Official set up tour as part of ‘so gay' effort

An S.C. tourism official set up a three-day tour of the state to try to win inclusion in a London ad campaign to attract gay tourists.

The campaign – calling the state “so gay” as a destination – was pulled by Gov. Mark Sanford and tourism officials. The state also refused to pay the $4,942 cost of the campaign.

Andrew Roberts, the chief executive of the tour company that touted the state as a gay destination, said he toured the state because he initially was skeptical about how welcoming South Carolina would be toward gay tourists. To find out, Roberts said he met with local tourism officials in Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Hilton Head in April.

South Carolina “was not an obvious destination” for international gay tourists, Roberts told the Q-Notes Web site, saying he needed to visit the state himself.

Marion Edmonds, a spokesman for the state tourism department, confirmed Roberts' visit. He said it was arranged by the same state tourism employee who signed off on the ad campaign. Neither the ad campaign nor the trip was reviewed by state tourism agency executives. The employee has resigned.

No state money was used, Edmonds said, adding that hotels donated Roberts' accommodations. State tourism officials often connect local officials with potential clients, he said.

“At the local level, they sort of know who would be interested,” Edmonds said. “None of that is unusual. Those kinds of things occur all the time.”

Critics of the state's decision to reject the ad campaign say it closely mirrors strategies included in the state tourism agency's official marketing plan. Those goals include “direct sales programs to targeted markets to extend awareness of South Carolina's diverse travel product” and “implement cooperative sales, advertising and marketing opportunities with tour operators (who) will create, promote and sell South Carolina specific programs.”

“It ticks all the boxes…and we have this ridiculous reaction,” said Ian Johnson, chief executive of Out Now Consulting, which created the “so gay” ad campaign.

“He was doing his job,” Johnson said of the state tourism employee who resigned after the flap. “For him to be fired is a shame.”

Roberts and Johnson disputed state officials' statements that the campaign was approved only by a “low level” employee. Roberts said the now-resigned state tourism employee was experienced in international advertising.

Sanford and state tourism director Chad Prosser both have said the state should not be spending tourism money to promote social or political causes.

Edmonds said the campaign still must be reviewed by supervisors. The agency, he said, is changing the way it approves international advertising.

“That needs to be checked and vetted,” Edmonds said of any campaign. “That's part of the problem here.”

The dispute could have an impact on the state's top industry.

According to Travel Industry of America statistics, gay tourists spent $40 billion on travel in 2006. A survey found about half said that whether a destination was gay-friendly affected their travel plans.