The State of LGBTQ+ Family Travel Today
A deep dive into how travel advisors can meet the wants and needs of the LGBTQ+ family market
The year 2020 is on the horizon, so it’s hard to believe that the following statement still bears repeating. And yet, it does, profoundly: Families with LGBTQ+ parents have many of the same wants and expectations as families with heterosexual parents.
One such desire is, at its core, simple — to be treated with respect. (Note: LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, as well as other sexual identities including pansexual, asexual and omnisexual.)
“LGBTQ+ travel is not necessarily about ‘unique’ needs,” said John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA), an organization founded in 1983 that seeks to promote equality and safety within the LGBTQ+ community worldwide. “Like all travelers, we want to feel safe and welcome.”
However, having to tackle various challenges while on the road is an unfortunate reality for this demographic. Tanzella says an extra layer of trip-planning is locating the destinations, activities, tours and accommodations that make LGBTQ+ families feel comfortable and included.
“But at the end of the day, LGBTQ+ family travel is family travel,” he said. “Children can be sensitive about being different or standing out, so being able to see other LGBTQ+ families is affirming. Not everyone gets to have that community experience where they live, but travel can open those doors.”
“But at the end of the day, LGBTQ+ family travel is family travel. Children can be sensitive about being different or standing out, so being able to see other LGBTQ+ families is affirming. Not everyone gets to have that community experience where they live, but travel can open those doors.”
And those who don’t incorporate LGBTQ+ clientele into their business plans are missing out on an enormously profitable opportunity. These individuals make up an economic force totaling close to $1 trillion, reports a 2018 study by gay social network Hornet, in partnership with Kantar Consulting. (The analysis also reveals that 66% of respondents are frustrated by brands that treat members of their community as an afterthought.) Data from last year’s LGBT2030 report, helmed by marketing agency Out Now Consulting, states that the annual expenditure of LGBTQ+ tourism currently exceeds $218 billion.
As for the family segment within the LGBTQ+ market, data from UCLA School of Law’s The Williams Institute shows that roughly 114,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. are raising children.
Mark Steward, owner of Raleigh, N.C.-based Jet Set Tourism, a Virtuoso agency, specializes in LGBTQ+ travel. For his family clients, the parents’ primary concern centers around their little ones — in particular, they don’t want their kids to be negatively impacted by the prejudice of others.
“These clients want to be a part of the group, as opposed to being singled out,” Steward said. “The parents want their son or daughter to go into the kids’ club and have a ball with the other children, and not have any issues, like people asking, ‘Where’s your mom?’ if there are two dads.”
Lara Dorman, based in Missoula, Mont., runs a blog called 2 Moms Travel. She finds that strangers have a difficult time understanding her family, which consists of her wife, Deb, and two young children.
“Frequently, I have to calmly state, ‘This is our family,’” she said.
But beyond the invasive questions and, sometimes, outright denial of service, there’s also the critical matter of staying out of harm’s way during a vacation.
“Traveling LGBTQ+ parents experience the same challenges — and often prejudices — that any other LGBTQ+ traveler might experience, and they require the same assurances around safety and privacy that other traveling parents will have as it relates to their children,” said Rick Stiffler, vice president of leisure sales for Preferred Hotels & Resorts. “These two combined experiences create greater anxieties for LGBTQ+ families, and, therefore, the requirement for reassurance is greater.”
For Dorman, finding a destination suitable for her family begins with thorough research of local laws, major religions and known bigotries. Some places get vetoed without hesitation, she says. Dorman also notes that locals tend to be curious at first and ask a question or two, but eventually move on.
Travel blogger Lara Dorman (second from right) of 2 Moms Travel with her wife and kids in Paris © 2019 Lara Dorman
Travel blogger Lara Dorman of 2 Moms Travel with her wife and kids in Paris © 2019 Lara Dorman
Journeying overseas can bring its own set of issues, such as complications at customs. Kelli Carpenter, co-founder of LGBTQ+ travel company R Family Vacations, a branch of Tzell Travel Group, says same-sex families are created in a multitude of ways, including by adoption, foster care, surrogacy and traditional pregnancy.
“When you take that into account, the most important thing for LGBTQ+ parents to do is to pack their documentation and licenses for the marriage and families,” she said. “Many of the family members will have different last names; plus, if you are in a foster care family situation, there is unique documentation that will be required for travel.”
Carpenter suggests that clients scan all relevant paperwork into their smartphones, as well as carry physical copies in case of an emergency.
In addition to matching the right destinations to LGBTQ+ family clients, there’s also the matter of seeking out fitting hoteliers, tour operators, cruise lines and more. Jet Set Tourism’s Steward says that to ensure client satisfaction, he will first check if the supplier in question is aligned with IGLTA. Another step is to examine the company’s website: Are people of all races, genders and sexual orientation represented in its marketing efforts? Are there same-sex couples and interracial couples, or does everyone look the same?
“However, it has to be more than just checking off boxes,” Steward said.
Indeed, representation is key, but advisors should be wary of companies that engage in tokenism — the act of including a minority group as a perfunctory effort rather than a dedication to inclusion. Similarly, suppliers should be championing the LGBTQ+ community all year long, not just during Pride Month every June.
Tanzella of IGLTA says he would be remiss not to commend the Disney brand as a leader in family travel and in supporting diversity.
“Although not official Disney events, Gay Days at Disneyland [October] in Anaheim, Calif., and the longer-running Gay Days at Walt Disney World [June] in Orlando, Fla., are magical opportunities for LGBTQ+ families to experience the theme parks,” he said.
Hilton Hotels & Resorts, too, is considered a key advocate of LGBTQ+ tourism. One example is the brand’s “Stay Hilton. Go Out” program, launched in 2012, which offers a value-added package at participating hotels for LGBTQ+ travelers.
Also noteworthy is Preferred Hotels’ Preferred Pride collection, which provides luxury member hotels with outreach to the LGBTQ+ community. Stiffler, who conceived the program in 2011, says these members are encouraged to join IGLTA; become TAG Approved (a certification with requirements ranging from sensitivity training for employees to implementing nondiscriminatory policies); and sign up for their local LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce. Members receive training every year to stay up to date with the changing market. Hotels operating in countries with anti-LGBTQ+ laws cannot be accepted into the collection.
“To date, travel advisors have helped to generate more than $25 million in revenue through the program,” Stiffler said.
Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is another excellent brand for LGBTQ+ travelers. According to Nick Gregory, senior vice president of hotel operations, Kimpton is proud of its long-standing dedication to this community, which includes supporting nonprofits and advocacy groups such as The Trevor Project (focused on crisis intervention and suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ and questioning youth), education initiatives and more.
“At Kimpton, we’re committed to creating a workforce that reflects the diversity of our hotel and restaurant guests and treats everyone with respect and fairness,” he said. “We’ve found that the best way to make LGBTQ+ families feel safe and welcome is to foster an internal culture deeply rooted in inclusivity.”
“We’ve found that the best way to make LGBTQ+ families feel safe and welcome is to foster an internal culture deeply rooted in inclusivity.”
Throughout the tourism industry, there is still plenty of work to do in paving the way for allyship with the LGBTQ+ segment — and that starts with education.
“The most important thing for the travel industry to do is to make the changes within before reaching out to the community,” said Carpenter of R Family Vacations. “This will ensure authenticity.”
Where to Next?
John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, shares his top picks for destinations that welcome LGBTQ+ families.
London delivers progressive LGBTQ+ laws — including adoption for same-sex couples since 2002 — paired with an abundance of free museums and ample green spaces where kids can burn off energy.
If you’ve got a dinosaur fan in the family, the Victorian-era dinosaur sculptures of Crystal Palace Park are a hidden gem in South London. Plus, the park has a lake with paddleboats, a skateboard park, a playground and one of the largest hedge mazes in England.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta is the go-to LGBTQ+ resort town in Mexico, and its proximity to the U.S. makes it an easily manageable international choice. For custom tours, check out A Day in Vallarta, or request a gay local tour guide via Jet’s Private Boat Tours.
For adventurous, eco-minded families, Costa Rica has surfing, ziplining and nature galore, plus it has made giant strides forward in recent years, with same-sex marriage set to become legal in 2020.
Home to Family Week, Provincetown features the largest gathering of LGBTQ+ families in the world. The 26th annual event will be held July 25 to Aug. 1, 2020.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Fort Lauderdale combines miles of family-friendly beaches and a vibrant LGBTQ+ community. Greater Fort Lauderdale tourism board’s website is a wealth of information for LGBTQ+ and family travel. And downtown’s must-visit Museum of Discovery and Science is committed to inclusive programming under Joe Cox, its new president and CEO.
2 Moms Travel
Hilton Hotels & Resorts
International LGBTQ+ Travel Association
Jet Set Tourism
Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
Preferred Hotels & Resorts
R Family Vacations