Open hearts and open minds

Open hearts and open minds

There can’t be many same-sex couples who haven’t had unsettling experiences of one kind or another when they travel. Whether it’s the conundrum of twin or king-size beds, rooms stocked with his-n-hers amenities or even just a surprised response to guests not conforming to Mr and Mrs, the vast majority can recount situations that have either amused or insulted.

While most LGBT+ people – that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other non-mainstream orientations – take such situations in their stride and accept that, by and large, they are not ill-intentioned, these things do still occur, yet they could so easily be avoided.

The importance of welcoming LGBT+ guests with open arms is not only good manners, it’s good for business, too. Data compiled by LGBT Capital estimated a global LGBT+ population of 483 million in 2016, with a combined annual purchasing power of $5.4 trillion. What’s more, research from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation has identified that LGBT+ people holiday more frequently and display higher spending patterns than their heteronormative counterparts. As a result, destinations, tour operators and other travel providers should be falling over themselves to target and serve this demographic.

Many do, but such targeting needs to be authentic or risk being perceived as nothing more than a box-ticking, ‘pink-washing’ exercise. For example, LGBT+ travellers will unsurprisingly think twice about visiting destinations or operations that do not serve their needs, or where their orientation or gender identity might not be warmly received.

A recent survey by Gay Star News (conducted in partnership with TTG) found that 90% of the 2,000 respondents identified personal safety as a key consideration when holiday planning. As a result, countries such as Russia, Nigeria and Uganda rarely feature on LGBT+ travellers’ bucket lists on account of their discriminatory, anti-LGBT policies.

Conversely, destinations offering landmark LGBT+ celebrations with international cachet (such as Sydney Mardi Gras or Madrid Pride) feature prominently with this sector. But that’s not to say everyone’s ideal holiday need incorporate an ‘out and proud’ element.

What motivates a group of partygoers, for example, probably won’t meet the needs of an LGBT+ family with kids. Furthermore, those living in societies with stronger equal rights often feel less need to be pigeonholed as LGBT+. Equally, those in countries where acceptance of sexual countercultures is a much more nascent phenomenon (such as China) are likely to make more profoundly LGBT+ travel choices.

The good news about all this for the industry is that LGBT+ people are more likely to seek reassurance from the trade when considering their holiday options. Knowing how to handle such enquiries is essential if travellers are to be reassured they will be welcomed. Similarly, agents and operators need to communicate effectively with LGBT+ audiences and identify which of their products and operations best serve the varying needs of this market. Brochures filled with images of binary couples do not speak to LGBT+ travellers. Diversity – be that along the lines of sexual orientation, age or race – is essential if marketing messages are to make an impact.

Above all, tourism providers and marketers need to recognise that, as with any sector, a one-size-fits-all strategy does not suffice. The term ‘LGBT+’ itself suggests a multifaceted collection of subcultures, interests and tastes, with each niche very often having niches of its own. But at the end of the day, what matters most to LGBT+ travellers is the ability to holiday in a safe and inclusive environment where they can simply be themselves. Is that really a lot to ask?

Destinations in demand

The TTG/Gay Star News survey revealed five countries that readers were keenest to visit: Spain, France, Italy, the US and Canada. Other high-polling destinations included Sweden, Greece and Malta (where equal marriage was recently legalised).

A big driver for these countries is their authenticity and open, inclusive societies that celebrate their LGBT+ residents and gladly welcome visitors. Cities with thriving LGBT+ scenes (such as Cape Town, London and New York) and big, annual Pride events (Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Madrid) have inherent, word-of-mouth appeal that trumps any marketing campaign, as does Palma de Mallorca for its International Lesbian Film  Festival, Hamburg for its LGBT+ Christmas Market, and Mykonos,  Ibiza and Barcelona for their beach  and party life.

The US also attracts partygoers to its legendary circuit scene (highlights include Winter Party in Miami and Memorial Weekend in Pensacola, Florida) and its anything-goes, LGBT-friendly resorts such as Key West and Provincetown. US destinations vigorously market their LGBT+ offerings (see page 34), while Thailand recently hosted the very first LGBT+ Travel Symposium, highlighting the appetite from Thai tourism businesses in courting the LGBT+ community.

Meanwhile, organisations such as IGLTA (International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association) continue to unite tourism businesses in promoting safety and equality for LGBT+ travellers. “We are committed to advancing LGBT+ travel globally,” says IGLTA president/chief executive officer John Tanzella, “which we do by providing resources to travellers and by educating the tourism industry on the social  and economic benefits of making LGBT+ travellers  feel welcome.”

Such a message is important when considering that homosexuality is illegal in more than 70 nations (as it was in the UK until 1967). Resorts in the Maldives market themselves for LGBT+ honeymoons, yet homosexuality among local Maldivians is punishable by death, while homophobic cultures in parts of the Caribbean often leave local LGBT+ people too afraid to ‘come out’. But attitudes evolve over time, and tourism can play a part.

In 2004, for example, Sandals Resorts took the ground-breaking step of refining its couples-only policy to extend to same-sex bookings. Since then the pace of change has quickened: Trinidad & Tobago recently decriminalised homosexuality, hotels  in Barbados (where it remains illegal)  are embracing inclusivity through the Pink Coconuts initiative and even Jamaica – one of the region’s most aggressively anti-LGBT+ nations –  now stages an annual Pride that hopes to draw international visitors and encourage tolerance and acceptance  for LGBT+ Jamaicans.

Which companies best serve LGBT+ clients?

In the old days of LGBT+ travel, the handful of specialist tour operators would send out brochures in unmarked envelopes to avoid the embarrassment of outing their clients to the postman. Happily (in the UK at least) being LGBT+ has lost much of its stigma, causing demand for sector-specific tour operators to diminish. At the same time, mainstream companies have identified the value of embracing LGBT+ travellers, taking steps to accommodate them with policies, products and events.

One sector where this is particularly evident is the cruise industry. As well as all-LGBT charters from such specialist companies as Atlantis Events and Olivia Lesbian Travel, luxury lines such as Crystal, Cunard and Viking attract a strong LGBT+ following, while Royal Caribbean and Celebrity offer same-sex nuptials at sea. Emerald Waterways also has a focus on the market; its website highlights river cruise itineraries featuring cities with LGBT+ appeal.

As for tour operators, Kuoni has installed a team of reservations specialists fully trained in meeting LGBT+ travellers’ needs. Similarly, Thomas Cook agents are trained on which destinations best suit these clients, including a focus on overseas same-sex weddings. The company took its message of support to the streets this summer by sponsoring Manchester Pride and recognised regional Pride events by erecting themed window displays in 14 stores.

LGBT+ weddings are also a focus for UK-based Greece specialist Olympic Holidays, which has included a section on same-sex ceremonies in its 2019 Weddings, Honeymoons & Renewal of Vows brochure. “The team here understands this sector intricately,” says head of marketing, Carl Catterall. “We are focusing on weddings in Zakynthos, Santorini and Crete, and our island-hopping programme is a hit for its mix of detox and retox.”

Understanding LGBT+ travellers’ considerations is essential, says Emma Schofield, marketing manager at Jacada Travel. “Clients expect to be treated equally, with no special considerations,” she says. “Homosexuality is illegal in certain African countries, so our safari clients are reassured by knowing we have done the groundwork to ensure they will be comfortable and welcomed wherever they travel.”

Maggi Smit, managing director of Windows on the Wild, agrees:  “We remind every client to respect cultural sensitivities, and send lots of LGBT+ passengers on African safaris without issue.”

Case study: LGBT+ marketing in the USA

The 1969 Stonewall Riots are recognised as a catalyst of America’s gay rights movement, so it’s fitting that New York (the city in which they took place) is hosting World Pride and the Proud Experiences Travel Symposium in 2019 – the Riots’ 50th anniversary year. World Pride alone is expected to draw around three million people during its two-month programme. The destination keeps things fresh with new product such as a Drag Show + Booze Bus tour of Manhattan.

Over in Los Angeles, around 16% of overnight visitors are LGBT+, accounting for $1.6 billion in annual travel spend. Says Don Skeoch, chief marketing officer of LA Tourism: “We are committed to elevating our efforts to grow this important segment and promote LA as one of the most LGBT-friendly destinations in the world.” The city incorporates LGBT+ messaging into its mainstream marketing such as the recent ‘Everyone is Welcome’ campaign, and also maintains customised information on its microsite.

Of all the American CVBs, Fort Lauderdale is perhaps the most committed to LGBT+ marketing. It’s the only one with a department dedicated to developing visitation from this segment and sparked headlines last year with its mainstream advertising campaign fronted by transgender models. The city also stages the unique Southern Comfort Transgender Conference and operates an LGBT+ Visitor Centre in the ‘gaybourhood’ of Wilton Manors, the region’s LGBT+ hub.

But perhaps the most inventive destination in this sector is Provincetown, the famously LGBT-friendly resort at the tip of Cape Cod. Tourism chiefs have identified scores of niches within the LGBT+ sphere and market special events for each demographic throughout the season, such as Single Women’s Weekend, Women of Color, Mates Leather Weekend and Family Week. The overriding message from Anthony Fuccillo, Provincetown’s director of tourism is:

“There’s something for every LGBT+ person in Ptown!”

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