ATLANTIC CITY - Harrah's marketing strategy is coming out of the closet.
The world's largest casino company will begin courting gay and lesbian travelers in hopes of attracting new customers to a market decimated by the recession and competition from Pennsylvania slot parlors.
The push to establish Atlantic City as a "gay friendly" town not only underscores the need to expand the customer base, but also reflects a shift in the cultural landscape, said Jennifer Weissman, regional vice president of marketing for Harrah's Entertainment Inc.
"We believe our customer base comes from all cultures, all sexual orientations and all backgrounds. We really believe that our customers will embrace this," she said.
Harrah's has been catering to gay and lesbian travelers at its Las Vegas casinos for a few years, but will launch a similar campaign in the country's second-largest gambling market with an "Out in Atlantic City" weekend of partying Sept. 25-27. The event, expected to draw more than 1,000 people, will bring some of the best-known names in the gay and lesbian entertainment scene to the Harrah's casinos.
Amanda Lepore, a transsexual icon and New York nightlife host, will kick things off with a party Sept. 25 at Club Worship at Showboat Casino Hotel's House of Blues. The weekend will also include appearances by singer and "Dyke Diva" Lori Michaels and the cast members of Showtime's lesbian-themed show "The L Word."
Lance Bass, of 'N Sync fame, and Jai Rodriguez, of the Bravo Network's show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," will host a party at Caesars Atlantic City. Rodriguez will also host a game of bingo at Harrah's Resort, with proceeds benefiting the South Jersey AIDS Alliance.
Weissman said Harrah's gay marketing program is the first of its kind for Atlantic City casinos. While Atlantic City may not become the next San Francisco for gay travel, tourism officials believe the resort's evolution into a more upscale gambling and entertainment hub fits the lifestyle of gay and lesbian customers.
"What the gay market is looking for is high-end retail, accommodation and nightlife, and that's what we have," said Jeffrey Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. "The more we reinforce the fact that Atlantic City is a gay-friendly destination, the better off we will be in attracting that market, which is a very upscale market."
Atlantic City is developing gay-themed marketing programs based on research studies that show gay and lesbian travel to be among the most lucrative forms of tourism.
As a group, gays and lesbians spend $64.5 billion annually in the U.S. travel market, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce and a study by Community Marketing Inc., a gay-market research group. A national online survey conducted by Witeck-Combs Communications and Harris Interactive found that gay and lesbian consumers planned to spend an average of $2,300 for business and leisure trips this summer compared with $1,500 for heterosexuals.
"They can dedicate more of their wallet share to travel, tourism and hospitality," said Bob Witeck, chief executive officer of Witeck-Combs, a public relations and marketing firm that specializes in the gay and lesbian market.
By touting itself as a gay-friendly travel destination, Atlantic City could capitalize on the gay civil unions or marriages supported by New Jersey, New York and states in New England, Witeck pointed out.
"Atlantic City may well imagine itself as a nearby destination for couples celebrating their unions," he said.
Weissman acknowledged that Atlantic City's casino industry simply can't continue to rely on the same old core of customers. Profits continue to slip as the recession has cut into discretionary spending for gambling trips. Atlantic City also feels the pressure of the new slot parlors in Pennsylvania stealing customers from its feeder markets in Philadelphia, New York and northern New Jersey.
"For me, the important message here is that we have to change the face of Atlantic City. We have to provide new and unique reasons to visit Atlantic City," Weissman said.
Witeck and Vasser downplayed any potential pitfalls of gay-themed marketing campaigns that could alienate the mainstream market, saying that society is far more tolerant and diverse these days.
"I don't think you're going to find cultural battles in a gaming town about more gay people or less gay people," Witeck said. "It's a format that should work for everybody."
Vasser stated that popular travel destinations, such as San Francisco, New York and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have flourished with the help of gay and lesbian customers.
Separate of the Harrah's campaign, the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority has reached out to the gay and lesbian community through the gay travel media and by having a promotions booth at a gay-themed consumer show in New York.
In addition, a private, nonprofit organization called the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance was formed recently to promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender businesses and people in the surrounding area.
Weissman said Harrah's developed its marketing campaign with the help of an employee advisory board that includes gay and lesbian casino workers.
"It comes down to diversity in our company and diversity in our workers and our customers," she said. "We believe that by having different backgrounds and different perspectives, it will only make us a better business."
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