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Anticipating gay marriages, Tampa tourist agency rolls out ads

— Visit Tampa Bay, anticipating that same-sex marriage will soon be legal in Florida, is sending out a message to gay and lesbian communities from Charleston to Chicago and Baltimore: The welcome mat is out for those planning a wedding or honeymoon.

This will be the second year Hillsborough County’s tourism arm will promote this area in an ad campaign as a friendly, romantic destination for same-sex couples. But this time, there is a new emphasis on weddings, said Kevin Wiatrowski, spokesman for Visit Tampa Bay.

The ad campaign, called To Have and To Hold, begins in January when Visit Tampa Bay partners once again with state tourism agency Visit Florida to promote the state as a welcoming destination for same-sex couples.

“The ads have been around for a while,” Wiatrowski said. Rolling them out was all a matter of timing.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week denied requests to extend a stay issued in August by a federal judge who ruled the state’s 2008 same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. The stay gave the state until Jan. 5 to appeal.

“This change will open an entirely new market for Tampa Bay tourism,” said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “As the region has created domestic partnership registries and taken other steps to become more welcoming to same-sex couples, weddings and honeymoons are the logical next step. We’re reminding the LGBT community that Tampa Bay has treasure for everyone to discover.”

Until last year, Hillsborough County had a law on the books passed in 2005 prohibiting it from recognizing any gay pride events or displays. Commissioners repealed that law.

The ad campaign will include print ads running in gay and lesbian publications in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Ohio and Texas. Digital ads are part of Visit Tampa Bay’s winter ad campaign in Chicago, Dallas and other selected cities.

It’s not just about bringing in more people, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner. It’s about tapping into the trillion dollars in buying power this country’s gay and lesbian community wields.

“There is a huge economic opportunity to be able to market in the state and also within Hillsborough County,” Beckner said. “I think it’s an extraordinarily important market. As we have started changing our policies, we can certainly benefit economically.”

Beckner, who is openly gay, sponsored a county ordinance just recently that created a domestic partnership registry, which gives legal rights and decision-making power to partners in unmarried relationships, an issue often seen as a priority for gays and lesbians. The county commission took it a step farther, creating the Health, Education and Life Planning program, or HELP, which allows single people to designate a person to handle their affairs, should they become incapacitated.

Together, the registry and HELP allow health care center visitation, notification in case of emergency, health-care decision-making, funeral and burial decisions, correctional facility visitation and pre-need guardianship designation.

Commissioners this year also added civil rights protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people to the county’s human rights ordinance.

Visit Tampa Bay was out in front on the issue, last year creating a “micro site” on its visittampabay.com website targeting gay and lesbian travelers. Conquerwithpride.com carries details about LGBT activities during the year, Ybor City’s LGBT business community and hotels that cater to same-sex couples.

This new ad campaign will launch shortly before the Tampa Pride Festival takes place in Ybor City on March 28. The festival is returning after a 10-year hiatus. This region is also home to the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival each fall.

And every summer, St. Petersburg hosts the St. Pete Pride street festival, which this year drew about 100,000 people.

“The more we can promote our community and reflect the diversity of our community, it provides economic advantages,” Beckner said.

The Visit Tampa Bay ads will also run in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Greenwich Village and Charlotte, as well as in several Texas towns. Already, Visit Florida has a digital guide for the gay and lesbian community on its website that includes ads from both Visit Tampa Bay and Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.

This year, Visit St. Pete Clearwater has included images of same-sex couples in its ad campaign in New York and for years, it has promoted the LGBT community, said Interim Director David Downing. The St. Pete tourism agency is a member and sponsor of the International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association and it is a sponsor of St. Pete Pride.

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