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Despite the deaths of 49 people from a mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida gay nightclub earlier this month — the highest death toll for a mass shooting in modern U.S. history — lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) travelers still had reasons to celebrate this past week.
Sunday, June 26 was the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that gave same-sex couples the Constitutional right to marry in all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. And last weekend President Obama announced the creation of Stonewall National Monument which will be the first U.S. National Park dedicated to honoring LGBT American history.
Stonewall National Monument will become the U.S.’s 412th national park and the announcement coincides with the National Park Service’s 100th Anniversary. The new monument and park will cover about eight acres including The Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a gay bar that’s considered the birthplace of the LGBT rights movement from riots that happened there and the surrounding neighborhood in June 1969.
But many travel brands demonstrated dedication to LGBT travelers long before the U.S. government decided to support same-sex marriage or create a national park.
Brands like Marriott International, American Airlines, and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, have been marketing to this community for two decades. This year Marriott International brought back Ross Matthews and added Laverne Cox, an Emmy-nominated transgender actress from “Orange is the New Black,” as official ambassadors for its #LoveTravels campaign. Cox is one of only a handful of transgender people in history to be chosen as brand or campaign ambassadors, both in and outside of the travel industry.
Several LGBT travel associations and research analysts also doubt the Orlando shooting will impact the $830 billion LGBT travel market. Record high attendance at several pride parades and celebrations during the past two weeks in the U.S. and abroad only underscore that belief.
“I was at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida pride parade last week and it had one of the biggest turnouts I’ve ever seen,” said John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, which operates in more than 80 countries. “Pride events will only get bigger.”
In 2016 it’s difficult to find a major travel brand that in some way hasn’t publicly expressed support for the LGBT community, though they do exist.
Many brands tend to focus their LGBT marketing specifically around pride events during June each year and then either go silent or drop off in their marketing to LGBT travelers, said Clint Ostler, Alaska Airlines’ media and market strategy manager.
Alaska has been consistent in its messaging to this community during the past decade and isn’t a “drive by advertiser,” said Scott Gatz, CEO and founder of Q.Digital which owns gay travel site GayCities.com.
The airline decided to make LGBT travelers a larger target for media in general, “That decision came about from looking at who flies with us a lot — at least three times a year —and building loyalty,” said Ostler. “And even better who travels internationally as well.” Ostler added the airline doesn’t track what percentage of its loyalty program customers identify as LGBT.
“We also target people making more than $100,000 for household income. The LGBT segment way over indexes on income and travel. They usually travel almost six times more than our other segments and they’re very brand loyal.”
Though Ostler feels successful LGBT travel marketing is a year-round effort, he cites that 20 percent of annual LGBT travel worldwide happens during summer pride events, according to data from Community Marketing, Inc., an LGBT market research firm. Much of the airline’s gay travel section is devoted to promoting and offering discounts on travel to pride parades and festivals across the U.S.
Travel Brands in an Age of Marriage Equality
There was a time, not long ago, before 55 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage and LGBT rights and before most major hotels, airlines and tourism boards had gay travel sections on their websites.
When GayCities.com was founded in 2005, few tourism boards even mentioned the phrase “gay travel” in marketing materials. Many tourism and convention bureau websites, at least in the U.S., now have information for gay and lesbian travelers.
San Francisco Travel and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation now integrate GayCities.com content into their gay travel microsites. GayCities remains one of the more popular gay-specific travel sites with information on 223 cities worldwide.
Gatz said gay bars are considered the nexus of an LGBT traveler’s trip, “gay bars continue to be a big draw and I think that really reflects our desire to find our place.”
“And while the events in Orlando put a different tone on that statement, we find that people are looking for the places where they can feel comfortable. It may not always be about safety but also about having fun.”
Even without external threats and homophobia travel brands can unintentionally offend the LGBT community, particularly with the rise of big data.
Brands should be extra sensitive with how they market to and track these travelers online, “Where we start cooking people is when we start following them around, we just need to be a bit more cautious of that,” said Gatz.
“The teenager who read an article on Queerty (also owned by Q.Digital) on a home computer and then a travel brand serves them an ad on another site about LGBT travel. That might not be a dangerous situation, it just may not be something they’re ready to talk about.”
Gatz added Google has policies against targeting LGBT people online in behavioral targeting, “We need to ensure that that kind of information doesn’t show up in a place that might get them into trouble.”
Cities and states such as Mississippi, Indiana, North Carolina, and Houston, Texas all saw backlashes or loss of convention and tourism dollars when respective governments passed LGBT discrimination laws or ordinances during the past year.
Community Marketing, Inc.’s LGBT tourism and hospitality survey from December 2015 found that 78 percent of LGBT consumers would switch to a brand that supports their community over a brand they’ve used for years. Some 70 percent also said they’d pay more for a brand that supports their community.
Trending LGBT Destinations
Everyone we spoke to for this story said they’ve noticed sharp increases in their gay and lesbian weddings businesses since the Supreme Court’s ruling last year. Hawaii in particular is a gay wedding destination demonstrating growth for U.S. same-sex couples, according to Tanzella, Gatz, and Ostler.
Vacations were the top experience purchases during the past year for married same-sex couples, highlighted in the chart below from a May 2016 same-sex weddings survey from Community Marketing, Inc.
Source: Community Marketing, Inc.
Gay and lesbian travelers are increasingly traveling further away from home and exploring newer, budding destinations for their community such as Tel Aviv, Israel, “In some ways LGBT travelers kind of consider cities like neighborhoods,” said Gatz.
“Just as much as we might hop around gay neighborhoods in our own cities, we like to enjoy the world in the same way. So many of the travelers that read us are treating cities as a different neighborhood and we can also see that from how popular our neighborhood guides are.”
Creating LGBT Marketing and Sales Positions
While many major travel brands now have diversity and inclusion staff, which often includes LGBT travel, positions specific to LGBT marketing and sales are still a novelty or non-existent in some parts of the world.
In May Royal Caribbean Cruises, for example, hired a director of diversity and inclusion for the first time. The cruise line said the position will focus on LGBT travel.
Last year Belmond appointed Tom Alderink as director of LGBT sales, a first for the company. Alderink is also Belmond’s director of leisure sales for North America, a position he’s held for 10 years.
“I believe that my position shows an authentic approach to the market,” said Alderink. “It dedicates my time to the LGBT market…just being granted the title shows the market that we have a real approach. It’s very real.”
As a luxury travel brand Belmond is well-placed to talk to the high net worth LGBT market. Alderink said the company developed an “internal passports system” set up within different departments to communicate about LGBT travel. The brand will also host its first LGBT advisory board in October.