Gay tourism: Pursuit of the ‘Pink Dollar’ accelerates

07/05/2014 12:00 AM

07/05/2014 4:54 PM

In the 1970s, gay tours took men rafting in the Grand Canyon and to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival. Gay hotels began opening in Key West, and destinations like Provincetown, Massachusetts, were creating some of the first marketing to gay and lesbian travelers.

Today, there are tours spanning the globe, not only for gay men but also for lesbian, bisexual and transgender travelers and their children. Major hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott have dedicated LGBT microsites and vacation packages. And same-sex marriage laws are transforming cities into travel destinations, with tourism boards and hotels sponsoring LGBT events and funding advertising campaigns with taglines like Las Vegas’ “Everyone’s welcome. Even straight people.”

Most of these changes have come in the aftermath of the recession — when hospitality brands began ramping up ways to lure a niche market that studies said prioritized travel and spent accordingly — and when more and more states are legalizing same-sex marriage.

“Having gay marriage passed in so many states has made a big difference,” said Robert Adams, editorial director of Passport magazine, which has an audience of mostly affluent gay male travelers. “People feel they can go someplace and be themselves.”

The number of places where LGBT travelers can be themselves has grown exponentially from the pre-Stonewall refuges. Sure, there are plenty of cruises and tours that specifically cater to gay travelers. But the gay vacation that once existed out of necessity is now often simply a vacation — be it a routine family getaway, a destination wedding or a romantic weekend.

Major cities including Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington continue to be among the most popular vacation spots, according to Community Marketing & Insights in San Francisco, which has been tracking LGBT travel trends for 20 years. However, medium-size cities — like St. Louis, Rochester and, in Florida, St. Petersburg — are emerging as regional destinations.

Countries in Latin America, such as Argentina and Uruguay, are opening up, thanks to new gay-rights laws. Even the Caribbean — where there has been violence against gay people in places like St. Lucia and Jamaica — is garnering LGBT tourists because of islands like Saba, a municipality of the Netherlands, which began implementing Dutch same-sex marriage laws in 2012.

“It used to be the San Franciscos, the Miamis, New York,” said John Tanzella, the president and chief executive of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. “Now you’re seeing competition from all-size destinations and hotel groups wanting a piece of the pie. LGBT travelers have more options now than just the big urban centers.”

Certainly, to define any traveler by his or her sexuality is to view that person through a narrow lens. Countless factors shape travel interests, including, but hardly limited to, age, gender, race, socioeconomic status and, of course, personal taste. Some crave adventure; others long to be pampered. There are those seeking a party and those seeking a respite. Plenty of gay and lesbian travelers want to participate in LGBT-related activities; many do not.

Yet the quest for the so-called “pink dollar” has accelerated — pleasing some industry veterans and putting off others — amid reports about how potentially lucrative gay travel is and could be.

Just how lucrative is difficult to quantify. Community Marketing has estimated that the annual economic impact of LGBT travelers is already about $70 billion a year in the United States. But arriving at such a figure is not a science. That number and others like it are derived based on the assumption that 6 to 8 percent of overall American tourism spending (according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures) is LGBT spending, Tanzella said.

“This is such a high-traveling, high-spending population,” said Andrew Flack, vice president for product marketing and customer insights of Hilton Worldwide, adding that in the United States a higher percentage of LGBT travelers have passports than the general travel population.

One boost to gay tourism, travel industry experts say, is same-sex marriage. In New York City alone, the economic impact of the first year of gay marriage was $259.5 million plus $16.5 million in local tax and fee revenues, according to NYC & Company, the city’s marketing and tourism organization.

And the marriage and honeymoon business is still in its infancy. A 2013 study from Community Marketing found that most couples who married had their wedding receptions at restaurants and private residences.

Nonetheless, hotels are preparing for an influx of same-sex ceremonies. Last year W Retreat & Spa-Vieques Island partnered with one of the first businesses in the U.S. to specialize in planning legal same-sex weddings. And this year, despite Florida’s same-sex marriage ban, the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood struck the words “bride and groom” from its wedding marketing materials and has two same-sex wedding planners at the ready.

As for honeymoons, only about 57 percent of same-sex couples went on one after their ceremony (65 percent of them were women) last year, according to Community Marketing. David Paisley, the company’s senior research director, said the reason for that might be that, when a state allows same-sex marriage, couples rush to legally tie the knot yet delay the honeymoon because they haven’t found time to plan it or have already made all their travel plans for the year.

Families are another fast-growing segment. More than a decade ago, when a company called R Family Vacations began specializing in cruises for LGBT families and friends, it was in the vanguard.

“There has really been a huge change,” said Don Tuthill, the publisher of Passport magazine. “When they did that, they were the only one. Now everyone is reaching out for that market.”

In a survey of readers of Curve, a leading lesbian magazine, Orlando was the No. 1 vacation destination for LGBT families. “It’s safe. It’s accessible. It’s affordable,” said Merryn Johns, the magazine’s editor in chief. “And Orlando has done a lot of outreach lately.”

Orlando is, in general, extremely popular, according to Community Marketing, despite being in a state that does not allow same-sex marriage. That’s in large part because it has an effective tourism association. The same can be said of Las Vegas.

Johns said she appreciated Las Vegas’ “Everyone’s welcome. Even straight people” print and digital campaign, introduced in 2012, because it aimed to make gay and lesbian travelers feel as if they are a majority.

When it comes to hotels, some boutique brands, like Kimpton, have already established themselves in the LGBT market. Now major hotel groups are working to do the same. Over the past few years, Marriott and Hilton have created advertisements with gay and lesbian travelers in mind.

Sophisticated brands and locations are evolving beyond images of rainbow flags and shirtless men, Adams said, creating ads that, while showing same-sex couples, look like the rest of the brand’s advertising. “It’s great to see a couple together or a family together,” he said. “Don’t throw in every logo.”

One company that has impressed LGBT travel veterans is Hilton.

“In the last three years, we’ve really increased the emphasis on this,” said Flack of Hilton Worldwide. The company, which was founded nearly a century ago, is a member of GLAAD and is a sponsor of two large LGBT events. “A big part of what we do is trying to react to the way the world is evolving and traveling differently,” Flack said.

Hilton, for the first time this year, is moving away from destination and resort photography in its advertising and, instead, highlighting images of people, including same-sex couples, in its LGBT advertising. And it is expanding its “Stay Hilton. Go Out” LGBT vacation campaign, which it introduced in 2012. The campaign includes a vacation package (with high-speed Internet and a one-year digital subscription to Out magazine) at more than 460 Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Hilton Grand Vacations properties around the world.

The Go Out program also has a landing page on with information about travel and promotions. This summer, the site will include a new feature called Bedtime Stories: interviews with LGBT tastemakers about their travels.

“Watching companies and destinations bending over backward for gays has been an astounding change,” said Zachary Moses, the director of marketing for HE Travel in Key West, which offers tours and vacations for gay men and lesbians.

HE Travel — the result of a merger between Hanns Ebensten Travel, which began leading tours in the 1970s, and Alyson Adventures, founded in the 1990s — has been around in one form or another for more than 40 years.

Moses notes that in Key West, things are changing. “In just the last two years, at least four gay guesthouses have gone ‘all welcome,’ ” Moses said, referring to the practice of allowing anyone to check in. “The gay guesthouse, they’re disappearing,” he said.

Even so, it seems the need for LGBT tours and services is not.

“We’re mixing more and more, but there is always going to be a need for people to be with their friends and family and community,” said Tuthill of Passport magazine. “There are issues you encounter that other people don’t deal with.”

One of those issues is safety, even in places considered gay-friendly — Palm Springs, California, Provincetown, Boston, Seattle, Mexico, Canada, England, Spain, France.

Paisley recalled walking in San Francisco not too long ago and having someone roll down a car window and yell a gay slur at him. This month, he said a gay friend of his was harassed on the New York City subway.

“This kind of stuff happens to gay people all the time,” he said, “and because of that, safety is really important.”

Places like Russia, Egypt and India are now considered too dangerous, Johns said. Adams of Passport magazine strives to share with his readers, each of whom travels on average 11 times a year, places that are culturally compelling yet safe. “We’re not going to Brunei anytime soon,” he said, referring to the Southeast Asian country that recently introduced antigay laws.

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