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When Chicago-based LGBTQ tour operator Zoom Vacations launched 16 years ago, ensuring a positive travel experience for LGBTQ travelers was sometimes difficult to pull off.
“We always had to check if hotels were open to gay groups,” said Bryan Herb, chief marketing officer for Zoom Vacations. “But these days, hotels are seeking our business rather than the other way around. A lot of properties, restaurants and tourism boards have caught on to the fact that the LGBTQ community spends a lot of money when we travel.”
Indeed, today’s LGBTQ travelers find a much more welcoming world than even a decade ago. And they’re traveling in new ways as a result, according to Keith Wein, a luxury travel advisor for 127, an affiliate of Tzell Travel in Seattle and New York City.
“LGBTQ people are no longer going to only LGBTQ-friendly destinations,” he said. “They are going everywhere.”
John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), says even more tourism organizations, travel companies and destinations will likely pop onto the LGBTQ-friendly map.
“The trend is toward inclusivity rather than all-LGBTQ enclaves,” he said. “As a result, we’ve had increased engagement in IGLTA recently from less obvious places, such as Colombia, Guam, Italy and Monaco. We’re also seeing expansion beyond major cities within countries that had established LGBTQ markets, notably in Brazil and Argentina.”
To promote a better understanding of the latest trends, the IGLTA Foundation partnered with the European Travel Commission to publish the Handbook on the LGBTQ Travel Segment study in July. The report confirmed Europe’s reputation as the “most liberal, socially progressive destination,” with Spain ranking highest among survey respondents.
“The biggest surprise from the study was how much LGBTQ events — such as pride parades and festivals — encourage so many people to travel to and within Europe,” Tanzella said. “Given that data, it’s not a stretch to see their significance to the global tourism market as well.”
Pride as a Selling PointA number of destinations are aiming to leverage the appeal of LGBTQ pride events to boost their visitor numbers. For example, this year in Massachusetts, the Provincetown Business Guild produced the town’s first official pride celebration and opened The Shack, an official LGBTQ welcome center. Louisville, Ky., meanwhile, hosts two annual pride festivals. One is the Kentuckiana Pride Festival, which recently moved to a larger venue.
New York City is gearing up for an especially large event next year, when it hosts World Pride 2019, a global LGBTQ celebration that coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall protests, which marked the beginning of the modern LGBTQ rights movement in 1969.
Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company, the city’s tourism arm, expects 3 million people to celebrate the event in June 2019, a 50 percent increase over the city’s usual pride attendance.
“World Pride is a great opportunity for travel agents to reach out to their LGBTQ clients with a new reason to visit New York City,” he said. “They should also sell New York City for all of 2019. There will be cultural and educational programming created around the Stonewall anniversary all year long, as well as other events and developments that will make 2019 monumental.”
The city of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., meanwhile, recently announced plans to host the first-ever Pride of the Americas festival in 2020, a 10-day event that will focus on LGBTQ issues in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Historically, pride events have drawn huge crowds, but in recent years, the youth has started to identify more openly, and their presence at pride events has multiplied,” said Richard Gray, vice president of LGBT+ at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, which this year debuted its first-ever LGBT+ Visitors Center.
Diverse Destinations and ExperiencesIn addition to special events, today’s LGBTQ travelers crave diverse and unique experiences, according to Krista Betts, a luxury travel advisor for Balboa Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Austin, Texas.
“I’ve noticed a shift from the large cruise ships and resort beach party getaways to more refined immersive experiences,” she said. “The LGBTQ segment is seeking high-end, one-of a-kind experiences with like-minded travelers.”
Destinations large and small, meanwhile, have capitalized on the diversifying market.
“Las Vegas is an interesting example of a destination that doesn’t have the largest number of obvious LGBTQ-specific offerings, but it has made a long-term investment in marketing and outreach that demonstrates its commitment and keeps it on the radar,” IGLTA’s Tanzella said.
For example, every summer at its Luxor property, MGM Resorts International hosts Temptation Sundays, an LGBTQ pool party. On the East Coast, MGM’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J., maintains a robust year-round LGBTQ program, complete with a dedicated blog and website section that highlights an array of entertainment and events.
Even smaller destination marketing organizations have upped their game. Columbus, Ohio, for example, showcases its LGBTQ offerings on its main site, as well as on a microsite and through an email newsletter and printed LGBTQ travel guide.
“Columbus was one of the first cities to actively reach out and court LGBTQ travelers more than a decade ago,” said Roger Dudley, senior tourism sales manager for Experience Columbus, the city’s tourism arm.
Dudley says Ohio’s capital aims to appeal to LGBTQ travelers seeking authentic experiences for both adults and families.
“Many destinations just think of arts and nightlife as the main products that interest LGBTQ visitors,” he said. “But like any traveler, they want much more. Gay families want family-friendly travel with a welcoming vibe.”
Marketing efforts like these encourage LGBTQ travelers to explore like never before, according to Rick Stiffler, vice president of leisure sales for Preferred Hotels and Resorts, which operates Preferred Pride, a program that showcases LGBTQ-friendly member hotels.
“LGBTQ travelers have more travel choices not only in the U.S., but also internationally, and that means we’re seeing an uptick in cities and destinations that haven’t always been considered,” he said. “Secondary cities across the globe are becoming a first choice for travelers. Domestic cities such as Cleveland; Boise, Idaho; and Austin, Texas, are seeing an uptick in travel, while international cities such as Israel’s Tel Aviv are, too. We’re also seeing an increase in travel to Asia, as the LGBTQ communities based there continue to receive more acceptance and support.
In fact, The Gay Games, a festival that promotes diversity and tolerance, is slated to take place in Hong Kong in 2022, and I expect to see more travel to this destination specifically in the coming years.”
Growth SegmentsThe LGBTQ segment is filled with countless types of travelers. Wein of 127 says one particular group is especially strong at his agency.
“The biggest growth market is definitely honeymoons, anniversaries and special occasions,” he said. “LGBTQ couples are celebrating in a way they haven’t been able to before, and now, hotels and destinations are welcoming the LGBTQ market in a more accepting manner and helping them celebrate their special occasions.”
While the legalization of same-sex marriage certainly produced a boom in destination weddings, the actual number may be going down, according to David Paisley, senior research director for Community Marketing and Insights, a San Francisco-based market research and consulting firm that specializes in the LGBTQ market.
“There was a very large number of these marriages taking place right after legalization,” he said. “But the backlog has run its course. The numbers are going to be smaller now, but their budgets will be bigger.”
Family travel is also on the rise, according to Paisley — and that niche increasingly includes multigenerational getaways.
“A lot of gay and lesbian baby boomers had kids before they came out,” he said. “There are more LGBTQ grandparents than we might think.”
A growing awareness of the transgender community has also created new opportunities for the travel industry, Paisley notes.
“A lot of issues about the transgender community and non-binary community are being addressed on the training level,” he said. “But they really haven’t gotten that message out to their staff. A lot of progress needs to be made.”
With so many welcoming vacation options available today, Wein says LGBTQ globetrotters can benefit like never before from the guidance of knowledgeable travel agents.
“LGBTQ travelers want to connect with a travel planner who is like them and understands their needs and likes,” he said. “The biggest mistake would be to send them to places that are typically associated as ‘gay’ destinations. Agents should be utilizing the globe and sending LGBTQ people everywhere — not boxing them in and treating them as if they are different than a straight couple. As I travel the globe with my husband, we travel to see the world, not to see other gay people.”
Industry experts share their secrets below.
Know the Market.“The biggest mistake is assuming knowledge of the community without spending enough time really understanding the needs and sensibilities of the community,” said Bryan Herb, chief marketing officer for Zoom Vacations, a Chicago-based tour operator. “Become knowledgeable about a variety of LGBTQ tours, hotels, events and products — not just the big gay cruise companies.”
Maintain a Presence Krista Betts, a luxury travel advisor for Balboa Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Austin, Texas, says her agency builds LGBTQ business by maintaining a visible presence in the community.
“Balboa Travel has been an active member of the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce for over five years,” she said. “I am also an ambassador at the chamber. We market in LGBTQ publications, and we have sponsored events.”
Maximize Social Media “I’m constantly traveling to new destinations and seeing what these destinations offer the LGBTQ community,” said Keith Wein, a luxury travel advisor for 127, an affiliate of Tzell Travel in Seattle and New York City.
“I document everything via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and try to spread the word about which destinations are great and offer a lot for the LGBTQ community. People seeing you travel is the best way to sell, honestly. It inspires them.”
Get Support“The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) has some helpful free resources that agents can access, such as our calendars for LGBTQ tours, cruises, festivals and pride events,” said John Tanzella, president and CEO of IGLTA. “And, of course, we encourage them to join IGLTA and be a part of our global network of businesses in more than 80 countries. Through a recent agreement, there are now IGLTA membership discounts available to members of the American Society of Travel Agents.”
Make It Personal Agents should “showcase what they are doing personally and professionally to give back to the community, whether that’s making financial donations or volunteering at an event or organization,” said Rick Stiffler, vice president of leisure sales for Preferred Hotels and Resorts. “Advertise specific LGBTQ programs and tours, but do so with creative execution in all marketing efforts. Incorporate LGBTQ imagery into mainstream advertising and marketing collateral where possible and include authentic photos — even of your clients, if they allow it.”
The DetailsInternational Gay and Lesbian Travel Association www.iglta.org