BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
The historic Biltmore has launched a very modern campaign to attract brides and grooms of all sexual orientations — and their expensive weddings — to the grand Coral Gables hotel.
“People think it’s a conservative area. It’s not. The Biltmore has welcomed [gays and lesbians] for years,” said Wendy Kallergis, president of the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association, who worked as catering director at the hotel in the 1990s. “The wedding market, we were No. 1. On a slow weekend, we did three weddings.”
Back then, brides only married grooms. Much has changed in 20 years.
The Kimpton, W and Wyndham chains all actively market to gay travelers, according to Karen Brown, executive director of the LGBT Visitor Center in Miami Beach. The Biltmore is the first locally to campaign for gay weddings, she believes.
The Biltmore on Sunday introduced it’s “Love is Love” gay and lesbian wedding campaign at a brunch for the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Each attendee received a postcard featuring romantic photos of three very different wedding parties: two gay men, a straight couple and two lesbians.
“I had people after the brunch come to me and say that instead of mailing them, they were going to frame them,” said Natalia Plasencia, the Biltmore’s associate director of catering. “They knew this was the beginning of something special.”
The campaign photos were shot by Coral Gables photographer Manolo Doreste of In Focus Studios.
Plasencia, who has many gay relatives, said she got the idea after speaking with a colleague from Little Palm Island in the Keys.
“In Key West, there’s a growing trend of destination weddings for gay couples,” she said.
In Florida, same-sex couples are banned from marrying, but in 10 states, Washington, D.C., and other nations, gay marriage is legal.
Many gay men and women from South Florida are traveling to other places for their legal ceremonies and returning home for their wedding receptions.
“The Keys have been focused on that market and we haven’t,” Plasencia said. “From that, the idea was created. We needed to tap into this. We needed to figure out how we can attract this clientele.”
Plasencia did her research, and found that one year after the state of New York passed marriage equality in 2011, New York City’s economy grew $259 million, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“And it’s not just hotels. It’s every branch of the different divisions that work with those weddings,” she said. “It’s hosting the ceremonies. It’s hosting the receptions. It’s hosting the guests. It’s hosting the dinners leading up to it. It’s a massive undertaking. And it’s just a small tip of the iceberg of what we hope to achieve here in Florida.”
Plasencia believes that if the U.S. Supreme Court in June strikes a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, even more gay and lesbian couples will wed.
The Biltmore hosts about 100 weddings a year. This week, the hotel booked a gay wedding in August for 200 guests.
“The average wedding we do for 200 people would be an average of about $40,000 or $50,000 in revenue on the food and beverage side,” she said. “Not to mention the rooms allocation, which is usually about 20 rooms per night — another $10,000 or $15,000 in room revenue. Not to mention outlets, not to mention golf, not to mention spa.
“It also benefits all the vendors we work with,” she said — including florists, bands, DJs, photographers, videographers and bridal shops. “It’s a community and we’re all here to help each other, all within the same luxury market and same luxury standards.”
But before booking gay guests comes staff training.
“People want to check in, it’s two ladies and they want one bed,” she said. “We need to be able to know that the people making the reservations aren’t pushing them into two beds.”
On Monday, the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the LGBT Visitor Center and YES Institute (a South Miami LGBT anti-suicide organization) brought their Pink Flamingo Hospitality Program to The Biltmore.
“We thought it’s a program deserving of support,” said Matthias Kammerer, the Biltmore’s managing director, who formerly held the same position at Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach.
“We tried it out six or eight months ago [at Canyon Ranch]. We got great response from our staff members,” Kammerer said. “At the end of the day, some may have an awkward relationship with [the gay] community. It prepares everybody better.”
Kammerer, originally of Switzerland, also stressed the business importance of courting gay and lesbian tourists in places other than South Beach or Fort Lauderdale. “It’s a great opportunity for us to participate and say guess what, other parts of Miami are also open, friendly and have something to offer.”