Guesthouses in South Florida: is it a sign of changing times in the industry? One of America’s most famous, or perhaps infamous, gay spots is for sale, and others are (gasp!) going mainstream to attract a broader clientele.
Joe Allen, who still owns the resort currently, sent an email to his entire mailing list that included the following:
“I think I can say without boast that we created at Island House a unique place, a safe and happy space for thousands of gay men to meet, to eat and drink, to make merry. I’m proud of that, but more important in this context, Island House is successful and profitable operation. I’m confident that its new owner will operate it as a gay men’s resort. It has higher ADR’s and occupancy than any comparable property in Old Town. There’s no good reason to change its model. It’s a success,” wrote Allen.
Island House has become the focal point for much of Key West’s LGBT community, as other smaller resorts on the island have become mainstream guesthouses. The restaurant is a popular meeting place for locals to have breakfast, and drag shows by the pool are common (as is sex on the upper outdoor deck and in the hotel’s porn theater).
This sale comes at a critical time for Florida’s LGBT travel industry. Despite Allen’s belief that it should stay a gay-themed property, its location makes it a prime target for real estate developers looking to capitalize on Key West’s ever-escalating market. More importantly, the gay guesthouse industry is on a slow downward spiral, as loyal customers continue to age and younger patrons aren’t coming in.
Royal Palms in Fort Lauderdale was the hottest gay property in town when it re-opened in 2011, after a spectacular multi-million dollar renovation, and it attracted travelers and locals to lay by the pool and dance at their outdoor parties. However, Royal Palm’s popularity has waned, and the hotel has quietly adopted a “family-friendly” policy as they no longer allow public nudity anywhere on the property. This is a result of liquor laws forbidding nudity on property where liquor is sold; Royal Palms operates a restaurant and bar by the pool.
North Beach Village, the property management company that owns Royal Palms, recently announced that another of its properties, Schubert Resort, is closing in April for renovations. The Schubert has been a mainstay in South Florida’s gay guesthouse scene, and was even used to film the very funny Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! But due to “research they did in the area,” according to a staff member at the resort, it will re-open as mainstream, family-friendly Victoria Park Hotel, again with nudity no longer allowed.
The mainstream hotel industry has been one of the most LGBT-welcoming industries in the U.S., adopting inclusive policies and providing employee training for years before other businesses caught on to how encouraging LGBT business can boost income. As people are now openly identifying as gay at younger ages, they are integrated with groups of their straight friends and will stay with them at corporate hotels, which often have flashier amenities, and don’t have the pressure of witnessing other guests having sex on the pool deck. There’s also the fact that a gay man of any age can stay anywhere and still find other gay people via services like Grindr.
North Beach Village still operates four other gay resorts: Grand Palm Plaza, Lush Royale, Flamingo Inn, and Elysium. But for these properties to continue to preserve their traditional role in the market, they must do something to attract those patrons who no longer need a “gay” location to safely meet other gay people. The identity of the LGBT community is rapidly changing, and this element of social culture may disappear.