Since the tragic events of 9/11 and the abrupt halt to travel that followed, about every 10 years, the tourism industry is knocked back on its heels.
The economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 was even worse for the travel industry. And the pandemic is a once-a-century calamity.
The travel industry has rebooted before, and it will bounce back again soon. And if history is any guide, LGBTQ travelers will be leading the way.
“Gays lead, and the rest follow," Roger Dow tells the National LGBT Media Association. Dow is president and CEO of U.S. Travel Association, the Washington, D.C.-based organization representing all segments of travel in America. "They’re adventurous and like new experiences. They have a penchant for travel far greater than their heterosexual counterparts. They travel more and spend more when they travel. They’re the darlings of the travel industry when it comes to spending and dollars.
Travel safety has long been a pillar in LGBTQ community
According to Randle Roper, co-founder and CEO of VACAYA Full-Ship and Full-Resort LGBT+ Vacations: "(Our) guests showed incredible resilience by traveling safely during the pandemic, and they proved they could adapt to live with health protocols that would keep each other and their loved ones back home safe."
Travel safety is entwined with the LGBTQ community. In 70+ countries, many popular with LGBTQ travelers, homosexuality is criminalized. That includes 11 countries in which death is the punishment meted out for those convicted of homosexuality and other “crimes” of sexual and gender nonconformity.
While travelers would be spared the harsh treatments locals may suffer, they nonetheless have a great deal to consider when traveling. Same-sex couples still receive awkward and uncomfortable service when checking into hotels with a single bed on the reservation or even simply existing in places where everyone’s assumed to be heterosexual.
When a lesbian boards a plane with her legally married wife and their legally adopted children, they could land in a destination where their marriage license is void and legal guardianship of their children in question.
Trans and nonbinary travelers, especially those of color, may encounter challenges including lack of safe bathroom access, awkward encounters at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints and even outright hostility and worse in any public setting.
In the face of all this, queer people still explore and have a lot to teach the rest of the world about how to travel with intent and joy while maintaining their own safety and that of the community around them.
"LGBTQ consumers have the power to make change and support LGBTQ-friendly companies and destinations by choosing to spend their travel dollars with those that support our community," says Jeff Guaracino, co-author of the "Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality." "As a community, we can support LGBTQ-owned and friendly businesses and their employees by spending our travel dollars with them first."
LGBTQ travel companies, agents report increased bookings
LGBTQ tour companies and travel agents have a direct connection to queer travelers and report strong interest in and bookings of travel.
"After (releasing) our entire tour schedule through the end of 2022, we saw our largest month of sales in our 12-year history," says Robert Sharp, co-founder and CEO of Out Adventures.
Kelli Carpenter, co-founder of R Family Vacations, adds: "Our highest sales have come from our river cruise products and international tour business, showing that travelers are ready to explore the world again."
VACAYA’s Roper has seen extremely robust sales over the past several months – including selling out their Antarctica Cruise. “With a starting price of around $25,000 per room, that was our best sign yet that our community members are ready to break free from their cages and return to travel,” he says.
Robert Geller, founder of FabStayz, agrees: "Pent-up demand is visible, palpable and quantifiable."
Tips for marketers interested in the LGBTQ segment
You don’t have to be in the community to market to us, but you should do your homework. Here are a few tips. You can find much more insight in the "Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality" (co-authored by this reporter).
Understand your opportunities and challenges and your brand’s strengths and weaknesses with this segment.
Prepare for a sustained effort and financial investment.
Hire an expert; don’t burden an LGBTQ colleague.
Understand the needs, behaviors and concerns of this segment and avoid saying “everyone is welcome” until you know that that’s true.
Apply marketing basics: Market the right product for the right segment at the right time.
Develop tailored content/social, communications strategies.
Don’t go it alone: Work with LGBTQ business leaders and employee resource groups.
Get buy-in from the C-suite on down.
Advertise support of employees and the community during Pride in local LGBTQ publications (and support the media you want to cover your business), but focus most of your marketing the other 364 days of the year.
What to expect when you’re expecting a queer crowd
LGBTQ visitors and guests want the same thing as everyone else: a safe and fun visit. You have to know the challenges confronting LGBTQ travelers in order to treat them with the same excellent welcome you accord all. Follow this guidance from Billy Kolber, founder of HospitableMe, which helps organizations with strategy and actionable training that drive equity and inclusion. The most successful organizations embrace these practices:
Focus on community first, profit second. Activities that start with a profit motive often backfire. Ask yourself, “How can we make our product or experience better for diverse customers and support their needs and their community?”
Educate your people. You can’t provide authentic, personalized service if your team doesn’t understand who LGBTQ people are and feel comfortable engaging with them.
Drive diversity in your own organization. Having diverse voices in the rooms where decisions are made is the only way to effect durable change. Ask why they’re not in those rooms, and what you can do to help get them there.
New York City-based Ed Salvato is a freelance travel writer, instructor at New York University and the University of Texas at Austin’s NYC Center, and an LGBTQ tourism marketing consultant.
The National LGBT Media Association is composed of the oldest and most established LGBTQ publications in the top U.S. markets.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY Handout: Gay, LGBTQ travelers leading way to tourism recovery from COVID-19