heterosexuals, on average, according to a 2005 survey commissioned by the tourism corporation.

With more travelers -- as well as hotel employees -- coming out of the closet, it's easier to reach potential customers, says Bob Witeck, chief executive officer of Washington's Witeck-Combs Communications and author of Business Inside Out.

"The hotel industry is trying to understand who their customers are. Gay people are saying they don't want to be treated differently, but they expect a very specific welcome. They want to be acknowledged for who they are."

The Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, a private, nonprofit organization, was founded in 2002 to promote the city as a gay-friendly destination. It has about 100 members.

"We wanted to ensure that gay travelers had a good experience in Philly, and that hotel employees had the training to provide it," says Guaracino, architect of the award-winning "Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay" campaign.

"We felt there was nothing out there that really met our needs, so we started our own program."

Guaracino reached out in June to Temple, which agreed to underwrite the first five training sessions. Other sponsors are sought to keep the program as a free service.

"There's obviously a great need for this," says Blair, who teaches a class in diversity. "With so many cities going after this market, there has to be some mechanism in place so people are comfortable."

Philadelphia, the city that loves you back. No matter whom you love first.

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.philly.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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