Gay Money: The Uncertain Economics of Memorial Day Weekend on the Beach
Memorial Day weekend is an economic windfall for Pensacola Beach. How big of a windfall? No one has the numbers. No one seems particularly interested in determining the numbers, either.
On Pensacola Beach, the weekend has connotations that may contribute to the reluctance to clarify the economics.
Depending on with whom one is speaking, mentions of Pensacola Beach on Memorial Day weekend could be accompanied by an eye roll, guffaw, knowing smile or some combination of those.
For individuals unfamiliar or new to town, this body language often alludes to the large Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) gathering that has occurred over the holiday weekend on Pensacola Beach for decades.
The economic impact of the LGBT visitors is huge. That is all anyone really knows, or all that many seem to care to acknowledge. Hotels guard their numbers closely. Pinpointing exactly how much money LGBT visitors spend at restaurants, bars, and retailers on a busy holiday weekend is only guesstimating in absence of focused survey efforts.
In a year when Blue Angels weekend will take place without the Blue Angels and DeLuna Fest is cancelled, Memorial Day weekend is looking more and more like the best money-maker on the beach this summer.
One Study (and Done?)
Unlike Blue Angels weekend—another large, economically significant event weekend on Pensacola Beach—little organized effort has been made to quantify the total economic impact of the LGBT beach crowd, or Memorial Day in general.
In fact, the last and only assessment of the LGBT crowd’s economic impact was conducted in 1994.
Dr. Steven Philipp of UWF authored a report titled “Gay and Lesbian Tourists at a Southern U.S.A. Beach Event,” published in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1999. Based on research he directed in 1994, Philipp’s data is now nearly 20 years old and, as he recently pointed out, outdated.
“Depending on your estimates, there were 40,000 to 60,000 people coming into the beach that weekend, with little recognition,” recalls Philipp as to what prompted his research, “It was almost like they were invisible.”
Having focused much of his career on tourism choices of African-Americans, Philipp, now the program coordinator of UWF’s Hospitality, Recreation, and Resort Management program, says the 1994 survey work was a side project he chose because the topic had something to do with discrimination. By Philipp’s estimation, “The larger community was aware of the event, but not supportive or particularly welcoming.”
The 1994 survey involved 1,272 participants, the majority of which were “young, urban, highly-educated gay and lesbian tourists.” Only 10 percent were locals, and 34 percent of those visiting said they were staying for four days, and over 27 percent planned to stay longer.
When the survey was complete and numbers were crunched, an estimated 27,000 gay and lesbian visitors, the National Park Service’s estimate that year, spent approximately $18.7 million on food, lodging, activities and retail that Memorial Day weekend.
In light of his past survey findings and the continued popularity of LGBT events on the beach, “There is a significant economic impact here that we should undoubtedly be supporting,” said Philipp recently.
Buck Lee, the Santa Rosa Island Authority (SRIA) executive director, said that the SRIA paid for the 2012 Haas Center study on the economic impact of the Blue Angels weekend and “any such study for Memorial Day weekend would have to be approved by the Board.”
To the best of his knowledge, Lee said there has never been in his eight years as Executive Director a discussion of any governing bodies endorsing or quantifying the economic impact of the LGBT events on the beach.
Two phone messages left for the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce executive director for this story were unanswered, but a Chamber employee, who asked not to be named, said their organization only keeps track of bed counts and which hotels sell out on given weekends, and could provide no information beyond that.
Roy Williams, Assistant General Manager at the Days’ Inn Pensacola Beachfront, said Memorial Day weekend is on par with Blue Angels weekend as far as revenue for the hotel.
Williams has worked at Days’ Inn for 12 years and stated that the hotel has been at capacity on Memorial Day weekend each of those years. “It’s a great economic boom for the hotel, one of the few weekends aside from Blue Angels that we can count on selling out.”
Mike Nixon, Vice President of Hotel Operations for Innisfree Hotels—which owns the Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Hampton Inn on the beach—has worked on Pensacola Beach since 1994.
Nixon regards Memorial Day as the first big sell-out weekend of the year, but not the biggest. “It’s the highest rates and the highest revenue producing weekend of the year up to that point, yes.”
Due to timing, however, Blue Angels and the Fourth of July are bigger sales-wise for their hotels, Nixon says, as “July weekends are always stronger due to the timing of school schedules—everyone is out of school by July. Some colleges are still in even during May.”
In the past, the Hampton Inn and Hilton hosted pool parties through the day, but Nixon said the large LGBT day parties seem to have moved to the beach east of the Portofino Island Resort over the past several years. While their hotels consistently sell out on Memorial Day weekend, Nixon has noticed the numbers of LGBT guests have correspondingly dropped at Innifree hotels.
“The Gay and Lesbian community [on Memorial Day] used to be strong enough we could rent exclusively to them and sell out. That’s not the case lately—I don’t think they have as big of a showing anymore,” said Nixon, who noted, “although, there are more hotels and more rooms on the beach now, too.”
Paying a Toll
A logical start to quantifying the number of visitors to Pensacola Beach is to look at the number of vehicles crossing the Bob Sikes Toll Bridge. But, as Paul Dye—owner of Cabaret—points out, “You can’t go with the assumption that every car that went through the tollbooth is an out-of-towner coming in for the Memorial Day weekend. “
Aside from the facts that Memorial Day weekend is not an exclusively LGBT celebration on the beach and people often carpool and boat to Santa Rosa Island that weekend due to limited parking and increased traffic, using toll numbers is, at best, a jumping off point for any economic impact study.
Whether or not passengers are travelling to the beach for the LGBT celebrations, toll numbers do show that Memorial Day has, at least recently, surpassed the toll numbers during Blue Angels weekend.
Numbers provided by the county show that from 2009 through 2012, the totals for cars going across the Bob Sikes Toll Bridge consistently grew on Memorial Day weekend—from 45,620 to 57,472—while Blue Angels numbers were more irregular from year to year, fluctuating between 43,732 on the low end and last year’s high of 55,591.
Comparing the totals for the Fridays through Sundays of Memorial Day and Blue Angels weekends, more cars crossed over on Memorial Day weekend each of those four years except for 2010, the year of the BP Oil Spill.
Considering the outcry in April at the possibility the Blue Angels air show would be cancelled, it is interesting more analysis has not been given to a weekend in which toll numbers consistently surpass both Blue Angels and Bushwacker Festival weekends.
Also interesting to consider is that during 2012’s Memorial Day weekend, if every car that crossed the bridge from Friday through Sunday contained only one person, and that one person only spent $100 a day between lodging, food, entertainment, and retail shopping, that would still—arbitrary and under-exaggerated as those figures likely are—equal a $17.1 million infusion into the local economy.
Actual figures are likely much higher, but, again, no one knows for sure what they may be. No one is sure either how much of the money comes from the pockets of the LGBT vacationers, a group that participates in events that are completely privately organized and funded, at no cost to taxpayers.
“This group as a rule is much tamer overall, with a lot more discretionary income than a group of college kids,” says Nixon of the LGBT crowd for Memorial Day weekend, “They are generally not as concerned with the hotel rates, the cost to get here.”
Overall higher incomes on the part of LGBT vacationers likely drive the economic impact of their stays even further, many people familiar with the Memorial Day weekend events believe.
“The people that come down have money, and spending $500 to $600 a day on hotels, food is nothing,” said local documentary producer Liz Watkins, who has attended Memorial Day events on the beach since the mid-1980s.
“I can guarantee you that a family of four that comes in for Blue Angels is not going to go spend nearly as much as two gay guys when one’s a lawyer and one’s a doctor,” said Watkins. “When a family of four—like my family—comes to Pensacola, they have to get the cheapest hotel room, eat the cheapest food, you know? People don’t realize.”
Figures from 1994 indicate that, at least 20 years ago, what Nixon and Watkins have observed was true. Perhaps sometime in the future someone will survey the beach business, crunch the numbers again and illuminate the true economic impact of Memorial Day weekend in general and the LGBT crowd in particular.