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MAY 2, 2008

Bursting at the seams

Bigger, better CLAW is a fun weekend for all

Cleveland--A sea of men and women in leather spread throughout the city from April 24 to 27, making the seventh annual Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend the largest yet.

In seven years, what started as a bar night for the leather community and its allies has transformed into an international event that filled four hotels with guests.

Three days of workshops formed the heart of CLAW, while bar parties, field trips and community meals comprised its soul. The juried art show returned, although the growth of the event forced it out of the host hotel, the Wyndham at Playhouse Square, and into the Halle Building next door.

The Vendor Mart completely encompassed the second floor of the hotel, necessitating the art show’s move. CLAW executive committee member and co-founder Robert Miller credited Forest City Enterprises with securing the new location for the art show.

Even with additional rooms, however, Miller noted that the vendor mart was booked solid in January, a full three months before the event.

“We had to turn away eight or nine vendors,” said David Laws, who organized the mart.

This year’s CLAW marked the fifth in a row to be graced by a reigning International Mr. Leather, and the sixth out of seven.

Joining International Mr. Leather 2007 Mike Gerle in enjoying the weekend’s festivities were 21 competitors who will strive for the 2008 title in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend.

Miller noted, however, that it was virtually impossible to count the full slate of titleholders at CLAW, since there are other title circuits and no mechanism for tracing past titleholders who were in attendance.

What he does know, however, is that registrations were up ten percent over last year, as was the number of volunteers. Hotel bookings increased 20 percent, no mean feat in tough financial times that saw decreased numbers at other leather events across the country.

“Compared to other events in this economy, we’re glad,” he said, noting that Flex baths had their biggest weekend ever, in great part due to a two-night warehouse party sponsored by the social networking website Recon.

Recon also sponsored the CLAW Nation tour over the last year, which brought an additional $23,000 into the event’s coffers. The tour enables people to organize bar parties in their home towns, to raise money for both local and national charities and to increase awareness of the Cleveland event, a three-time Pantheon of Leather award-winner.

While the leather world is the focus of the weekend, not everything was leather-related. The slate of field trips saw 75 people going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 40 taking a trolley tour of the city, 30 journeying to the Cleveland Museum of Art, 25 heading off to an Indians game two blocks away from the Wyndham, and a dozen making the jaunt to the Tremont neighborhood to visit the house in the film A Christmas Story.

The event is, however, becoming a victim of its own success.

“It’s a blessing and a curse for those of us doing it,” Miller philosophized, noting that the increase in attendance presents questions about the future: How do you grow when you’ve already filled the 205-room Wyndham and the 268-room Embassy Suites, overflowing into the Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inn?

One option is to stay with the Wyndham as the host hotel and move either the vendor mart or the Leather Family Dinner to another location, freeing up some space in a hotel that not only has been very supportive of CLAW, but whose chain belongs to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

As spacious as the ballroom is at the Wyndham, it still had trouble accommodating the 347 people who attended the dinner on April 26.

It will be at least a month before any decision is made on the matter.

The dinner, packed as it was, presented one of the best experiences of the weekend for Miller.

Miller and CLAW president and co-founder Dennis McMahon both spoke to the crowd, thanking them for being there. Miller began asking certain groups of people to stand up, like titleholders and sponsors.

“My favorite moment was when I had everyone stand up, volunteers and ticket buyers, and everyone was standing,” he said, “because really, it took all of those people to raise the $55,000 we’ve raised in the last 12 months.”

The CLAW Nation tour will also continue indefinitely.

“Recon said this weekend in front of other people that they will support CLAW forever,” Miller said, his voice thickening with emotion. “It’s their favorite event.”

Recon is not alone in that sentiment.

“We have more and more people telling us that this is their favorite event, and that it’s seamlessly organized,” Miller continued, laughing. “Of course, it doesn’t look seamless when you’re doing it.”


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