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Chasing the rainbow: the tourism industry is becoming more inclusive

The LGBTQ travel sector has been growing since the 1970s. Industry players can stand to gain from becoming more inclusive, but the social implications of such a shift are even more critical

LGBTQ individuals are increasingly being met with acceptance across the globe, making being ‘out’ easier – and safer – than ever before
LGBTQ individuals are increasingly being met with acceptance across the globe, making being ‘out’ easier – and safer – than ever before 

To be lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or queer (LGBTQ) isn’t merely about sexual preference – it plays an integral role in one’s self-identification. It doesn’t simply switch on and off depending on where you are or whom you’re with, though this ‘closeting’ or ‘passing’ does still occur.

Fortunately, LGBTQ individuals are increasingly being met with acceptance across the globe, making being ‘out’ easier – and safer – than ever before. While homophobia and ignorance still exist, never in modern history have LGBTQ people been as visible as they are today. This is evidenced by the group’s increasingly powerful voice in the media, as well as the growing number of countries that have legalised same-sex marriage. Starting with the Netherlands in 2001, today gay marriage is legal in 27 countries.

In line with this change is an uptick in the LGBTQ travel market, which, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), “refers to the development and marketing of tourism products and services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people”. While LGBTQ-friendly travel has been around for some time, it is now growing and broadening its offerings, with more industry players developing their marketing strategies to target the LGBTQ segment specifically.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not just social equality that drives these companies to offer more inclusive services – it’s also the ‘pink dollar’, the name given to money spent by members of the LGBTQ community.

According to research by Out Now Consulting, LGBTQ residents of the US spent $63.1bn on travel in 2018, representing a 1.9 percent average annual growth rate. In Brazil, the total spend was $26.8bn, while the UK’s LGBTQ community spent $11.7bn last year. These figures are set to grow further: according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), LGBTQ travel is one of the fastest-growing markets in the worldwide travel industry.

From Mykonos, with love
LGBTQ travel arguably landed in 1973 when the first gay-only tour of the Grand Canyon was offered by US-based company He Travel. The segment grew during the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of gay resorts. One example is Fort Lauderdale’s Marlin Beach Hotel, which was advertised as ‘America’s premier gay resort’ in a trailblazing campaign in national gay magazines. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Greek island of Mykonos became a firm favourite with the gay community, known for its liberal attitudes, wild parties and celebrity clientele.

Another pivotal moment came in 1983 when the IGLTA (then called the IGTA) was created. Among its influential founding members was Kevin Mossier, who created the first gay cruise company, RSVP Vacations. Since then, the industry has only continued to grow.

“Fortunately, in recent years many countries have taken effective measures to combat discrimination,” said Juan Juliá, founder and president of Axel Hotels, the world’s first chain of hotels designed with LGBTQ guests in mind. “These include removing criminal sanctions for consensual same-sex conduct, legal prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, [and the] legal recognition of the gender identity of transgender persons without abusive requirements”.

Simply adding a rainbow flag to a reception desk might look good, but it is by no means the only effort needed to capture this burgeoning market

Jeff Guaracino, co-author of Gay and Lesbian Tourism: The Essential Guide for Marketing and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, explained how such legal changes have affected the travel market: “Focusing on Europe, most of North America [and] some countries in [Asia], you are seeing more and more people who are out travellers, people who are coming out of the closet and either getting married, serving openly in the military, or also showing up to Pride events.”

What’s more, with same-sex marriage now more widely available, there has been a surge in wedding-related travel. With couples having waited years, or even decades, to tie the knot, the past three years have seen a flurry in destination weddings and honeymoons in particular.

Guaracino added: “Part of it is generational… Millennials tend to be more out anyway.” Sadly, he noted, this is not true of all countries, with many places around the world still repressing LGBTQ rights, and in some cases persecuting members of the community.

Power of the pink dollar
As stated in the UNWTO’s Second Global Report on LGBT Tourism, “[LGBTQ] travellers have become recognised as a segment that travels with greater frequency and demonstrates higher-than-average patterns of spending”. Various studies, including one by the Southern Economic Journal, give weight to the argument, showing that lesbian women and gay men often out-earn their straight peers.

In correlation with this trend, greater visibility of LGBTQ consumers makes them easier to identify as a customer segment, the UNWTO’s report explains. As such, more products are designed specifically with LGBTQ travellers in mind, such as honeymoons for same-sex couples or tours for groups of lesbian women or gay men. Meanwhile, a growing number of destinations and service providers worldwide are now diversifying their offerings to better welcome LGBTQ consumers.

When asked what advice he offers to hotels reaching out to the market, Guaracino said: “I always think it’s a really good first step to continue to evaluate how the property… treats [its] own LGBTQ employees: are they supported? Are they trained? Are they treated [as] equally as other members of the community?” A self-audit can assess these aspects and ensure that the venue offers an inclusive environment.

Then there is educating desk and concierge staff about local LGBTQ neighbourhoods and businesses – particularly shops, bars and restaurants. “Just having that information readily available sounds very basic, but ensuring [it’s] there is also a good sign,” he told Business Destinations.

Guaracino also recommends targeted marketing during peak and off-peak periods, which will help put “heads in beds” all year round, as research shows that LGBTQ travellers tend to travel during low seasons. Hotels that have information on their website about local events, as well as advice on the relevant legislation and cultural attitudes in the area, are more likely to attract LGBTQ customers.

Engaging with community-run enterprises can provide hotels with invaluable insight, as well as precious authenticity

Simply adding a rainbow flag to a reception desk might look good, but it is by no means the only effort needed to capture this burgeoning market – it takes a far more inclusive, all-encompassing approach. For example, when asked how his hotels welcome LGBTQ guests, Juliá said: “The Axel Hotels chain is known for promoting connections between guests who stay at our hotels and the local community in each destination. It’s not just a question of sightseeing or visiting, but also a question of living and feeling. In that regard, we act as hosts of the city and we propose attending events, parties and activities that best favour the scene and the interaction between the LGBTQ community.”

Let’s get digital
Technological developments have gone a long way towards making travel easy, safe and enjoyable for the LGBTQ community. Guaracino told Business Destinations: “Through connectivity with the internet and through apps, you can connect people worldwide who share a similar history, culture or orientation.”

Advertising has evolved in line with a more digitally focused world, “following where gay travellers are, which is increasingly online”, Guaracino added. Though print is still effective for destination branding, we’re seeing more online travel magazines, such as ManAboutWorld, which can only be read on an iPad or smartphone, or travel site Spartacus, which offers an abundance of travel information for the gay community.

Reviews from every type of traveller and from every corner of the planet are also a boon for LGBTQ consumers. Instead of relying on PR promises and carefully crafted marketing spins, consumers can gain genuine insight into a hotel, airline or tour operator, and gauge just how welcoming they really are. This is key, particularly as safety remains a top concern for LGBTQ travellers.

According to a 2017 survey by the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, more than half of LGBTQ people have been subjected to offensive comments or abuse as a result of their sexuality. Growing up with a different sexual or gender identity from their peers can incite negative reactions ranging from slurs to violence; for some, it continues through to adulthood.

“For this reason, those places or businesses [that] celebrate diversity and make an extra effort to demonstrate that all are welcome are frequently rewarded with the loyalty of [LGBTQ] customers,” according to the UNWTO report. A 2011 study by Harris Interactive found that in 2007, 66 percent of LGBTQ adults were “likely to remain loyal to a brand they believe to be very friendly and supportive to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community”, even when others offered lower prices or were more convenient. In 2011, the number had risen to 71 percent; this support of LGBTQ-friendly brands is likely to increase in the coming years.

Some hotel brands are now going the extra mile to make LGBTQ people feel more welcome, with Hilton, Carlton, Marriott and Wynn being good examples. Ranging from promoting LGBTQ-owned businesses to supporting local events, these brands show that being connected to LGBTQ communities is key. Engaging with community-run enterprises can provide hotels with invaluable insight, as well as precious authenticity.

Big-ticket events
At the heart of the LGBTQ events segment is Pride, an annual international celebration of the LGBTQ community that takes place in cities across the globe. “It is a proven destination event,” Guaracino noted, explaining that the event’s appeal lies in meeting other LGBTQ people from the area and around the world, in addition to knowing the entertainment will be of a very high calibre. Pride’s appeal goes much deeper, too. “Pride events can serve… a very important role in introducing a part of a destination that people might not have known,” said Guaracino.

He cites Manchester in the UK as a city that has used its 10-day Pride festival to demonstrate what a modern, gay-friendly city it is. With Pride, Manchester has emerged from London’s overwhelming shadow as a popular LGBTQ destination in the UK.

“Gay Pride events also are a nice introduction to the LGBTQ travel market – so, for example, Louisville, Kentucky in the US, or other smaller destinations… [It] gives a signal to people that there is a local community… that’s well supported and something that might be of interest,” Guaracino told Business Destinations.

The Gay Games, first held in San Francisco in 1982, is another massive LGBTQ event that draws in crowds from around the globe. The next instalment will take place in Hong Kong in 2022, the first time an Asian destination has hosted the world’s biggest sporting event led by LGBTQ athletes. As such, it will act as an important signal to the market, promoting Hong Kong as a gay-friendly travel destination and bringing in new visitors from across the world.

Another example is Sitges in Spain, a town that has built a very strong LGBTQ following that reaches far beyond Europe. An hour outside of Barcelona by train, Sitges runs themed events targeted at the gay community. These week-long events help the town extend its busy seasons, while also allowing this otherwise unknown destination to take a leading position in the LGBTQ travel market.

All together now
While there are certain actions that companies can take to welcome LGBTQ consumers, it is likewise vital to remember that the LGBTQ community is not a homogenous group and therefore each individual will not have the same preferences. For example, one person may identify as LGBTQ when travelling, while others may choose to pass as straight or cisgender, particularly if they are visiting countries that have anti-gay laws in place.

Many choose not to visit them at all, in protest and solidarity with LGBTQ individuals living in those locations. For some, engaging with the local LGBTQ community is a key part of their trip, while others prefer activities that are unique to the area they are visiting.

Bearing this diversity in mind while creating marketing campaigns is crucial. It’s also important to note that Millennials tend to be more open about their sexuality and that they expect the same from travel providers. As such, they are more likely to prefer mainstream advertising campaigns, as opposed to marketing offshoots that treat them as a separate group.

For example, if a website contains information about weddings, alternating images between heterosexual and homosexual couples getting married at the property can have a significant impact on potential LGBTQ guests. Guaracino also recommends rotating through key events and local attractions and “including if there is a well-defined ‘gaybourhood’ – San Francisco’s Castro [District], for example”. He added: “I think that more inclusive words and pictures in the overall website, especially through imagery… would be more current and more effective.”

LGBTQ families are another growing segment that would benefit from more inclusive marketing. While it has long been assumed that LGBTQ people do not tend to have children (which is credited as one of the reasons their spending power is often higher than average), we are now seeing a marked shift in this incorrect perception. As a result, LGBTQ family travel has become a fast-growing segment in the market.

Gregg Kaminsky and Kelli Carpenter put LGBTQ family travel on the map when they launched R Family Vacations, the world’s first LGBTQ family-orientated cruise company, in 2004. “They really… highlighted the issue, not only of same-sex marriage between women but also family travel,” said Guaracino. “That issue… came to the forefront in people’s minds who never really thought about gay couples having families as a viable market segment.”

LGBTQ tourism isn’t just growing at an incredible pace – it’s expanding outwards, too. There are now more options available to LGBTQ travellers than ever before. This is key for several reasons, as Juliá told Business Destinations: “This segment can be a powerful vehicle for economic development, social inclusion and the competitiveness of tourism destinations.”

Industry players have a lot to gain by catering to the LGBTQ community. Aside from the economic advantages of the pink dollar, creating a more inclusive tourism sector has broader social benefits. Mark Twain famously said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” With LGBTQ individuals finding greater acceptance across the globe, the community is becoming more visible than ever. LGBTQ tourism isn’t just a growing sub-sector of the vast travel industry; it’s a huge leap in the progression of cultural attitudes worldwide.

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