Massachusetts' Gay Marriage Dividend

Same-sex nuptials will mean millions for businesses in the Bay State

Bob Reyes, a city planner in Boston, and his partner, Jeff Deetz, a biotech scientist, have been together for 24 years. On May 17, they'll finally be able to make it legal, as Massachusetts becomes the first state to permit same-sex marriage. And they're going all out for their Aug. 22 wedding reception at the lavish Lyman Estate near Boston. Caterers will serve cocktails, champagne, and a full roast beef dinner to 50 guests. Afterward, Bob and Jeff aim to honeymoon in Provincetown, the gay mecca on Cape Cod.

Gay marriage remains a hot-button political issue, but in Massachusetts it's emerging as a boomlet of sorts. Over the coming year, thousands of gay couples from Massachusetts and beyond are likely to tie the knot in the Bay State. In the process, they'll inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the wedding industry and related businesses, including travel and tourism. "This is a huge new market," says Cindy Sproul, co-owner of Rainbow Wedding Network, a Web site that promotes gay weddings. It's already attracting the likes of Absolut Vodka, Volvo, and Subaru. Those companies have long targeted gays and hope to grab a bigger share of their spending -- about $500 billion a year, according to the gay-oriented PR and marketing firm Witeck-Combs Communications.

Early indications suggest Massachusetts will soon become the nation's gay wedding capital, easily surpassing San Francisco and Portland, Ore., where thousands of gay couples married earlier this year before the weddings were halted pending court rulings. Based on the experience in Vermont, where civil unions have been legal since 2000, Gary J. Gates, author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, says that ultimately about half the 17,100 same-sex couples in Massachusetts are likely to marry. Many more could come from other states.

Unlike the rushed ceremonies in San Francisco, many of these nuptials will be carefully planned, and pricey, affairs. "Gay and lesbian couples want the same fairy tale as straight couples," says Arlene Cronk, founder of Boston Wedding Group, an association that helps couples plan nuptials. With the average wedding costing $25,000, according to the Association of Bridal Consultants, gay couples who live in the state could spend more than $200 million alone, in addition to whatever outsiders spend. And that's not counting related travel and tourism spending. Gerard J. Monaghan, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants, figures that could bring an additional $300 million.

LOYAL CONSUMERS

Nowhere is the impact more evident than in Provincetown. David Shermacher, a partner in caterer Ptown Parties, says he has already booked more business this year than he did in all of 2003, thanks to 19 gay weddings. "Many of these are `destination weddings,"' adds Elaine Quigley, general manager of the Surfside Hotel & Suites, who has rented 50 rooms to out-of-town guests coming in for a June wedding, typically a slow time of year.

Some national advertisers are also angling for a piece of the action. Absolut Vodka is running a guide to gay commitment ceremonies this month in two gay magazines, OUT and The Advocate. "The gay community as consumers are very loyal to the brands that support them," says Tim Murphy, Absolut's brand director. Witeck-Combs Communications recently helped develop an award-winning ad campaign for Volvo (F ) geared to gay families. "And in the past six months, the number of businesses advertising on our Web site has grown 30%, to 4,500," says Sproul of Rainbow Wedding Network.

Will Massachusetts' gay wedding boomlet last? Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, is backing a constitutional amendment that would bar gay marriage in Massachusetts. But that can't take effect until 2006 at the earliest. Meantime, gay activists hope the wave of traditional-looking weddings will win converts to their cause. "I'm hoping some people's fears will be put to rest as [gay people] get married and the world doesn't end," says Robyn Ochs, a Harvard University publications specialist who plans to marry her partner, Peg Preble. If she's right, May 17 could mark the beginning of a boom for the nation's $50 billion wedding industry.

By William C. Symonds in Boston, with Jessi Hempel in New York

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