Urban Outings
by Matt Kalkhoff

One of the best things about living in New York City is the virtually endless stream of social, cultural and entertainment diversions regularly vying for our attention. At the same time, this plethora of playtime options can seem overwhelming for some. So how does the sophisticated urban gay professional, with an adventurous spirit and hectic schedule, strike a practical and fulfilling balance between work and recreation in the Big Apple? For an increasing number of city-slicking homos, the answer is Urban Outings - "New York's first activity and social club for gay men."

Catering exclusively to successful and active professionals who are looking for alternative social outlets, Urban Outings has become quite popular among gay men who enjoy group activities that don't necessarily involve condoms, earplugs, or the annihilation of precious brain cells. In a bustling metropolis where many hardworking professionals already engage third parties to do their laundry and grocery shopping, it was only a matter of time before some clever entrepreneur introduced the gay community to its first full-service social brokerage house.

Inspired by his work as an activities coordinator at Social Circles, "New York's first group activity and social club" for straight folks, Brian Stein set out to create the company's gay counterpart - Urban Outings. Backed by Circles' co-owners, Jose de Lasa and Graham McAden, Stein launched his new venture in February 2001.

"I felt that there was very little else in the gay community to supplement the bar scene," Stein recalls. "What a refreshing opportunity it would be to meet other cosmopolitan, quality gay men with similar interests in a casual, constructive social environment. Considering the richness of New York City's wonderful offerings, I found it shocking that the gay social universe was confined to bars."

In less than two years, the innovative company has grown to seven full-time and 15 part-time employees, and boasts an impressive membership approaching a thousand members. While the ingenious concept and snappy marketing campaign lure prospective members through the door, it is Urban Outings' carefully planned and extensive list of activities that keeps so many of them enthusiastically involved.

"Diversity is the key to our event planning," says Stein. "Over the course of a given month, we offer about 35 activities. We try to balance each calendar with an adequate number of cultural, athletic, social, excursion, adventure, educational, seasonal and 'potpourri' events. Getting involved in an activity is as easy as e-mailing or phoning in an attendance request - then Urban Outings sends you the itinerary with all the information you'll need to know, so all you need to do is show up at the event and have fun."

Research Can Be Such a Drag

Always on the lookout for exciting new social avenues (not to mention the obvious benefit of actually attending some of the functions I would later write about), I participated in two of the group’s activities - the monthly mixer and "Bitchy Bingo." The mixer was held on a Friday from 6-9pm at the trendy Chinatown lounge Happy Endings. Despite the long trek from the subway and not-quite-so-happy-hour drink prices (I arrived after the 7:30pm price hike), I joined several hundred other men who had gathered at the swank watering hole to mingle with fellow Urbanites and celebrate the weekend’s arrival. While the diverse yet ostensibly mature crowd provided a good introduction, I was looking forward to attending one of the group’s individual events in order to get a better feel for the true essence of Urban Outings.

So on a recent Wednesday night I traipsed down to the Village to meet 30 of the group's members at Lips for a frolicsome evening of bitchy drag and bingo queens (or was it the other way around?). The affair got off to a rather civilized start, but all hell broke lose after dinner once the game cards were handed out. Presiding over the NC-17 bingo tournament, hostesses Yvonne Lamé and Jessica Simpson didn’t miss a beat as they tried to outwit each other with a merciless volley of bitchy insults and catty comments (hence the night's theme). Luckily the conversation at my table was much more dignified. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a good time. In fact, I ended up meeting a really wonderful group of guys who were as engaging as they were fun. And I even won the final round of bingo!

Perfectly illustrating a key UO selling point, Bitchy Bingo is one of those events I’ve always wanted to attend, yet never got around to doing for whatever reason. And that’s just one of many options available on the remarkably diverse activity calendar. In September alone, there was an event planned every single day, including a Six Flags Great Adventure field trip, several theater and opera nights, indoor rock climbing, and even an end-of-summer clambake. UO is also branching out by organizing several out-of-town vacations, like a trip to South Beach and Key West in January, and a week of cooking classes and relaxation in "an authentic country villa nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy" next summer. Stein also hopes to open his first expansion office in February in another as-of-yet-undetermined northeastern or Mid-Atlantic city.

The Fine Print

So now that you've decided you want to join Urban Outings, or maybe just want to check it out for yourself to see if it would be a good fit, fire up the computer and visit their website at - you guessed it - www.urbanoutings.com. After learning more about the organization and perusing member testimonials, simply fill out an online form to schedule an appointment to meet with a UO representative at their offices on Broadway between 25th and 26th Streets. Providing you're over 21 and seem like you’ll play well with others, the rep will then help you choose a membership plan that best suits your particular needs.

Membership packages range anywhere from 6-36 months and, depending on the plan selected, will work out to be anywhere from $45 to $95 a month. Then you just pay the ticket cost or cover charge (when applicable) for the events you wish to attend. While some activities also involve a nominal fee to help defray operating costs, it is worth noting that UO often secures group discounts, so it probably all works out in the end.

So whether you're new in town, looking for an alternative to the bar/club scene, or are just tired of the friends you already have, Urban Outings might just be the key to satisfying your most pressing social cravings. And considering about 85% of the members are single, you might even meet your future ex-husband.

© 2002 Matt Kalkhoff