Thomas Armesto enjoys travel but doesn't much care for the ``generic'' hotels he usually settles for.
So when the Miami Beach native discovered the new Lords South Beach in December -- with its giant fiberglass polar bear in the lobby, bright yellow paint on the walls and huge portraits of Elizabeth Taylor in the rooms -- he was sold.
``I like the hotel because I feel comfortable,'' said Armesto, 23, who is gay and lives in New York City. ``It lets you bring out your true colors without feeling intimidated.''
That's exactly what founder Brian Gorman had in mind when he created the concept for the 54-room hotel at 1120 Collins Ave., which plans to expand to New York and West Hollywood, Calif., and calls itself ``the first gay boutique hotel brand to open in the U.S.''
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It's not the only new option in South Florida for gay travelers. In Fort Lauderdale, a pioneering resort that first opened in 1991 for gay men is undergoing a $9 million expansion and renovation that will add 50 rooms as well as a bar, restaurant, fitness center and spa.
The new and improved Royal Palms Resort and Spa, 717 Breakers Ave., is scheduled to open as a full-service hotel with 62 rooms in late February. The original 12 rooms are open during renovations.
``The market has changed and I wanted to raise the bar again,'' said resort founder and director of operations Richard Gray, who is trying to appeal to younger crowds with added amenities, minimalist rooms, iPads on property and a ``hetero-friendly'' bar. Gray also serves as vice chairman of the Broward County Tourist Development Council and gay liaison for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The two properties are leaders in the latest move to cater to gay tourists, say experts who track travel trends among the gay and lesbian community.
And tourism officials in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, which combined draw an estimated 2.15 million gay visitors a year who spend nearly $3 billion, couldn't be happier about the additions as they step up efforts to attract the lucrative market.
Research shows that gay and lesbian people have more discretionary income than their straight counterparts, said Wesley Combs, president of Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing communications firm that specializes in reaching the gay and lesbian market.
``We have more money to spend, which means we can spend it on traveling,'' Combs said. ``We can tap into the luxury accommodations more than the average spender can because of our discretionary income.''
In 2010, the buying power of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults in the United States was projected to be $743 billion, according to an analysis from Witeck-Combs Communications and Packaged Facts.
David Paisley, special projects director with research and consulting firm Community Marketing Inc., said Lords and Royal Palms represent the third generation of gay-oriented lodging.
First came small gay guest houses some 25 years ago, often with limited services. A decade later, proprietors like Gray fixed up some of the guest houses and made them more upscale.
Then a few years back, European company Axel Hotels launched larger full-service boutique hotels that catered to gay visitors in Berlin, Buenos Aires and Barcelona.
Paisley said the South Florida hotels are among the first to bring that sensibility to the United States -- and potentially lure back customers who opted for hip mainstream hotel brands, like Kimpton or W Hotels, that sought to attract gay travelers.
According to Community Marketing's 2010 gay and lesbian tourism study, the trend is moving away from all-gay travel to a ``gay-friendly mix.'' That might explain why some formerly same-sex resorts, like the once women-only Pearl's Rainbow in Key West, are becoming more inclusive.
But Paisley said options like Lords South Beach, with rates ranging from $149-$500, and Royal Palms, which plans to charge between $189-$339 as a special opening rate, should still succeed. ``Fifty-four rooms in one of the top gay destinations in the country -- they can fill that with gay people,'' he said. ``The problem would really only come if it becomes so popular that it becomes overbuilt.''
Lords, which had its official grand opening at the end of December just down the street from a new gay and lesbian visitor center, is open to everyone but targeted to gay visitors and ``anyone who feels different,'' said Gorman, 35.
``It was all about what personally resonated with me when I was coming out,'' he said. ``Miami was one of the first places where I felt like everything was going to be OK, the first place I felt comfortable.''
The 54-room hotel, previously Hotel Nash, has a sunny, beachy feel with splashes of yellow and aqua. It doesn't take itself too seriously -- no hotel with a restaurant called Cha Cha Rooster could -- and that's exactly how Gorman likes it.
``Everything in Miami is about being cool,'' he said. ``We really wanted it to be much more casual and funny.''