Ever since civil union legislation was passed 12 years ago, Vermont has been a popular destination for gay and lesbian couples. But only in the last year has the state begun to market to them.
Moose Meadow Lodge is an imposing bed and breakfast in the woods of Waterbury. It’s a big gleaming log lodge decorated with wild animal trophies, from salt water sport fish to some unfortunate local residents.
In one corner, there’s a roadkilled fox that owners Willie Docto and Greg Trulson had stuffed and mounted.
Docto is also president of the Vermont Gay Tourism Association, which was founded nearly a decade ago. At the time no state had legalized same-sex marriage, and only Vermont offered civil unions. But Docto says it was clear things were about to change.
"We saw that Canada was coming in with gay marriage, Massachusetts was coming in with gay marriage and we knew that wouldn’t have that corner of the market very much longer," Docto recalls.
Docto says for years he unsuccessfully lobbied the state to market to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tourists on the official travel and tourism Website, Vermontvacation.com.
Vermont, he says, had fallen behind other places that were aggressively marketing to the LGBT community.
Finally, in July of this year Docto got his wish.
Vermontvacation.com now includes an LGBT page, complete with a video sales pitch by Governor Peter Shumlin.
In the video Shumlin says, in part, "I think its really important that gay and lesbian Americans stand up and say we want to spend our dollars in states that stand up for us. Vermont is that state."
According to Megan Smith, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, Shumlin is intentionally trading on Vermont’s history of recognizing gay and lesbian rights to make his pitch.
"He basically says, ‘come on, we were there for you, now we need you to come spend your vacation dollars with us," Smith says.
According to Smith, when the new administration took office last year; the state started a concerted effort to market to the LGBT community nationally and internationally.
The money it’s spending is just a small fraction of the state’s marketing budget and the message is simple.
"You will be welcome; you will be comfortable to walk down the street holding hands with your partner. When you check into a hotel or an inn, they’re not going to look at you strangely, and those are things we’re still working on," she explains.
Smith says even though Vermont has long attracted gay and lesbian travelers, the hospitality industry still needs to learn to cater to LGBT visitors. Her department has begun offering training at state tourism meetings.
In addition to the Web page, last year, for the first time, the state began promoting LGBT tourism at out-of-state trade shows – in partnership with Willie Docto’s gay tourism association.
As he travels, Docto says he’s occasionally reminded that Vermont isn’t the first place that comes to mind for gay vacationers.
"I will meet people at the Boston Pride, or the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Travel Show and people will say, ‘Vermont? Vermont is gay friendly?’ It tells me that we still have to continue to spread that word," he says.
One product of the new partnership between the state and the Vermont Gay Tourism Association is the Northern Decadence Food & Travel Expo. The second annual expo takes place this Saturday in Burlington.