Gay Travel Seeing Gains

Cities, hoteliers, agents moving to take advantage of growing lucrative market

By: Dennis McCafferty

In years past, the “family” market and the “gay’’ market were mutually exclusive for travel agents. But no more.

Today, the travel industry is opening up to gays, lesbians and bisexuals in ways that would have been considered taboo as recently as the 1990s.

“The world is changing, and probably the most noticeable change for the gay and lesbian market are cruises,” says Harlan Godes, owner of Los Angeles-based Travel Express (, a full-service, upscale travel agency serving the gay community.

A recent, major tour announced by celebrity Rosie O’Donnell’s R Family Vacations ( is one example of such a cruise. R Family has booked the entire Norwegian Dawn for a seven-day cruise departing July 11, 2004, and heading to both family- and gay-friendly spots in Florida and the Bahamas.

“This product is being funded by Ms. O’Donnell as a result of her coming out and vocally supporting gay-family initiatives,” Godes says. “We have had ‘Gay Ski Weeks’ in Aspen, Whistler and Lake Tahoe, and now more family-oriented and upscale resorts, like Telluride, are jumping on the bandwagon. They’re investing marketing dollars to create their own Ski Weeks in an attempt to attract the gay market. It is very fashionable and very smart business. And in a weakened economy, travel and tourism is more prone to breaking barriers in order to improve their revenue and increase traffic.”

Pricing for the R Family voyage starts at under $1,000, with a $199 fare for children under age 2. GOGO Worldwide Vacations ( is the sole travel wholesaler for the cruise.

All of this means that gays, more than ever, have more outlets to pursue when it comes to booking vacations or quick getaways, and agents are taking advantage.

Major U.S. cities which would once accommodate gay tourists, but quietly, out of fear of offending more-conservative travelers are now launching decidedly public campaigns to pronounce themselves as the gay-friendly town to visit.

Hotels and resorts are providing gay-sensitivity training to employees.

Companies known for being relatively “buttoned down” are forming partnerships with gay-travel companies to land a stake in the business.

And agents are finding more and more “niches within the niche” to offer to their gay clientele.

“Diversity within the market is key now,” says Thomas Roth, founder and president of San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc. (, which helps the travel industry reach and serve gay/lesbian/ bisexual customers.

“It used to be just the gay market. Then it was the gay/lesbian markets they realized the preferences of the gay man were different than that of the lesbian woman’s. Now, we’re seeing all kinds of shades of gray when it comes to marketing,” Roth says.

The latest numbers demonstrate that this travel-market niche is only getting more valuable. In a recent survey, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. (, found that gay, lesbian and bisexual travelers reported they spend an average of $2,262 a year for leisure trips compared to just $1,815 for straight leisure travelers.

Gay, lesbian and bisexual travelers also averaged 4.9 leisure trips a year, or 11 percent more than heterosexual travelers.

“The biggest difference is that, now, the travel industry sees gays as the most valued of customers,” says agent Leigh Gernert, director of Los Angeles-based Different Roads, a gay-specific division opened by Tzell Travel (

Here are the latest ways the industry is taking advantage and how agents can make the most of what’s out there:

Tourism bureaus

In Philadelphia (, local business and tourism leaders have formed a Gay Tourism Caucus to promote the city. The caucus has printed the city’s first gay visitors brochure and is developing a “Pride Pass” to local gay clubs and businesses.

The city recently launched a three-year, $300,000 tourism marketing campaign aimed at the gay travelers. The Wyndham Philadelphia Hotel ( offers a gay-friendly package including continental breakfast for two, and local gay publications.

Similarly, in Oregon, “Gay Portland” is the first campaign of its kind for this famously progressive city.

“We have always attracted gay visitors, but they’re getting more sophisticated and the competition for the gay travel segment has increased,” says Deborah Wakefield, spokesperson for Portland tourism (

In addition, nations such as Australia and Great Britain have added gay divisions in their tourism offices.

Company partnerships

Traditionally “straight” companies are partnering with gay travel businesses. Orbitz ( now has a gay traveler link, with airline and hotel specials. On a recent day, it posted a “Where the boys are” special, an all-gay Barcelona-Italy-Ibiza Atlantis cruise for $1,099.

AAA Travel of Northern California ( recently announced a new line of tours and cruise vacations for the lesbian and gay community with Olivia Cruises and Resorts, a long-time gay/lesbian travel provider; and Atlantis Events, a large-scale gay and lesbian tour provider.

It’s all part of an initiative launched this year to market product lines for lesbian, gay and bisexual travelers in Northern California, Utah and Nevada.

“We are in a position to service clients who are looking for either a gay-exclusive vacation or a more mainstream one,” says Danielle Beshong, manager of diversified markets for AAA Travel of Northern California.


In 1998, Roth’s Community Marketing launched the TAG Approved Accommodations program (, a listing of hotels that met the non-discriminatory standards of gay travelers.

For instance, hotels listed provided sensitivity training for staff, and, in many cases, allowed for equal benefits for the partners of gay employees. In its first year, the site listed just 30 properties. It now lists more than 200.


Oakland-based Olivia (, one of the best-known providers for lesbian travelers, offered a lesbian/gay family vacation package for Club Med at Port Saint Lucie this fall.

Olivia indicates that introducing family travel is a natural evolution for its marketing pursuits, given that more than one-quarter of U.S. lesbians and 6 percent of gay men are parents.

“That’s a significant and growing number,” says Olivia CEO Amy Errett, who, with her partner, has a 6-month-old daughter. “Our vacations are about a high level of quality experience. We believe that lesbian and gay parents deserve that level of quality and exclusivity when they travel with their families.”