Originally posted: July 22, 2008, 4:26 p.m.
Updated: July 24, 2008, 12:30 p.m.
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COLUMBIA — Pursuing a deal to advertise South Carolina as “so gay,” tourism officials in the state hosted a visit to showcase gay-friendly hotels, bars, and beaches, two European executives told Q-Notes.
“A three-day visit was arranged for me,” said Andrew Roberts, CEO of the gay travel agency Amro Worldwide. The visit included free hotel stays and escorting by tourism representatives, at least one of whom was reimbursed for mileage.
Impressed by what he experienced during his April trip, Roberts gave the go-ahead to Out Now Consulting, the gay marketing agency selected to execute the ads.
South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT) initiated and approved the campaign at every step, according to Roberts and Out Now CEO Ian Johnson.
But SCPRT refused to pay its bill for the campaign after Gov. Mark Sanford and other state politicians reacted to a post on “The Palmetto Scoop,” a conservative blog.
‘This guy was right up there’
“Out Now certainly had no indication prior to July 10 that anyone at SCPRT was in the slightest way at all uncomfortable with our strategic gay marketing approach in this particular ad campaign,” Johnson told Q-Notes. “Which makes sense — since they were aware of it, and had approved it, at a high level, long before the campaign began. They signed off on it all the way through the launch process.”
Johnson provided to Q-Notes a copy of a confidential marketing memorandum dated May 27 that explains exactly how and why the “so gay” slogan would be used in the ads.
“This attached document went out a full month beforehand,” Johnson said. “SCPRT received it — I have the emails — and so far as I know the decision-maker signing off on this was far above a ‘low level’ employee. Based on the CCs I saw on emails this guy was right up there, really quite near to the top people in that organisation.”
The employee, Randolph Romaine, was an international sales manager responsible for the U.K. market and others, a class three economic development manager according to other state documents.
Marion Edmonds, spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT) told Q-Notes that Romaine was no longer employed by the department and that his position, while not senior management, could at least be considered mid-level management.
SCPRT has never released the name of the employee who resigned immediately prior to a high-level management meeting following the outbreak of the advertising controversy. However, as late as Sat. July 19, Romaine’s name, position and contact information was available on SCPRT’s website. On Monday, July 21, Romaine’s name had been scrubbed from the department directory and his office phone number reached only a general South Carolina government voice mail system message.
Johnson also said in a joint July 22 release with Roberts, “That person who approved the ‘So Gay’ advertising campaign, and was later forced to resign by SCPRT, is the International Sales Manager, responsible for the UK — a person with more than a decade of management experience and an immense amount of respect within the global tourism marketing community.”
“We received supportive recognition coming down the line from SCPRT all the way through the process — right up until that blog decided to blow this story up as a political issue,” said Johnson. “It was at that moment that the politicians stepped in, and then suddenly everything changed.”
Edmonds countered Roberts’ claim regarding the blog and ensuing controversy. He said it was Roberts’ and Johnson’s press release that originally brought the advertising campaign to public light.
Q-Notes‘ efforts to reach Romaine by phone on July 22 were unsuccessful.
‘Not an obvious destination’
Roberts told Q-Notes that a South Carolina official initiated contact with him at the “Rhythms of the South” tourism expo Nov. 29-Dec. 2, 2007, in New Orleans. He said he entertained inquiries from many other U.S. destinations, including West Virginia, as he planned advertising posters to be mounted along an escalator in the London subway to be placed during Pride season in June and July 2008.
Roberts said he sealed deals with five American cities and was proceeding with his plans in February 2008 when South Carolina again approached him and asked to join the campaign. Kirsty Dillury, a U.K.-based contractor for SCPRT made that contact, he said.
“My response to that was, ‘Great, fine,’ but that was not an obvious destination” for international gay tourists, said Roberts, so he stated that he would have to make a visit in person to South Carolina to see if it was appropriate to recommend to his customers.
Roberts claimed that a three day visit was arranged for him, but that he paid for the travel expenses to and from the U.S. Once arriving in South Carolina during the weekend of April 19, however, Roberts received an official welcome letter from the City of Charleston’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. He also claimed that employees of the Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island convention and visitor’s bureau hosted him in his visits in those cities.
“I was met on Sunday morning by someone from the local chamber of commerce tourist department,” Roberts said.
He added that the employee drove 68 miles in her car to take him on the tour of Myrtle Beach and that he remembers her writing that number down on a form to be reimbursed for mileage.
He said he was shown gay-friendly hotels, one gay bar and another building that had rainbow flags.
Roberts also said that the Myrtle Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau employee also showed him what she called a gay beach.
“She did point that out to me and said, ‘If you go down there that’s where the boys go,’” he said. “It was certainly not a cruisy area. That is not what the community would call a cruisy area. There were two women together and quite a few guys together.”
He added, “I saw no indication of sexual activity. The area is overlooked by one of Myrtle Beach’s nicer hotels.”
Roberts also visited Hilton Head Island, where he was met by an employee of the local visitors and convention bureau. He was told that a new gay bar, Twist the Bistro, had recently opened and later went to visit. He also said he visited what was described as a gay beach, “an area close to one of the hotels that was the area that the boys went to.”
Charlie Clark, vice president of communications with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Visitors and Convention Bureau confirmed to Q-Notes the visit by Roberts. She said that Jack Reed, the organization’s director of sales, met with Roberts when he arrived in the area.
Clark said tourism is Hilton Head’s “number one” draw and the bureau will welcome all visitors regardless of race, color, age, sexual orientation or whatever difference.
Nancy Gray, media communications manager for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, also confirmed Roberts’ visit to that area. “Andrew Roberts visited Myrtle Beach April 19-20, 2008,” read a written statement emailed to Q-Notes. “On April 20, 2008, a staff member met with Mr. Roberts during his visit to Myrtle Beach.”
Gray also said that the Myrtle Beach Chamber first learned of Amro in 2006 at the “Rhythms of the South” trade show, that time in Atlanta, Ga. Gray said her organization was never made aware by SCPRT that any advertising campaign was planned or under consideration and that their involvement with Amro “was limited to showing the destination and arranging tours of select hotel properties.”
SCPRT’s Edmonds also confirmed Roberts’ visits.
“We were aware of that as an agency,” said Edmonds. “We do host international tour operators from time-to-time.”
No rules broken
Edmonds said that SCPRT is continuing to look into how the advertising campaign was approved.
“We are looking into all of the emails and correspondence and the information we have related to the campaign,” he said. “I’m not sure how much correspondence we have with Amro Worldwide. We’ll have to see what we have and when we received information and what the nature of that information was.”
Edmonds also admitted that SCPRT never had a written policy prohibiting expenditures on niche marketing to groups such as LGBT travelers. When asked if the unwritten rule existed and if it pre-dated the current controversy, Edmonds responded, “In the past there have been occasions where public state grants couldn’t be used to fund events or promotions that involved tobacco or alcohol. What we do have to do is conform to the annual advertising marketing plan.”
State tourism officials also advertise to niche markets such as those interested in golf or fishing. One niche campaign, “Girlfriend Getaways” is targeted toward women.
Further, LGBT activists in South Carolina found a U.K./Ireland marketing plan from SCPRT that mentioned “diversity” numerous times. Some said the plan perfectly described the “So Gay” advertising campaign.
The marketing plan, which listed Romaine as the lead, stated, “Develop and update advertisement creative to showcase the diversity of the state’s tourism product (new creative will continue to support the traditional up-scale market with a broadened appeal to the middle-income family market; additionally, new creative will continue to include South Carolina’s developed product of golf, beach and sun while simultaneously highlighting additional product niches such as entertainment, shopping, outdoor adventure, historical sites, state parks and Heritage Corridor as relevant to each market; where appropriate creative will support the overall advertising campaign of the agency).”
While recent news reports have said Amro Worldwide has gone unpaid for their services, Roberts clarified the situation in the joint statement with Johnson.
“Amro Worldwide has received full payment from the London representatives of SCPRT — a company called Travel and Tourism Marketing — TTM World — who have acted in the utmost good faith at every stage in the advertising approval process,” Roberts said in the release. “Amro Worldwide is currently considering reimbursing TTM World for their loss, but we think it quite disgraceful that an official State government body would behave in this manner.”
Roberts added, “Not paying representatives and forcing a senior manager to resign seems out of all proportion with our simple but effective gay travel marketing campaign. On top of all that, it saddens me that the hard working folk in the SC tourism industry — who this campaign was designed to help, look set to suffer loss for years to come due to the reaction of their elected representatives.”
From the outside in
Roberts thinks the reaction from South Carolina politicians has put a sour taste in the mouths of the British public. “I don’t think South Carolina as a tourist destination, after this, comes over very well to the British public.”
He also said he think the controversy reflects negatively on the entire U.S.
“I was disappointed with the reaction. We’re in 2008. I’m very disappointed and very surprised. I travel fairly extensively in the U.S. and I thought that was left behind,” Roberts said of the anti-gay reactions. “We’ve been through that here in the U.K. 25 to 30 years ago.”
Numerous papers and The Associated Press have reported on how the South Carolina controversy might hurt the tourism market, especially from gay travelers.
In 2006, a tourism market survey showed extensive travel by Europeans and Canadians to South Carolina. Although absent any major international airport, the majority of foreign travelers entered the state via car from Atlanta, Raleigh and Charlotte. Their destinations were Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
“This looks like a simple case of political interference, pure and simple,” said Johnson in the joint release with Roberts. “In an election year, in a red State, you have politicians thinking there might be a few votes in a bit of gay bashing. Not a good look for the majority of South Carolinians who — judging from the many supportive messages received by both Out Now and Amro Worldwide — are appalled by the conduct of their elected representatives.”
— Additional reporting by Matt Comer, Q-Notes staff.
Updated: July 24, 2008, 12:30 p.m.
Q-Notes received a correction/clarification request from officials with the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce on July 24, 2008. There is a dispute over the details of Andrew Roberts’ visit to Myrtle Beach. Nancy Gray, media communications manager for the chamber states that Roberts was not shown gay beaches or gay-friendly hotels and restaurants and that a 68-mile reimbursement was never filed. However, both parties have confirmed Roberts’ visit to the area and Roberts insists he was shown what was described to him as a gay beach. Gray also reiterated the chamber’s commitment to inclusion and non-discrimination.