Finding a Niche in Gay Travel

AS RECENTLY AS APRIL, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts amended its policies to allow gay and lesbian couples to buy wedding packages at its resorts in Florida and California, as well as on Disney Cruise Line ships. The decision was an astute one, not just because it promotes tolerance, but also because the gay and lesbian community is emerging as one of the most profitable markets for members of the travel trade. A gay-friendly street festival in Provincetown, MA.

Last year in the United States, gays and lesbians represented a roughly $40 billion travel market, according to a study done by the Travel Industry Association of America, Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs Communications. Too, various surveys show that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community members take more trips, spend more on vacations and hold more passports then their heterosexual counterparts.

Proof of this is in the numbers. TIA's survey shows that on average, gay men individually spend $800 on a trip, with lesbians and bisexuals spending $570 and $690, respectively. Heterosexuals meanwhile, were the most conservative, spending only an average of $540 on vacation this past year.

"In terms of spending dollars, gay men outspend in every category," notes Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing firm that took part in the TIA study. The research was conducted in September 2006 with 2,020 self-identified GLBT travelers in the U.S. who were ages 21 and older had taken at least one leisure trip in the past year. Additionally, 1,010 heterosexual adult travelers in the U.S. were surveyed for comparison purposes. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts ammended its wedding package policies to include gay couples

"It's a very niche market and it's a very lucrative market, because in most cases you have two incomes," says Patrick Logue, a home-based travel agent who runs Lifestyle Travel Concepts in North Hollywood, CA. "There's more expendable income."

Given the potential payoff from marketing to this community, it's no surprise that some suppliers have invested dollars in order to grab their attention. A few phone calls show that such carriers as American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have divisions devoted to GLBT customers. Plus, in addition to the multitude of gay-specific cruise and tour operators, many in the mainstream say their tours are open to people from all walks of life.

Even so, surprisingly few agencies have carved a spot for themselves in this lucrative market. Many identify themselves as gay friendly, but most have yet to go beyond the simple display of a rainbow flag on a brochure or web site.

Breaking Into the Market

So how can agents access these lucrative travelers? As with any niche market, breaking in to this segment requires research and dogged promotion.

Jerry McHugh, senior research director with Community Marketing Inc., a gay market research and development lab, says the first thing an agent should do is join the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association ( Top Gay-Friendly Destinations in North America*

"That's really the only thing out there for travel agents that networks them with the community as a whole," he says.

Second, get involved in a local grassroots GLBT club, movement or chamber of commerce. Doing so will help you establish connections in the community and, as many interviewed for this article mentioned, word of mouth is important in this segment of travelers.

"Gay men in particular are very web savvy, but you can see that word of mouth still plays a key role," says Witeck. His research with TIA uncovered that personal experiences and GLBT media are the most trusted sources for endorsement of a trip; CMI's research shows similar results.

"It is hard at times to get the word out there," admits David Weiner, owner of Outbound Tours, a gay cruise and tour operator in Palm Springs, CA. "We advertise nationally with The Out Traveler and we do a certain amount of fundraising contributions, where we donate a cabin to a certain foundation. That's a good way to not only let people know about our product and what we're doing, but also that we're a member of the community."

This market is also more explorative than the mainstream segment. "We found that GLBTs are willing to make travel arrangements through a company they never heard of, more so than heterosexuals," says McHugh. "They're willing to take more risks, but they also do a lot of homework, so one of the challenges for an agent is coming off as knowing a destination well." Supporters deploy a section of a mile-and-a-quarter-long rainbow flag in Key West as part of a 2003 PrideFest celebration.

Research is Key

This is where extensive research comes in. An agent's worst nightmare is to sit with a client who knows more about a prospective destination than he does. If CMI's survey respondents are any indication, gay travelers could provide some tough competition. If you don't know where to begin, contact a tour operator or, better yet, make the trip yourself.

"I've traveled to a lot of places that I will take on and sell," Louge says of his methodology. "Also, a lot of the tourist offices—France and Spain are examples—promote and produce gay brochures."

Which begs the question of where the GLBT community is traveling to these days. Important to note is that "these travelers aren't looking for special treatment, they're looking for places that are gay friendly," Witeck says.

According to CMI's most recent survey in December 2006, the top U.S. destinations showing an increase of GLBT travelers this year include New York, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. CMI's report is based on 2,474 responses from self-identified GLBTs with household incomes of $100,000 or more.

Popular Experiences

McHugh says the Caribbean, once a popular hotspot for gay cruising, is waning. Weiner even says he sees interest in that popular mode of travel fading. "It's the most convenient, but that's starting to shift, as companies get into the land tour market."

Bus tours are not popular among gays, and they find that package trips are limiting, according to CMI's research.

Instead, gays are booking trips to exotic destinations like South America. "We're looking at increases in places like Chile and Venezuela—a general upswing in gay travel in that region," McHugh says.

Louge says Australia is popular in February and March, when Sydney puts on its gay Mardi Gras celebration.

Additionally, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain and Germany show the largest number of expected high-income GLBT visitors this year. In general, Europe has a strong reputation of welcoming the gay community. "European vendors and hotels, particularly in France, don't understand why we would have a company in this country that would specialize in gay travel, because in Europe it's not an issue," says Weiner. "They can travel quite freely and don't have to feel uncomfortable."

And with such clients, a destination's receptivity of the gay community is paramount. "The predominance of this atmosphere is not the norm," says Logue of Lifestyle Travel Concepts. "If I'm dealing with new products, I need to make sure that the sensitivity is there. Usually I tend to keep business exclusive to areas and tours that I'm familiar with." Average Spending of Travel Party

Again, this is where extensive research is necessary. Isolated incidents won't exactly cause cancellations, but agents need to know which areas have bad reputations before attempting to sell them.

"Negative things boil over very quickly," says McHugh. "An example of that is the Cayman Islands, which turned away a gay cruise ship in 1998. They've somewhat reversed that perception, but they're still suffering from it."

Jamaica, for example, would not be a good recommendation for a gay client, as it has had repeated gay-unfriendly incidents, including two murders of gay activists there in 2004 and 2005.

"Even when mainstream people travel to Jamaica, they stay behind the fences of a resort," says McHugh. "Gays aren't comfortable staying behind the fence. When they travel, they want to get out and explore. That's not something they can do there."

Concerns shouldn't always lie with just destinations, either. Just as important is ensuring the cruise or tour operator is gay friendly, too, as Weiner of Outbound Tours learned the hard way.

"Interestingly enough, we just recently had a situation with a German cruise company," he recounts. "We agreed on a price because we definitely wanted to do this ship, and about a month goes by and I didn't hear from them. I called our contact and she said, 'My president said we won't charter a gay cruise.'" Weiner says he was shocked at the response and is currently in talks with gay rights attorneys in Germany.

Perhaps the most important requirement of going after the gay market then, is having an open mind.

"In dealing with this market, you have to have a sensitivity to it," Logue says. "Gay-friendly operators and hotels do exist and there are resorts and cruises strictly for gays, but usually most regular travel agents don't know about them."

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