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Politics

Same-sex wedding boom expected if Florida's ban falls

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Published:   |   Updated: July 5, 2014 at 11:37 AM

TAMPA — Carrie West doesn't need marriage to validate his feelings for Mark Bias.

The owners of MC Film Fest in Ybor City and founders of the GayBor District coalition have been together for 36 years and know they will be together for life.

Still, if same-sex marriage was allowed in Florida, West said they'd get hitched.

“There are so many benefits that the federal tax code gives to married couples,” he said. “Of course we would want them.”

He would also want a wedding, he said — something simple, on the beach.

“Those are always the best weddings,” West said. “I have a lot of friends would want one like that too. And not just friends from Florida. Friends from all over the East Coast told me they'd come to Florida to get married.”

A court hearing was held Wednesday in Miami-Dade County where lawyers representing half a dozen same-sex couples are suing for their right to marry in Florida, which prohibits such unions.

If the ban is overturned, say those who work in the local wedding industry, the economic boost would be immediate.

“Given the precedent we have seen in other states, people will try to get married as quickly as they can,” said the Rev. Pressley Sutherland of the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa, which has been serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community since 1971 and hosts commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Same-sex marriages were legalized in California in June 2013. According to the California Department of Public Health, the number of California couples married the following month was 30,800 — up 35 percent over the same month a year earlier.

And whether same-sex couples choose small private weddings or big public ones, West said, a party follows.

Monica Varner, owner of Elan Event Studios, is looking forward to that money staying local.

“I plan weddings,” Varner said. “And I'm tired of seeing same-sex couples getting married out of state because they are forced to. Spend the money in Tampa.”

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According to The Wedding Report, an online collection of wedding statistics, Florida hosted 140,467 weddings in 2012 on which $3.2 billion was spent. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area was responsible for 19,356 of those weddings. With an average cost of $22,399 per wedding, they added almost $434 million to the economy.

“You cannot deny the benefit it would have on Florida business,” said Mike Novella, owner of the event space Nova 535 in St. Petersburg, which already hosts same-sex commitment ceremonies. “Florida is one of the top wedding destinations in the world already. Why wouldn't we want more weddings? It wouldn't just be locals getting married. Couples would flock here.”

John Tanzella, president/CEO of the Fort Lauderdale-based International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, said Novella is correct.

The Tampa Bay area, is already a popular vacation destination for same-sex couples because of events such as last weekend's St. Pete Pride, which drew more than 100,000 people to support the LGBT community. Plus, Tanzella said, the region's vibrant and laid-back culture offers a romantic and quiet getaway compared to party scene in other Florida cities.

“The area has so much in terms of museums and art galleries and fine dining,” he said. “Then add in that it has a built in honeymoon. That is important. Couples can marry and stay where they are.”

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Tourist bureaus on both sides of the bay are preparing for the day same-sex marriages are allowed in Florida.

Visit Tampa Bay recently launched a new LGBT initiative and website — www.ConquerWithPride.com — to expand its outreach to the LGBT audience. The website lists all LGBT events in the area, such as the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, as well as hotels that support LGBT equality.

Visit Tampa Bay is also creating a website that promotes the county as a wedding destination.

“That weddings website could include wedding information for same-sex weddings if the ban is overturned in Florida,” said Doug McClain, vice president of marketing for Visit Tampa Bay. “Our LGBT website also may have some of that same information for same-sex wedding venues, hotels and things to do in Tampa Bay.”

D.T. Minich, CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said his organization already heavily promotes its area as a romantic getaway for same-sex couples. All he would have to do is add weddings to that message.

“We'd just want to remind people,” Minich said.

Same-sex couples residing in states that already allow gay marriage would even come to Florida for their wedding ceremony, said West of the GayBor District. They'd also be more likely to honeymoon in Florida because it would be considered an open minded state, West said.

“It would be fantastic,” said Jeffrey Abbaticchio, director of public relations at Loews Don CeSar Hotel in St. Petersburg. “This could help us financially by sending a strong message about our state.”

It would then be up to the local wedding businesses to corner the market.

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Little things business owners do can help attract same-sex customers, said Tanzella with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, such as displaying the symbols of LGBT organizations they support on their websites, literature and businesses, as well as adding photos of same-sex couples to marketing material.

“That's true for when marketing to any niche market,” Tanzella said.

Broward County's Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa is so confident the same-sex marriage ban will be lifted that it has already begun marketing to same-sex couples by offering same-sex wedding planners and dropping “bride and groom” in its wedding materials, said the Westin's Allison Finazzo.

While no wedding businesses the Tribune contacted in the Tampa Bay area have initiated a marketing plan, they each said they would do what is necessary to compete for the new demographic.

“It's a little too premature to say how we will reach out,” said Abbaticchio of the Don CeSar. “We are already very welcoming to the LGBT tourists so we would do whatever is needed to let them know we'll be welcoming to their wedding as well.”

Past reputation, said Novella of Nova 535, will be a business's greatest asset.

“We've been hosting events for the LGBT community for years,” he said. “They know we have always supported equality.”

Sutherland of Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa is concerned he might not be able to handle the influx of weddings.

“If the ban is lifted, I will more heavily promote our services,” he said. “And I think I will be overwhelmed. But that's a good thing. It is exciting to me that so many families will be able to get that legal recognition that they want.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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