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Convention and Visitors Bureau aiming to draw gay travelers to Fargo

Like many gay men who enjoy travel, David Paisley has done the usual circuit: San Francisco, New York, Miami. The senior programs director for Community Marketing Inc., a gay and lesbian market research firm, is seeking something fresh.

Next stop: Fargo?

For local tourism officials, that's the idea.

Slowly and quietly, the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau has been working up a plan to market the region as a gay- and lesbian-friendly destination.

The plan is still in its infancy, but the CVB ultimately hopes to tap into an estimated $70 billion in annual domestic economic impact generated by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender tourists - a cohort that travels heavily and wields outsized disposable spending power.

It's a big enough market that travel websites like Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity have dedicated gay travel sections.

"That sector of tourism spending is huge," said Teri Onsgard, the CVB's director of sales.

Onsgard has been at the forefront of the organization's exploration of gay tourism - an area of focus in the CVB's marketing plan for the past two years. She's attended conferences on gay marketing, compiled research on what works and what doesn't and promoted the area's growing FM Pride Week.

For now, it's a relatively minor element in the organization's broader marketing efforts. Since the CVB added gay and lesbian tourism to its marketing plan two years ago, it has spent less than $5,000 on the niche, out of an annual sales and marketing budget of nearly $700,000.

"It's a small part of our marketing budget, it's a small part of our marketing plan, but this is something that we're supporting," said Cole Carley, CVB president and chief executive.

Paisley, whose San Francisco-based company has done consulting work for the CVB, said efforts to reach out to gay and lesbian travelers aren't unique to Fargo and Moorhead. A growing number of mid-size cities nationwide are looking to court gay and lesbian visitors, he said.

He said such cities can fill two roles: a cultural hub for regional gay residents and a new option for out-of-state and international visitors who want a break from more established locations.

"Cities like New York and San Francisco have had outreach for a long time," he said. "We're looking for something new."

And most anything Fargo-Moorhead does in the realm of gay tourism will be new, according to John Tanzella, president and chief executive of the International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association. Tanzella said North Dakota is one of just a few states in which his group, which is based in Florida, has no ties to hotels, tourism offices or other travel organizations.

"I would say it's a very unknown quantity," he said of the region.

He said gay and lesbian visitors are looking for safe, welcoming places with a good mix of activities and amenities. But a city doesn't have to step out of character to attract those visitors. Fargo-Moorhead, for instance, would be better-served promoting its arts scene and dining rather than stretching to portray a wild gay nightlife.

"Fargo probably doesn't have a ton of gay nightlife, and that's not really important," he said. "That's not why people would go to Fargo."

Jamie Coston-Hirsch, head of the Pride Collective and Community Center in Moorhead, said the area's friendly environment is a strong selling point.

"I've never felt that I've had to hide who I was," said Coston-Hirsch, who is gay. The Montana native moved here from Brainerd, Minn., with her wife about a year ago, and said Fargo could thrive as a gay family-friendly destination.

"I think more and more what you're finding with the gay and lesbian community is they're looking for a family attraction," she said.

For the CVB, steps like targeted advertisements - a same-sex couple out to dinner at the Hotel Donaldson, perhaps - are still years away. The organization, which is funded 100 percent by taxes, mostly via a sales tax on hotel rooms, is still conducting research and pursuing gay-friendly initiatives.

One Community Marketing program, for example, certifies hotels as welcoming to gay and lesbian guests. Minnesota currently has a dozen hotels certified through that program. North Dakota has none.

"You can't just market to the LGBT market and call it good," said Nicole Moen, the CVB's sales manager. "If you're going to do it, do it right."

But interest is growing. Travel writers are asking about doing pieces on what they call "Gay Fargo." The CVB booked North Dakota Human Rights Coalition conferences here in 2003, 2007 and 2008. This year, for the first time, FM Pride was listed in the CVB visitor's guide.

And if Fargo-Moorhead ever puts together a full-fledged gay marketing campaign, Paisley said, it'll turn heads.

"We probably haven't thought much about it, and when we see an active outreach campaign, it'll surprise us, quite frankly," he said. "And that's great."