New York City is hosting WorldPride next month, an international celebration timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which marked the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. The city is expecting three million visitors to join the festivities. That’s an astonishing number for those of us in the industry who remember when “gay travel” was just an oft-ignored niche. Today, the annual value of total spending by LGBT travelers is estimated to be north of $200 billion, according to Out Now Consulting.
That purchasing power is set to grow even higher. A 2018 study by Kantar Consulting and Hornet showed that while 8% of baby boomers identify as LGBTQI+, a whopping 31% of Centennials, aka Generation Z, locate themselves somewhere along that spectrum. (The QI+ part is meant to include those who are queer, questioning, intersex, or any other way that people express their sexual or gender identity.)
Of course, those travelers are no longer just going on gay cruises or to “gay-friendly” destinations like Palm Springs or Mykonos. As acceptance grows globally, LGBT travelers expect to feel welcome everywhere—and the market is not just affluent white gay men but an extraordinary diverse, multiracial community that includes men, women, transgender people, and families with kids. Hotels, cruise lines, tour operators, and destination marketers need to understand how to market and deliver their products to this valuable population. But the LGBT travel experts I’ve spoken to feel that despite its strides, the industry still has a lot to learn.
That includes the luxury segment. “The more I talked to people in the luxury business about marketing to gay travelers, the more I realized how nervous everyone was to talk about it. They’re afraid to make a mistake,” says Simon Mayle of Reed Exhibitions, who is organizing Proud Experiences, a three-day event this June in New York. The ILTM offshoot will bring together as many as 350 suppliers and buyers—more than 50% more than last year’s inaugural event in London. “The whole purpose of Proud Experiences is to show that it’s okay to talk about this, to have an opinion.”
“People in our industry are generally empathetic and caring,” says Billy Kolber, cofounder of LGBT strategy consultants Hospitable Me. “But most of them have never had a professional conversation about queer people. So they retreat.” His firm provides training, marketing, and strategic advice on engaging with the LGBT market to companies including Marriott, Trafalgar Tours, NYC & Company, and Discover Puerto Rico. He shows them how to adapt employee training, service manuals, even language to the market’s varied needs. “You can’t provide good service unless you understand and feel comfortable with who we are,” says Kolber.
Service is a key opportunity for improvement. ”The bar is pretty low, but luxury hotels are constantly tripping over it,” says Kolber, who mentions a hotel that sent a bottle of Champagne to his room addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Kolber.” “Either you have no idea who I am—ironic because you supposedly sent it to me because of who I am—or you paid zero attention when I walked through the door.”
When a hotel gets the details right, on the other hand, the gesture goes a long way. Mayle tells an anecdote about the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas in Iguazu Falls, Brazil. When the hotel noticed he was traveling with his same-sex partner, housekeeping switched out the flip-flops in his room to two men’s pairs. Now he’s disappointed when that doesn’t happen. “Luxury today is all about micro-personalized experiences. But if you can’t get something as simple as a room amenity right, is that really providing value for the money?”
For travel advisors, providing personalized service means understanding what their LGBT clients really want. “Don’t just follow stereotypes but ask the deeper questions,” says T+L A List travel advisor John Clifford, founder of International Travel Management in San Diego, who estimates that a quarter of his clients are LGBT. “Don’t assume they want a list of all the gay bars in the destination. Are they foodies? Do they enjoy good wine? Are they active or looking for seclusion? Understand what luxury means to this person.” He also recommends reaching out to hotels in advance to let them know he’s booked an LGBT client—but doing so judiciously. “Some people want to be singled out like that, but others just want to be taken care of, period.”
“There’s a misconception that you have to treat everyone the same,” says Kolber’s Hospitable Me cofounder Ed Salvato. “But the same isn’t always equal.” He points to the use of “gendered” language and actions—like addressing a group as “Ladies and Gentlemen”—that might exclude individuals who consider themselves something other than male or female. Notably, United Airlines recently began allowing customers to select Undisclosed or Unspecified for their gender and the neutral “Mx.” for their preferred title. ”
Another critical factor is ensuring that your internal values reflect what you’re saying and doing externally. “To successfully engage with the community, you have to treat your LGBT employees with equal respect,” says Bob Witeck, a strategic communications advisor to several major brands, including American Airlines, Carnival, and Marriott—which he considers an early leader in this regard. The hotel company has been offering domestic partner benefits to employees since 1999, and CEO Arne Sorenson speaks frequently on LGBT rights. That kind of visibility matters to more than just employees and guests. “For many consumers, especially millennials, it’s important that the brands they support align with the values they believe in—whether they’re LGBT or not,” says Kolber.
That situation is playing out in a very different way at Dorchester Collection, which is currently the target of a high-profile boycott because its owner, the Sultan of Brunei, recently instituted laws in his home country that punish homosexuality with death by stoning. The boycott first caught on with celebrities on social media and has spread to the corporate world, with JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and others pulling their business. The Dorchester Collection declined to comment for this article, pointing to a statement on its website that affirms its support for equality, diversity and inclusion, stating in part, “Our values are far removed from the politics of ownership.”
Of course, Dorchester is hardly the only luxury hotel group whose owners are connected to a government with a troubling record on LGBT rights. Is it fair to single them out when, for example, Saudi princes own the George V in Paris and large stakes in Four Seasons and Accor—not to mention Lyft? Abu Dhabi’s Mudabala owns half of Viceroy Hotels, and Qatari interests own New York’s Plaza Hotel and London’s Grosvenor House. In all of those places, homosexuality is considered a crime—sometimes a capital crime. Arguably they are moving in a more tolerant direction, but the point is that anti-LGBT laws aren’t limited to Brunei. “Frankly, I’m far more disturbed by the homophobic new president of Brazil than I am by the Sultan’s actions,” says Mayle, who lives in São Paulo.
It’s unclear how the Dorchester situation will play out. I spoke to Kevin Dallas, CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, about how he handled that country’s boycott in 2018, when the government overturned a court ruling that had allowed same-sex marriage. As with Dorchester, many boycott supporters depicted Bermuda as broadly homophobic, even though it was still allowing gay civil unions—that is, more rights than in the United Kingdom and light years more tolerant than most Caribbean islands. (After four months, the ruling was reinstated and the boycott lifted). “We focused on the larger message—that 20 years of incredible progress on LGBT rights was being overshadowed by the latest court battle,” says Dallas.
He gives credit to Carnival Corporation, the island’s third largest cruise caller, for taking on the fight directly in court. In the meantime, the BTA engaged with groups like IGLTA and took the time to respond individually to consumers who expressed their concerns. “Our overall takeaway is that you need to be present in the debate, to calmly and reasonably tell your story. That’s predominantly an offline activity. You’re not going to win a Twitter war.”
The actions of a government or ownership group may be beyond a company’s control. But it can still do its best to ensure its brand promise is aligned with the LGBT community’s diverse needs, and that it’s delivering on that promise. “I’m thrilled to see hotel groups with properties in the Middle East or the Maldives coming to Proud Experiences,” says Mayle. “Overall I’m seeing great interest in developing that market, and a real emotional connection.”
Here are a few key points to remember when engaging with and serving the LGBT travel community:
- If you’re talking the talk, walk the walk. “You can’t just do your LGBT marketing during Pride Month,” says Witeck. “Remember that gay people make travel decisions the other 11 months of the year. If you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons and not just pandering, you’ll attract people who have similar values.”
- Be sure your “inclusivity” is really inclusive. Witeck points out that the LGBT community is multiracial, something that’s often not reflected in brand image campaigns. “Leaving out people of different backgrounds is a broken message,” he says. “And you don’t have to be gay or black to appreciate that a company is accepting and welcoming.”
- The kids stay in the picture. The Venn diagram between LGBT travelers and family travelers reveals a lot of overlap. More gay couples are having kids, and multigenerational groups are more and more likely to include LGBT members. Kids these days are much less rigid about gender, too. “I know a family with twin 11-year-olds, and the boy is now identifying as a girl, even changing her name,” says Mayle, who stresses the importance of travel advisors who understand their clients’ specific personal needs
What about you? Have you recently begun a marketing campaign or internal initiative to address the LGBT market? Do you have questions or concerns about how to do it? What are your thoughts on the Dorchester controversy? Let’s keep the conversation going!