Published Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 7 a.m.
Map of Neonopolis
450 Fremont St., Las Vegas
When Las Vegas businessman Kelly Murphy last week announced the conversion of the old Neonopolis movie theaters into the largest gay nightclub anywhere, he also declared the beginning of the end to New York City’s reign as the top vacation destination for gays.
“My goal is to knock New York out of the No. 1 spot for gays and lesbians in the United States,” he said.
With Mayor Carolyn Goodman in the audience, Murphy addressed about 100 people inside the long-closed theaters on the top floor of Neonopolis, at the intersection of two of Las Vegas’ best known thoroughfares: Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. By December’s end, he will have transformed the space into an 80,000-square-foot nightclub called Krave Massive.
People took notice of his we-can-beat-New York bravado. Some chuckled about its audacity. Others puzzled at the notion that Vegas is even in the running. Who knew?
Sure, Las Vegas has all the glitz and glamour and muscled physiques of the Cirque shows, high-end restaurants beyond measure, hotel accommodations fit for a king or queen, but is that what drives the gay travel dollar?
There’s also a question of tolerance. The outside world sees Las Vegas as a bastion of wanton debauchery. The reality is grayer. Nevada, its politics and businesses are a lot more conservative than mass-marketed ad campaigns let on. A Democrat in Nevada might have a hard time being a Democrat in New York.
New York is one of only six states to have legalized same-sex marriage. Nevada’s constitution defines marriage as a union between a man and woman, although in 2009, the Legislature enacted the Domestic Partnership Act and overrode a veto by then-Gov. Jim Gibbons, giving same-sex participants the same rights as married people.
It’s not really politics, however, that entices gay travelers here. To a large extent, it’s marketing and advertising.
After Murphy opened Krave in 2004 and had success with it, he said he noticed other Strip nightclubs began courting gay travelers. It became more pronounced during the recession. Even in a bad economy, “the gay dollar was still very strong,” Murphy said, offering this reason: “They don’t have the expense of children.”
Caesars Entertainment, which owns nine properties on the Strip, and MGM Resorts International, which owns 10 Strip properties, are listed as “platinum” members of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Foundation. The foundation’s mission statement says it is “using the power of LGBT travel to build bridges with communities worldwide.”
"The LGBT community is an incredibly important market segment for our properties,” said Fred Keeton, vice president of external affairs and chief diversity officer for Caesars Entertainment.
For the past five years, Keeton said, Caesars received perfect scores from the Human Rights Campaign's annual Corporate Equality Index. That index rates businesses based on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workplace policies. Those policies, Keeton says. in turn, serve visitors to Caesars Entertainment's casinos.
This points to how important the market is, Keeton said.
“Creating and facilitating programs and policies that are valued by all of our employees and guests is key," Keeton said."We take a lot of pride in what we do as a company to ensure recognition and inclusion for everyone. We want to ensure that when our guests interact with our brands, they understand that we are not just now trying to tap into a new market; this market has always been a part of us."
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the official marketer for Las Vegas funded through a hotel room tax, employs a diversity marketer who works to lure various groups, including LGBT travelers, to Vegas.
It works, said David Paisley, senior research director for Community Marketing Inc., a lesbian/gay/bi/transgender research and marketing company based in San Francisco. For about 15 years, Community Marketing has ranked vacation destinations according to their ability to draw the LGBT traveler. In that time, Las Vegas has ranked in the top two or three, usually tied with San Francisco behind No. 1 New York.
Paisley said gay travelers were no different than straight travelers in succumbing to advertising. And he said “there is no destination in the entire universe that advertises as extensively to the gay and lesbian community like Las Vegas does.”
Las Vegas personalizes marketing, too. Paisley said the LVCVA would call five to 10 times a year asking for convention business.
“And they come and pitch those conventions better than everyone else,” he said.
So for the past five years, he said, almost every gay convention he could think of has been in Las Vegas.
Additional Las Vegas advantages: Travelers need places to stay, and nowhere may have as many hotels in such a concentrated area as the Strip. Resorts also book shows that attract gays, and for that matter straights, Paisley said. These include the numerous Cirque du Soleil productions as well as occasional appearances by Bette Midler, Cher and Lady Gaga.
“Every major gay icon has played a show in Las Vegas,” Paisley said.
New York, of course, has Broadway shows, some of which will make touring stops at Las Vegas’ new Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
New York also is somewhat considered the home to the gay-rights movement, stemming from riots after police raids of the Stonewall Inn, which catered to gays in Greenwich Village. Those 1969 riots spawned three gay newspapers, two gay activist groups and, a year later, the first gay pride parade.
Las Vegas can’t compete with that history; it doesn’t even have a density large enough to qualify as a gay quarter, although some people call the intersection of Paradise Road and Naples Drive the “gay eighth” — Murphy calls it the “fruit loop” — because of a handful of gay bars there.
“It’s not very centralized here,” Murphy said of the gay market. “Maybe you have some people here who like that concentration of gays and lesbians. But myself, I just like living where I want to live and am indifferent to it.”
Murphy sees gay life in Vegas as somewhat less stressful than in other cities.
“It’s much easier to be gay here,” he said.
That appears to translate to attitudes in his clubs. To date, his Drink & Drag bowling alley, also in the Neonopolis, has had no issues of “gay bashing,” he said, even though he estimates about 35 percent of his customers are straight.
Only once, he recalled, did Drink & Drag customers have a problem. They were members of a religious group, and once they found out where they were, Murphy said, they stayed in the bathroom until the staff escorted them through the club and to the exit.
Accidental tourists aside, can Las Vegas do it? Can it make up the few percentage points that New York has over it to become the country’s No. 1 gay travel destination?
It’s going to be difficult. Paisley points out one advantage New York has that Las Vegas never will: proximity to millions of people from nearby cities.
Although airline flights to Las Vegas are cheap, the advantage of New York is that there are “tens of millions of people who are a train ride away. And it’s so easy. So if you live in Boston, you go to New York at least once a year. That’s a built-in base,” he said.
Paisley doesn’t discount, however, the will of the Las Vegas marketer.
“You have a machine in Las Vegas that is ‘fill those hotels,’” he said. “So much happens and is offered to fill those rooms. Everyone gets caught up in that. And the one thing that Vegas is good at, you do keep pushing.”
Sun reporter Ron Sylvester contributed to this report.