Nashville was not a city that Brian Hodge wanted to visit. The 29 year-old, openly-gay Boston resident describes his initial reaction to being assigned a business trip to Music City with a hint of irony.
"When I found out I'd be going to Nashville, I had this image in my mind of everybody walking around in boots and cowboy hats. And that's fine, but it's not somewhere I'd necessarily choose to go," Hodge said. "And I definitely didn't think that Nashville would be really gay-friendly."
In many ways, Hodge's ideas about travel are representative of many other GLBT travelers. In a nationwide survey released in 2006 by the Travel Industry Association (TIA), nearly half of all gay men (48%) and lesbians (47%) cited "gay-friendliness" as an important factor in determining their leisure travel destination. The study also ranked the top twenty gay-friendly destinations for GLBT tourism in the United States and Nashville was not on the list.
"Gay-friendly" can be a difficult term to pin down, but travel industry professionals are beginning to recognize the rewards of branding destinations as welcoming to GLBT travelers. According to a 2004 Community Marketing survey, GLBT tourism represents a $54.1 billion market, nearly 10 percent of the overall United States travel industry.
In Nashville, tourism is a vital part of the local economy. According to the Convention and Visitor's Bureau, tourism brings 10 million visitors and $3.5 billion to the city each year, making hospitality Nashville's second largest industry. So why does the city lack appeal with the GLBT market?
In the 2006 TIA survey, a majority of GLBT travelers primarily identify a location as "gay-friendly" if it is "generally safe and free from intimidation and threats."
Nearly half of the gay men and lesbians surveyed also describe a gay-friendly environment as one in which "the city or community is known to be culturally welcoming and to support diversity and GLBT civil rights." The presence of a strong gay infrastructure including bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and businesses is also one of the top three considerations for travelers looking for gay-friendliness.
Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a TIA partner in conducting the survey says, "We find [GLBT travelers] are not looking for special treatment, but instead expect consideration and equal respect given all customers."
"Unfortunately, Nashville may carry the stigma of a medium-sized Southern city as not being terribly friendly to the GLBT community," says John Wade, president of the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce. "But we are a major hospitality city and we do have a lot to offer."
Additionally, Nashville's "Music City" moniker is often interpreted by visitors as short-hand for "Country Music City," which connotes socially conservative values to many GLBT travelers.
"When most people think of country music they think of traditional values, blue collar principles and religious ideas," said Hodge. "Those are areas where being gay usually isn't welcome."
Regardless of the authenticity of the conservative stereotypes surrounding country music and country music listeners, the music in "Music City" goes beyond just one genre. According to some travel industry professionals, overcoming this “country music assumption” may be the key to appealing to GLBT travelers.
Heather Middleton with the Nashville Convention and Visitor's Bureau (CVB) said, "We don't market to any specific audience. We target music lovers. Music of all genres. We want people to know that Nashville is a very cosmopolitan city, a very forward thinking city…and great music of all kinds pervades the city. Our brand is world-class music for music lovers."
Regarding the "infrastructure" of Nashville's gay-friendly businesses and attractions, Wade said that structure was growing and impressions were changing.
"As the GLBT Chamber begins to expand our influence in the Nashville community…word will get out within the city that Nashville has a growing number of gay-friendly businesses and that message will spread beyond the city to potential visitors," he said.
He added that the GLBT Chamber hopes to partner with the CVB and other hospitality organizations to include diversity in future marketing strategies.
Many professionals inside Nashville’s hospitality industry note that the city is in a period of growth. This expansion will not only affect the city’s travel industry, but most likely the GLBT community, as well. And as more people visit Music City, the travel industry expects that word-of-mouth promotion will elevate Nashville’s image as a cosmopolitan vacation destination, especially with regards to GLBT tourism.
After spending a week working in and visiting Nashville, visitor Hodge now speaks positively of the city to friends who are considering travel.
"You can tell that Nashville is growing and it's becoming friendlier to gays than maybe it was in the past," Hode said. "And I definitely see the tourist appeal now. Even a lot of the country music stuff that I wasn't sure about ended up being a lot of fun. I also went out to a couple of gay clubs and had a good time—everyone was so nice!"
Hodge's only regret was that he wasn't able to fit the Nash-Trash tour into his schedule.
"I heard that it's amazing. I may have to come back," he said with a laugh.
The top 10 gay-friendly U.S. destinations reported by 2006 TIA survey participants are San Francisco, Key West, New York, Fire Island, Provincetown, Los Angeles, Miami/South Beach, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Palm Springs/Palm Desert.