For years, the Monday after the Chicago Pride Parade in June was the day of a special gay event at Six Flags Great America in north suburban Gurneeand partners Michael Snell and Derrick Sorles always went.
Then the event was moved to a Saturday and, because of the crowds, the two weren't too keen on attending, so they held their own unofficial Gay Day at the amusement part and even printed postcards to help promote it.
"We put a call into Six Flags in the spring of this year, asking what was happening with the event now," that the former promoter of the event was out of business, Snell said. "They said, 'Funny you should ask [because] we want to do something big. And official. And private.'"
Snell and Sorleslife partners for 13 years and the co-owners of the popular news and entertainment website BestGayChicago.comjumped at the idea pitched by Six Flags officials.
"We drew up a marketing plan and they hired us to take the project," Sorles said. "We were to do all of the marketing and produce a private LGBT event.
"Even though BestGayChicago.com was the lead on this event, we knew we wanted to make it something for the community and we wanted to involve everyone, and raise money for charity. We wanted to spread the word everywhere and make sure everyone knew about it. Men, women, transgender, young and old … we wanted everyone to know, and we even subtitled our video so the deaf community would feel welcome."
They pitched and promoted "Out at the Park," as it was called, as if it was Gay Days At Disneylandnot a circuit party a la Gay Days Disney World.
Out At The Park, held in September, was a success despite rain and surprisingly cool temperatures. More than 3,400 attended and the event raised $11,784 for the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN).
"Not bad for a first-year [event, especially] considering we put it all together in about seven weeks," Snell said. "Next year, we hope to do even better, [expanding] from the four-hour event this year to a seven-hour event, and hopefully no rain.
"We are working on several ideas [to expand the 2013 event]."
Snell and Sorlesboth in their 40s, though coy about revealing their exact ageare Michigan natives. Snell grew up in Flint, where he got to know Michael Mooreand the famed filmmaker, who graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint, actually gave Snell his first writing job. Snell worked with Moore for about a year. Sorles is from Grand Rapids.
The two met July 4, 1999, at The Dunes Gay Hotel, formerly the Douglas Dunes Resort, in western Michigan.
They moved to Chicago in 2003 and now live together in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.
"When we were living together in Michigan, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a gay men's magazine," Sorles said. "Michael had worked for several small print publications and knew that print was very expensive and selling ads was hard. So we put that thought aside for the moment.
Snell continued, "Shortly after [moving to Chicago], Derrick met a woman who [is] an amazing entrepreneur and had written several business books. At that time she predicted blogs would be the next big wave in marketing on the Internet."
The two started writing blogs to explore their potential and understand how to publish to them. "It was great because we could publish whatever we wanted. It was indeed like having our own little niche magazines," Snell said. "We had a gay travel website and a Yorkie site. Sure enough, within about five months, we had growing organic search traffic and our phone started ringing; people wanted to buy ads. We were officially online publishers."
They launched their first gay travel-news-info site (NewGayTravelGuide.com ) eight years ago. That led to their "BestGay" brand, which offers BestGayTravelGuide.com and BestGayChicago.com . They are about 6 years old.
The two even trademarked "BEST GAY" earlier this year.
"There have been so many great things along the way, but most definitely it has been the people we meet and the relationships fostered" that is the best, Snell said. "With the success of BestGayTravelGuide.com and BestGayCities.com, we get to go on press/media trips. We have gotten to fly to a lot of great countries and some amazing citiesfor free."
Sorles added, "Our BestGayNewYork.com site is probably one of favorites and most popular. We have gotten to be friends and acquaintances with many New Yorkers who are in the performing arts and follow our site. But locally, since Chicago is our home and BestGayChicago.com is our baby, it has been a real pleasure to grow.
"Our business is a great conversation starter and we get to meet so many people in any given week, that's been amazing."
So what's ahead for the social media mavens?
"Just to keep growing our voice and audience, locally and internationally. It's amazing that [our local business is] 6 years old, and still so many people have no idea who/what BestGayChicago.com is," Snell said.
Sorles added, "I have never been a fan of push-marketing campaigns. Pushing ads on people, that is, [even though] we live in a push society. With the Internet, we enjoy a wonderful 'pull' campaign from our sites. People [can search on] Google what they are looking for and many of our posts come up in top keyword searches. So what readers want is what we have to offer."
Their Chicago website is updated several times per week.
"BestGayChicago.com is, and always will be, our baby. But as a brand, we are talking about a franchise idea for other 'Best Gay' city sites in major cities where now we are just sitting on domain names. We own and operate 10 live sites now," Sorles said.
Snell added, "BestGayChicago.com is geared for the local, to glance at a week and see what's going on. It also is for the tourist [visiting,] looking for things to do."
They said that 75 percent of the website's traffic is locals.
"Our little publishing business has had it ups and downslike everything else[due to] the economy," Snell said. "We have always wanted to be philanthropists and give back. So moving forward, all of our events will always be tied to charities and giving to others."