Travel
4 min

Other cities outpacing Ottawa in appealing to queer travellers

When will Ottawa embrace the pink dollar?

Let’s face it — Ottawa is known more for it’s somber reputation as a city full of boring government stalwarts than its queer nightlife. Families come here to give their kids the educational experience of seeing the nation’s capital, but gay and lesbian travellers are looking for more excitement.

According to Out Traveller magazine’s editor-in-chief, Ed Salvato, queer tourists don’t think they can find that excitement in Ottawa. The magazine recently published a list of five Canadian hot spots for gay travellers. The picks included obvious choices like Toronto and Vancouver, but surprisingly, two cities without a reputation for being particularly gay-friendly, Edmonton and Winnipeg, were also on the list. Ottawa didn’t make the cut.

“To be honest, it’s not a city that rises up in the minds of our readers as a destination to visit,” Salvato says of Ottawa. “It’s a chicken and egg kind of thing — since it’s not really popular with people, it doesn’t get talked about and to a certain extent it remains unpopular with gay travellers.”

Not reaching out

Part of the reason Ottawa isn’t a hit with the queer market is that Ottawa isn’t reaching out to the gay market, says Salvato.

“I’m in charge of the world’s largest magazine and website for gay and lesbian travellers, so if Ottawa’s not sending me anything, they’re not sending anyone anything,” says Salvato. “They’re not doing their job properly if they’re interested in the gay and lesbian market.”

Jantene Van Kregten of Ottawa Tourism says the organization recognizes the value of gay and lesbian tourism as a niche market, but Capital Pride chair Gordon Boissonneault says the move to make Ottawa appeal to the queer market was initiated by the Pride committee.

“I wanted to establish a relationship with Ottawa tourism,” says Boissonneault. “It’s definitely something Pride has been pushing for.”

Boissonneault’s statement echoes the push for gay tourism marketing that has happened in cities such as Halifax. The east coast city launched rainbowhalifax.com, a website dedicated to providing information for gay travellers, almost two years ago. And Lynn Ledwidge, director of marketing for Destination Halifax, the city’s tourism board, says that like Ottawa, the drive for queer tourism came from Halifax’s Pride committee.

Affluent, armed, and ready to travel

“It didn’t happen overnight,” says Ledwidge. “We decided we’d explore it as a developmental market on the encouragement of our local gay community.”

Ledwidge says research shows the gay community was right. After an extensive study, Ledwidge says Halifax simply couldn’t ignore the obvious benefits of appealing to gay and lesbian tourists.

“We learned that the gay audience has a high propensity for travel, and more of a sense of escapism,” says Ledwidge. “They’re affluent, armed, and ready to travel.”

Even better: Halifax didn’t have to scrape together any new money for the project. Ledwidge says Destination Halifax merely “shifted the budget” and used the existing backbone of their website to expand into the gay market.

The website lists accommodation, dining, and events with a queer-positive bent. Since April, the site also offers special gay-friendly travel packages.

Now, Ledwidge says she was shocked to find out that “little old Halifax” is being used as a model to show San Francisco — considered by many to be the world’s queer capital — how to advertise to the queer market.

Patriotic Pride

Ottawa’s pushing is also starting to pay off. Last year Ottawa Tourism sent two people to a queer marketing conference in Montreal. And this year, Ottawa Tourism is offering to pay for up to six journalists from gay media outlets to come to Capital Pride.

But two weeks after the invitations were sent out and even after follow-up phone calls, Ottawa Tourism still couldn’t confirm that anyone had taken them up on their offer, although communication coordinator Misty Wade Hovey says that several outlets have expressed interest. Boissonneault claims that Toronto radio station Proud-FM has unofficially confirmed to him that they will be taking advantage of Ottawa Tourism’s offer.

When asked if Ottawa Tourism had invited Out Traveller to Ottawa for Pride, Hovey confirmed that the magazine was not on the list of approximately 20 gay media outlets that had been contacted. However, after that conversation, Hovey decided to invite Out Traveller for the media tour.

Meanwhile, Boissonneault and the Capital Pride committee are taking the lead on promoting the festival outside of Ottawa.

Last year, Boissonneault began to re-brand the festival from Ottawa Pride to Capital Pride to take advantage of any Canadian patriotism the city represents. Boissonneault’s mantra? Every queer Canadian should experience Pride in the nation’s capital at least once in their lifetime.

Although the Pride celebration was renamed last year, Boissonneault says there was little time to advertise Capital Pride to the rest of the country. But this year Boissonneault says the Pride committee had a head-start and is hoping to bring more visitors into the city to boost the festival’s attendance.

It’s the first time in several years that Pride has reached out to cities like Toronto and Montreal to promote Capital Pride. Boissonneault says he was “flabbergasted” to discover that many people in Montreal didn’t even know that Ottawa had a Pride celebration.

The pink dollar

While Boissonneault admits that Ottawa can’t compete with the huge, glamorous parties held in cities like Montreal, he says that Ottawa has a different appeal.

“People always say it’s too bad that Pride has lost that feeling of community,” says Boissonneault, “But in Ottawa we’ve grown to offer the pizzazz of big parties but we still offer that feeling of a small community.”

In an effort to attract more Torontonians to Pride-hop to Ottawa, Capital Pride partnered with Proud-FM to give away two trips to Ottawa for the celebrations. Boissonneault says the radio station has been promoting the contest — and Capital Pride — non-stop.

Another draw should be the addition of far more out-of-town entertainers to Capital Pride’s musical lineup. The Cliks, Kelly and the Kellygirls, Dragon Ritual Drummers, and NYC DJ Billy Steele are only some of the performers that Boissonneault hopes will bring legions of fans with them when they come to Capital Pride.

Part of the problem, says Boissonneault, is that he has no idea how many people are already travelling to Ottawa for Pride.

“It’s one piece of the puzzle that’s missing,” says Boissonneault. “We want to do a survey but we don’t have the manpower to do it.”

It’s one of the many gaps in Ottawa’s strategy — or lack thereof — to promote the city as a queer destination.

“Ottawa Tourism is starting to wake up to the value of the pink dollar,” says Boissonneault. “But there is still an incredible amount of work to do with branding.”