The Web site for next month's Gay Life & Wedding Expo in Washington had barely gone up last fall, event organizer William Harrison recalls, when the phone started ringing.
Icelandair was first. Michael Pierorazio, operations manager at the airline's Columbia-based U.S. headquarters, had put together a sponsorship offer that included a free honeymoon trip to Denmark to be given away at the event.
A gaggle of Washington-area Marriott and Renaissance hotels followed - including downtown's tony Mayflower - along with the gift registries at Bloomingdale's and Kitchen Etc. Eight financial planners from American Express wanted to sign on, Harrison said, but company policy allows only one per trade show, so they were fighting it out among themselves.
While the national debate over gay marriage rages, pitting calls for a constitutional ban against same-sex couples tying the knot in cities around the country, the wedding industry is taking a more practical stand - and cashing in.
Gay weddings have become a booming niche market, and businesses, from big hotels to local caterers to wedding photographers, are avidly wooing the happy couples.
The recent flood of same-sex weddings in San Francisco, with Massachusetts possibly soon to follow, has upped the ante. Events like the Washington expo (www.dcgayexpo.com), scheduled for April 4 at the Galleria at Lafayette Center in downtown Washington, are being held in Boston, New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and San Diego.
Online, couples can find links to gay-friendly wedding professionals at sites including RainbowWeddingNetwork.com and www.AltWed.com. They can also use software such as My Gay Wedding Companion to plan their own.
The momentum seems almost self-perpetuating, Harrison said. The more same-sex couples have weddings, the more realize they can. "We're helping to take our community to the next level," he said. "[Marriage] doesn't belong to 'them' anymore. It's all of ours."
The politics of the moment aside, the gay wedding boomlet is being driven primarily by demographics. Robert Witeck, president of gay marketing consultants Witeck-Combs Communications in Washington, estimates the size of the nation's lesbian and gay market at between 14 million and 16 million people, with a projected buying power of $485 billion.
Witeck, who has helped major corporations including American Airlines and Ford Motors market to gays, said the wedding industry should have no trouble appealing to same-sex couples. "It's about capitalistic acts between consenting adults," he said.
According to the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank, Americans marry at the rate of about 2.3 million couples per year, spending more than $50 billion. Conde Nast pegs the cost of the average wedding at about $22,000, honeymoon not included.
The average for gay weddings is slightly lower, about $15,000, said Cindy Sproul, co-owner of RainbowWeddingNetwork.com in Asheville, N.C. Almost 4,000 wedding professionals across the country advertise on the site, 90 percent of them straight, she said.
William Harrison was motivated by a similar urge to bridge the gap between wedding professionals and same-sex couples. He and his partner of three years (who asked not to be identified because he is in the military) figured that a gay wedding trade show would be a natural.
The couple, who publish a local tourist guide, DC Navigator, and a bridal magazine, Bride's Day Maryland, thought they had the contacts in the gay community and the wedding industry to do it right.
"We were really concerned about someone trying to do it first and maybe not doing a good job," Harrison said. "If you do something like this and it ends up tanking, that could set a really bad precedent."
Since announcing the expo, they've lost one Bride's Day advertiser, Harrison said, but overall response has been positive. They're expecting more than 70 vendors at the event, along with lesbian and gay couples from Delaware and Pennsylvania. And they're thinking about the Washington Convention Center for next year's event.
Dollars and cents
Nancie Cameron, whose Silver Spring company, Creative Cakes, will be at the expo, said that for her business, about the only difference between gay and straight weddings is the cake decorations. Lesbians usually like rainbow colors, and gay men take a more "tailored" approach, she said.
Cameron, a former president of the Association of Wedding Professionals, a local networking group, sees the issue of same-sex marriage in bluntly pragmatic terms. "A dollar is a dollar is a dollar," she said. "It's another niche, another market. Why shouldn't we advertise to any group of people who need a good cake?"
Icelandair's Pierorazio said a similar dollars-and-cents argument sold his company on marketing to the gay community.
About two years ago, Pierorazio said, he persuaded the usually conservative Icelandair to begin advertising in gay publications, offering specially priced packages to Reykjavik, Iceland's capital. Good sales and repeat customers followed, prompting this year's honeymoon special, which culminates in a nonbinding commitment ceremony in Denmark, the first country to allow same-sex unions.
Pierorazio said gay marriage is a hot topic in European travel markets. On a recent trip to Scandinavia, he talked with tourist boards in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Germany. "They were only interested in gay marriage," he said.
Other high-profile businesses, such as the Mayflower Hotel and Bloomingdale's, are equally pragmatic but a bit more circumspect in their approach.
"It's like any other marketing opportunity," said Lisa Collyer, the Mayflower's director of catering. The hotel has been host to several same-sex ceremonies, she said, and participation in the expo is another step into the market.
Donna Hamaker, public relations director at Bloomingdale's at the malls at Tysons Corner and White Flint, agrees that sexuality is not the issue. "These are people looking for something we can provide, whether it's for a wedding, commitment ceremony or housewarming."
Neither she nor Collyer expressed any concern about negative reactions from other customers.
In Baltimore, the gay wedding talk started last summer, said Robert Blount, director of marketing for one of the city's gay papers, Baltimore Gay Life. The paper now has a core group of wedding professionals - gay and straight - who advertise regularly, he said.
One of them, Sharon Price, got into the market when she realized that not everyone in the industry was welcoming gay couples. Owner of The Elm, a renovated carriage house in Hampden, Price recalls talking with a lesbian client who told her that "planning a wedding was like coming out a million times."
David Egan has yet to do a gay wedding, but the owner of Chase Court, a renovated 19th-century Mount Vernon church he rents out for ceremonies and other occasions, has a few booked and is pursuing the gay market.
Concerned about his more traditional clientele, Egan will be at the Washington expo, he said, "to reach out to the gay and lesbian market live and in person."
The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association views the lesbian and gay community as an "emerging market," according to communications director Nancy Hinds. The agency is focused on attracting conferences and tourism in general, she said, but "we know it's an area for growth."
Money against morals
Conservative organizations that oppose gay marriage have yet to weigh in on wedding industry support for same-sex ceremonies. The general view seems to be that the industry's interest in the issue is purely financial and therefore of little importance in the legal and moral debate.
Pitting money against morals, Bill Murray, media director of the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, argues that the profit motive can warp a business' view of "what's best for society."
Sproul of RainbowWeddingNetwork.com thinks revenue potential will eventually soften social resistance. Looking forward to the legalization of same-sex weddings in Massachusetts, scheduled for May 17, she said, "Once the money comes, it's going to change people's outlook."