THE NEW YORK TIMES
By Stuart Elliott
The cry “Come out, come out, wherever you are” has taken on new meaning as more Americans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (L.G.B.T.) come out of the closet, telling friends and family about their sexual orientation. A regional tourism organization is now echoing the process a person goes through in coming out to present a city as a welcoming destination for L.G.B.T. visitors.
The organization, known as Richmond Region Tourism, is declaring that Richmond, Va., is “coming out” as a city where L.G.B.T. tourists will feel comfortable. A campaign that began this month includes a microsite, or special website, with the address RichmondIsOut.com; print advertisements; banner ads online; a blog; a video clip; a presence in social media that include Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; and stickers for the windows of stores, shops and businesses that read “OutRVA,” a nod to residents’ name for the city, “RVA.”
The premise of the campaign, which uses “OutRVA” as a logo, is that Richmond is coming out the way a person would, spreading the word through posts in social media or missives that are known as “coming-out letters,” which may be literal, ink-on-paper letters or read aloud on videos.
So the print ads — running in newspapers aimed at L.G.B.T. readers in cities that are not far from Richmond and have large L.G.B.T. populations — begin with salutations like “Dear Atlanta,” “Dear Boston” and “Dear Washington”; include phrases like “So here it is. I’m gay” and “The fact is, I’m gay”; and conclude, “Love, Richmond, Virginia.”
(The ads read like modern-day versions of the famous “Yes, Virginia” letter about Santa Claus, reworded to declare, “Yes, Virginia, the 49 other states and the District of Columbia, Richmond is gay.”)
And the banner ads carry headlines like this: “Dear Internet, I’m gay. Love, Richmond, Va.” There is also a banner ad that reads: “How does a city come out? Apparently, with banner ads.”
The campaign presupposes that potential visitors have images of Richmond derived from its history or heritage, or perhaps because Virginia is a state where same-sex marriage is illegal and there are no statewide protections for L.G.B.T. employees in their workplaces. Those attitudes are, according to Richmond Region Tourism and the campaign, obsolete and at variance with how tolerant the city is today.
For instance, in the video clip, an announcer says: “Of course, outsiders think they know Richmond. The capital of the Confederacy, the stuck in the past, the unwelcoming, the intolerant Richmond. We’ve heard the comments, and they hurt.”
“It’s time for the world to see the L.G.B.T. community we’re proud to call our own, and the people that have risen up to support it,” the announcer continues. “We’re saying goodbye to the closet, and you’re going to have to say goodbye to your old opinion of Richmond.”
The campaign, with a media budget estimated at $16,000 to $18,000, was produced for the tourism organization in an unusual partnership with theV.C.U. Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The campaign was developed and created by a group of students that was overseen by Kelly O’Keefe, a professor of brand management at the Brandcenter who is also chief creative strategy officer of a Richmond agency,PadillaCRT.
Also involved with the campaign is Kevin Clay, who is on the L.G.B.T. advisory committee of the tourism organization and is also a principal of Big Spoon, a Richmond agency that is helping manage the digital and social media aspects of the campaign. An agency in New York, 11*6 PR, which also goes by Eleven Six PR, is handling public relations for the campaign.
The campaign is part of recent initiatives by Richmond Region Tourism to portray the city as a lively, interesting, even sophisticated destination for tourists. For example, headlines on the home page of the organization’s website, visitrichmondva.com, promote “Tutus and tattoos,” “historic sites and savory bites” and “Unique shops and premium hops.” Those initiatives are arriving as Richmond has drawn attention as a destination for travelers looking for new experiences in areas like dining; an article in the September issue of Departures magazine, for instance, calls Richmond “the next great American food city.”
The campaign may be something new for Richmond, but many other cities, counties and states have been running ads aimed at L.G.B.T. tourists, who, according to research data, travel more frequently than their heterosexual counterparts. A large number of those campaigns are sponsored by places like Seattle, widely deemed gay-friendly because they have recognized gay rights in areas like marriage and workplace equality. Others are on behalf of cities that, like Richmond, are in states that do not have those policies; examples include Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“We’re putting our toe into this market segment,” says Katherine O’Donnell, vice president for community relations of Richmond Region Tourism, and “our main message is that we’re welcoming and friendly.”
“We’re not a destination such as a Key West or a San Francisco; that’s obvious,” she adds. “Unfortunately, Virginia is not as tolerant as we would like.”
But the campaign reflects the experiences that L.G.B.T. travelers can have when they visit Richmond, Ms. O’Donnell says, which is important because “we’re making sure we were telling an authentic story” — in other words, that the reality matches what the ads tell potential visitors they can expect.
It was when Richmond believed it had sufficient proof that L.G.B.T. tourists would truly enjoy themselves that “we felt ready to dial the advertising up,” she adds.
Coming out is “a pivotal point in people’s lives,” Ms. O’Donnell says, when “they say who they are,” and “we’re using that as a symbolic way for Richmond to come out” as an attraction for L.G.B.T. tourists.
The campaign also offers “a grass-roots way for businesses to raise their hands and make a statement,” she adds, “and say they support the L.G.B.T. community regardless of what the legislators” approve or disapprove of.
Mr. Clay says his advisory committee had been working on outreach to L.G.B.T. travelers “for the past five years,” adding, “It’s been amazing to have an organization like R.R.T. move forward with a campaign like this” that would target the tourists who are sought by destinations like Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles.
“In previous years, we coordinated press trips for travel writers to Richmond during Pride season,” Mr. Clay says, but now with “awareness building that Richmond is a welcoming place” it made sense to begin advertising.
On the digital side of the campaign, he adds, “we’ll feature ‘OutRVA Insiders,’ members of the community talking about their favorite restaurants” and other attractions.
Mr. O’Keefe, the professor at the Brandcenter, recalls that the tourism organization “approached us about wanting to do a campaign to promote L.G.B.T. tourism in the first semester last year.”
He was eager to offer his students a chance to take part, he says, because “something we try to do at the Brandcenter is that when students question whether advertising is a noble profession or an ethical profession, we love to show them they can use the same tools that are used to sell soap and beer to sell ideas.”
“I reached out to my whole class, looking for volunteers who would be interested in working on a project like this for no credit and no money,” Mr. O’Keefe says, and before long 18 students volunteered. They were arranged into three teams, with students assigned tasks like strategy, copywriting, art direction and technology.
The teams made their presentations in November and the coming-out idea was selected as the preferred campaign; “It was an easy choice in the end,” Mr. O’Keefe says. The campaign was developed by a team of five students: a strategist, a copywriter, two art directors and a brand manager.
Two of the five students were gay, says one of them, Jimmy Burton, who served as the copywriter, and the team was also a mix of “people who grew up in Richmond and people who moved to Richmond for school.” Mr. Burton, who is 25, was among the latter, hailing from Buffalo.
The team members determined that “to get L.G.B.T. travelers to visit Richmond,” Mr. Burton says, it was necessary to overcome “a perception problem: People outside Richmond thought of it as a Southern city and not as a great L.G.B.T. city.”
“Living in Richmond, we found it’s a cool place to live, a diverse city,” Mr. Burton says, adding that he “never had any bad experiences” being gay in Richmond. (He is now working at his first full-time job, as a copywriter at Venables Bell & Partners in San Francisco.)
In pondering “how do you tell people Richmond is different” from what they believe, the team came up with the concept to “tell it in the same way a L.G.B.T. person would, by coming out,” Mr. Burton says, and present Richmond as “the first city to come out of the closet.”
As if to signal that, one of the coming-out letters has a national scope. It was addressed to the talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, who is a lesbian, inviting her to see Richmond.
“Hi, Ellen,” the ad starts. “I’m writing to you because we don’t see each other often. And there’s something I need to get off my chest. I’m gay.
“Not in a Los Angeles way,” the ad goes on. “That would require beaches. I’m still me, just gay.
“Wish I could be with you to see your reaction to all this,” the ad says. “If I had to guess, it would involve quite a bit of dancing.”
The ad ends, “Love, Richmond, Virginia,” and to underline its format as a letter, there is a “P.S.”: “When you finish dancing, come visit.”