How to Sell LGBT Travel

LGBT Travel

Community Marketing &  Insights’ (CMI) 18th Annual LGBT Travel Survey, released this past November (and available at, indicates a 5 percent rise in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender leisure travel in 2013 over 2012. While the CMI report calls this a “modest increase,” it continues an upward trend over the last three years, following a recession-fueled downturn, and solidifies the LGBT market as one to be reckoned with—and tapped into.

Of particular interest to travel agents is the survey finding that more than 70 percent of LGBT travelers consider themselves to be a “planner” when arranging a vacation, with fewer than 15 percent saying they are “spontaneous” in their travel choices. Also, well over half say they “rarely travel to the same place twice.” With this in mind, Travel Agent reached out to some of the industry experts who have been ahead of the curve regarding LGBT travel to gain their perspective.

Trends in the Market

As far as trends for the LGBT market go, Tina Iglio, MLT Vacations' senior vice president of marketing, says soft adventure is on the upswing for international trips, while the recent influx of successfully passed same-sex marriage laws has made destination weddings the top domestic market.

Provincetown, MA, is one of many vacation spots that fly, sometimes literally, the LGBT flag.

Provincetown, MA, is one of many vacation spots that fly, sometimes literally, the LGBT flag.

“We fully expect to continue to see growth in soft adventure travel for LGBT vacationers, which is a big draw to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean,” she says. “Zip-lining, cave diving, scuba diving, jungle hiking and other exciting activities make these regions popular choices for LGBT travelers. We expect to continue to see opportunities for growth in Europe as travelers, particularly ‘millennials’ and ‘baby boomers,’ continue to look beyond western European capital cities for richer, more immersive vacation experiences.”

Within the United States, destination weddings are expected to flourish.

“With the legalization of same-sex marriages across the country, one of the big trends in 2014 will be LGBT destination weddings,” Iglio says. “The key to success for travel agents in this niche will be having the knowledge, the tools, and the resources of a trusted travel provider who offers a reliable LGBT vacations program.”

In fact, Delta Vacations, which is managed by MLT Vacations, offers LGBT couples destination wedding rebates. LGBT wedding couples can earn up to $50 for each family member or friend attending the event that uses the couple’s unique promotional code. The rebate amount couples receive can be up to the total cost of their own wedding package. The promotion is good at select resorts in Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean. The advice for couples planning destination weddings, particularly in Hawaii, is to work with a travel agent and book as early as possible.

“There is no doubt that LGBT travel is a growing market segment, and we want to make absolutely certain that our travel agent partners have the knowledge and resources they need to be confident that they are offering their LGBT clients the best vacation experiences possible at world-class hotels and resorts that actively welcome the LGBT community,” says Iglio.

And of the states that recently passed same-sex marriage laws in the United States, look no further than Hawaii and New York as perhaps the two most popular among gay and lesbian clients.

RELATED: Hawaii's Focus Turns to LGBT Market

In fact, an estimate from a University of Hawaii researcher says the law to allow same-sex marriage in Hawaii is expected to boost tourism there by $217 million over the next three years.

The study’s author has said Hawaii would benefit from pent-up demand for gay weddings, with couples spending $166 million over those three years on ceremonies and honeymoons.

“It is proven that LGBT consumers choose to spend their disposable income at destinations, where they are/feel accepted, recognized and respected,” Carlos Melia of First in Service Travel, an agency based in New York, told Travel Agent. “Hawaii has given a clear and loud ‘Aloha’ to the community, celebrating diversity and equal rights. I mean, Hawaii [already] had everything you would wish for to celebrate an ideal wedding, and now they have taken the step forward to make it official. ”

Tina Iglio, senior VP, MLT Vacations, expects growth in soft adventure travel for LGBT vacationers.

Tina Iglio, senior VP, MLT Vacations, expects growth in soft adventure travel for LGBT vacationers.

The state Senate passed a bill on November 12 legalizing gay marriage. It allows thousands of gay couples living in Hawaii and even more tourists to marry in the state.

Hawaii’s marriage laws allow couples to register for a license and be married the same day, a process conducive for tourists only in the state a short time. Couples can sign up for a license online, and then be verified by any license agent throughout the state. Agents have set up shop throughout the islands.

Gay-Friendly Destinations

Zachary Moses of HE Travel in Key West, FL, says the gay-friendliest places are the same as ever, with places such as San Francisco; Key West and Fort Lauderdale, FL; Provincetown, MA; Fire Island in Long Island, NY and New York City leading the list. Rhode Island has also been promoting itself to the LGBT community. There are some surprises, he says, like Tel Aviv, Israel, which has become very gay-friendly, while places like Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica seem to be fading.

“The Middle East is better for gay travel than you think; gay people look just like straight people, so they can go anywhere,” Moses says. “Unfortunately, when a gay person does something embarrassing, they blame the whole gay community. When a hetero person does something, they only blame that person. We don’t run trips to places that say they will kill you if you’re gay. But we do run tours to places like India where they are working hard to change the anti-gay laws.”

Perhaps the region that has the most potential but is still drastically behind in marketing to gay and lesbian clients is the Caribbean, and Richard Doumeng, president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, agrees.

“The gay and lesbian market is a market that found us,” he says. “They come here in numbers and are treated very well when they do come here and yet we are still not targeting them. The Caribbean is truly missing out on a significant segment that is popular year after year and has incredible disposable income and wants to travel.”

RELATED: CHTA President on LGBT Travel: "The World is Ahead of Us"

Zachary Moses, HE Travel: “The biggest issue with the gay market is that it’s very small...and now everyone wants a piece."

Zachary Moses, HE Travel: "The biggest issue with the gay market is that it’s very small...and now everyone wants a piece."

But aside from a relatively small number of properties located in destinations such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten/St. Martin and Curacao, Doumeng says the Caribbean is still not aggressively targeting this market. 

“I think the traditional Caribbean islands have perhaps let it be known that they don’t want the market and while that needs to be respected, I wish that it would change,” he says. “I hope someday, sooner than later, we as a region embrace marriage equality, because we are missing a golden opportunity for great business. More and more of the world is ahead of us. The agent community is ahead of us. The journalists are ahead of us. The economists are ahead of us. The courts are ahead of us. We just need to catch up.”

Same Niche, Different Markets

One of the major issues with the actual LGBT acronym is that it combines two entirely different markets, as the travel patterns between gay men and lesbians are drastically different.

Most of the LGBT experts we spoke to tend to agree that while it is not always the case, gays tend to spend more money than lesbians.

“They are two entirely different markets,” says Moses. “They are generally lumped together by heterosexual-minded companies who want to deal with us as one easy-to-market-to group. It doesn’t work that way. Gay people are just like straight people. Some like adventure, some like culture. Some like luxury, some like camping. It really has more to do with income. Two gay men with no children tend to have more money than two lesbian women with three kids. If you want to market to us, we need to know that you actually care about our needs. Pasting a rainbow flag in an ad is not enough.”

Another challenge, says Moses, is the size of the market. “The biggest issue with the gay market is that it’s very small,” he says. “It’s tiny, and now everyone wants a piece. It’s kind of like the gold rush in California. As soon as everyone knew there was gold, there was no longer enough gold to make a fortune. Gays have always been traveling; they aren’t actually a new market.”

Luxury Gay Travel Network

Travel Agent recently sat down with popular gay travel agent and blogger Carlos Melia, who told us about the new Luxury Gay Travel Network (LGTN) that he recently launched with hopes of creating a database of gay agents looking to network with each other and suppliers looking to tap into the market.

“I was going to all these shows throughout the year and saw that everyone was now doing gay travel, but general gay travel,” says Melia. “But no one is targeting the luxury market.” According to Melia, the LGTN is going to be an association based in New York that will gather the best gay travel agents and members of the press from the community.

RELATED: Carlos Melia Talks New Luxury Gay Travel Network (VIDEO)

“Let’s says you are the sales rep for the Four Seasons and you are coming from Thailand and they tell you to go and see all of the agencies and also target all the gay markets as well,” Melia says. “Well, they can walk into Tzell, into Protravel or Valerie Wilson, and have no clue who is gay and who is not. We are going to gather these people and have them online with their profiles and contact information for them. And once a month, I want to do a mixer or a cocktail or a fam trip or a press trip or a site inspection where hotels can contact them in one room.”

While membership for agents is free, they need to be either invited by Melia or referred by another member. Also, agents are expected to attend roughly 70 percent of all LGTN events or they will be asked to leave. Suppliers will be charged anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a year depending on whether they want Standard, Gold or Centurion level membership. Visit for the full breakdown of what each level of membership offers.

At the time of publication, Melia already had 10 suppliers on board, including Hotel Ritz Madrid by Orient Express and La Samana. He also had roughly 20 agents signed up already.

“I basically want to connect everyone,” he says. “I am becoming the person between the mainstream luxury services and these agents. If this works, my idea for the future would be to create something similar to Virtuoso or Signature for the gay world where hotels give extra amenities for the gay network.” Although the mixers and other events will be in New York, Melia says he is open to targeting members from around the world.

“What I can provide is the loyalty and the recognition that I have worldwide,” he says. “So, brands know that if they partner with me, I will be a good ambassador for them around the world.” 

Carlos Melia has launched the Luxury Gay Travel Network.

Carlos Melia has launched the Luxury Gay Travel Network.


Percent Taking at Least One Cruise in Past Year

Gay/Bisexual Men 16%

Lesbians/Bisexual Women 12%

25-44 Yrs. 11%

45-64 Yrs. 17%

Gay/Bisexual Men 16%

Top Six Cruise Lines for LGBTs Taking a Cruise

Carnival 23%

Royal Caribbean 19%

Holland America 15%

Norwegian 14%

Celebrity 13%

Princess 11%

SOURCE: Community Market & Insights (CMI) 18th Annual LGBT Travel Survey



                Gay/      Lesbians/             Age        Age

                Bisexual Men     Bisexual Women              25-44     45-64

 No. Trips             4              4              4              5

 No. RT Air Flights             3              2              3              3

 No. Hotel Nights              9              7              8              9

Source: Community Market & Insights (CMI) 18th Annual LGBT Travel Survey


 Hilton   36%

 Marriott              34%

 Kimpton              19%

 W Hotels             17%

 Hyatt    15%

* Participants were asked to write in from memory the three brands that did the best job outreaching to the LGBT community. Although some percentages changed, the top five brands are the same ones as in the previous year. Hilton remains the top brand chosen for the second year in a row.

Source: Community Market & Insights (CMI) 18th Annual LGBT Travel Survey

LGBT Spotlight: Mexico

SECTUR (Mexico’s tourism ministry) and the Mexico Tourism Board have announced that they will launch an LGBT campaign to attract the market to the country and its many gay-friendly destinations.

LGBT travelers will no doubt already be familiar with Puerto Vallarta. For more than 60 years this has been one of the top go-to destination for LGBT travelers. The Zona Romantica is where the majority of the city’s gay hotels are located. It’s close to the gay beach, gay bars and nightlife, restaurants and cafes.

Perhaps the best-known gay hotel in Puerto Vallarta is the 15-room/six-suite Casa Cupula. Originally opened as a safe haven for the LGBT community, Casa Cupula is one of the most progressive hotels in one of Puerto Vallarta’s trendiest neighborhoods. It also offers tours and activities for LGBT travelers, like Go Gay’s Jungle Zip line Adventure, a special guided tour of the city’s Botanical Gardens, and an Ada Sailboat Banderas Bay cruise.

Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife starts in the afternoon on the beach and keeps going until the wee hours. Some of the most popular LGBT clubs include Pace’s Ranch, La Niche, CC Slaughters and Enter on Weekends.

The city’s second annual “Vallarta Pride” celebration is set for May 22-26. Events include music festivals, beach parties, fashion shows, mass commitment ceremonies and activities in participating bars and clubs. The city will also host LGBT Confex’s fourth International LGBT Business Expo, June 12-14.

Mexico City, a huge draw for LGBT travelers, reflects its progressive mindset with actions designed to enhance equality for all members of sexually diverse communities. In 2010, same-sex marriage was made legal in Mexico City, a first for any Latin American jurisdiction. Legal adoption by same-sex couples was also enacted in 2010.

Puerto Vallarta has been one of the top go-to destinations for LGBT travelers for more than 60 years.

Puerto Vallarta has been one of the top go-to destinations for LGBT travelers for more than 60 years.

Mexico City’s Zona Rosa, birthplace of the country’s LGBT rights movement, is home to some of the best gay nightlife in the world. LGBT travelers will also love the architecture and history of the Centro Historic, the artsy enclaves in Condense and Roma, and the affluent lifestyle in Planck.

The most LGBT-friendly hotels in Mexico City can be found in the Zona Rosa. These include Hotel Geneve, which is over-the-top without being campy; Hotel JW Marriott, which positions itself as one of the city’s number one spots for same-sex marriage; Hilton Mexico City Reforma; and W Mexico City.

Riviera Maya also caters to LGBT travelers looking for an exclusive, VIP experience. Luxury LGBT travel advisor Carlos Melia recommends Aroma Spa here and dining at Zama’s Restaurant, which he calls “rustic chic.”

—Meagan Drillinger


LGBT Spotlight: Europe

Much of Europe is decidedly LGBT-friendly, and most destinations welcome all visitors. That said, some places are particularly popular with the gay and lesbian crowd. Dane Steele Green, president & CEO, Steele Luxury Travel, shared his insights on two notable spots for this market:

* Mykonos: In Greece, Mykonos has been a gay destination for many years. “Not only is it a premier LGBT destination, all types of travelers enjoy Mykonos,” Green said. “During the past four years, XLSIOR, a gay party, has transformed the last week in August as the ultimate party week in Mykonos offering gay travelers a [wide range] of events, beach parties and experiences to choose from. This is one destination that has seen a major influence and rise in LGBT travel, even though it has been considered to always be a gay destination on the map.”

Vienna is one of Europe’s most actively LGBT-friendly cities.

Vienna is one of Europe’s most actively LGBT-friendly cities.

* Vienna: Each year, Vienna’s City Hall hosts the annual Life Ball, a major black-tie fundraiser for AIDS research. Steele Luxury Travel is the exclusive tour operator that offers access to the Life Ball for North American guests, and while previous years have included the event as part of a package, the company is offering customized excursions this year. “We have access to Life Ball tickets at $450 per ticket...Guests are encouraged to dress to the theme, which is ‘A Garden of Earthly Delights,’ or they can dress in black-tie,” Green said. The tour operator will build an entire itinerary around the Life Ball to include flights, hotel reservations at The Ring Hotel, excursions, dinners and any other element the client wishes—including trips to other cities and countries. “Vienna is the center of Europe,” Green added. “Some people are flying in and out from Rome, and some people are flying to London. Austrian Airlines flies everywhere in the world, so it’s always easy to get to Vienna.”                              

—Jena Tesse Fox