CORRECTION: R Family Vacations is not defunct. Contrary to an earlier version of this report, Rosie O'Donnell is no longer affiliated with R Family Vacations but the company is fully operational.
The story of the growth of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) travel market in recent years is a tale of two seemingly contradictory -- but, in reality, complementary -- trends: occasional spurts in the launch of novel, LGBT-specific tourism products and promotions tailored for gay and lesbian consumers.
Those trends have been accompanied by a slow but steady mainstreaming of both LGBT travelers and travel products.
A once neglected, all but invisible and even persecuted market segment, LGBT leisure travelers now find themselves increasingly courted and cajoled by mainstream travel suppliers, destinations and, in some cases, travel agencies, as well as by a growing raft of travel firms and hotels owned and operated by gays and lesbians.
What's the appeal? First, by one estimate, the LGBT demographic spends some $65 billion a year on vacations.
Moreover, industry players note that LGBT consumers have gained a reputation, deserved or not, over the past two decades as "Teflon travelers," less prone to cancel in the wake of geopolitical or natural disasters and more willing to part with a bigger portion of their disposable income on vacations than the general population is.
Jonathan Klein, owner of Now, Voyager World Wide Travel in San Francisco, said he heard the first such whispers as far back as 1990 and 1991. At the time, the first Persian Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq was depressing mainstream international bookings, but LGBT travelers apparently kept on trekking. (For more from Klein, see "LGBT specialist talks market's needs, nuances.")
John Tanzella, president of the Fort Lauderdale-based International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), said the havoc the 9/11 terror attacks wreaked a decade later on global travel only furthered this reputation for LGBT hardiness.
"We noted an interesting trend after 9/11 of mainstream companies -- whether it was major corporations or smaller, mom-and-pop tour operators -- courting LGBT travelers and trying to be more welcoming with their products," he said. "There was just so much press about gay travelers being more resilient."
Not even LGBT consumers, with their legendary largess, could maintain spending levels in the face of the Great Recession that began in 2008; according to San Francisco-based research firm Community Marketing, spending by gay and lesbian travelers dipped in both 2009 and 2010 for the first time in nearly 20 years. Even so, David Paisley, Community Marketing's senior projects director, said the drop was less severe in LGBT circles than in the population at large, redeeming the segment's reputation for resiliency.
"The question is, did [LGBT travel spending] go down as much as the mainstream numbers did? A lot of people would say that no, it didn't," he said. "We have seen a bounce-back finally, although we're probably seeing one in mainstream spending, too."
To wit, in the 12 months leading up to the conclusion of Community Marketing's 16th Annual LGBT Tourism Survey on Oct. 31, 2011, LGBT travel spending did indeed rebound, with growth of 1% to 3% reported by self-described "gay-friendly" destinations. In the same report, gay and bisexual men reported taking nearly four leisure trips, 2.4 business trips and 3.8 airline flights annually. Lesbians and bisexual women took 3.3 leisure trips, 1.6 business trips and 2.6 flights a year.
The appeal of LGBT travelers as a market segment has grown hand-in-hand over the last two decades with an increased societal acceptance, in the U.S. and other Western countries, of what used to be termed "alternative lifestyles."
It might only be coincidence that Emmy-winning, gay-centric TV sitcom "Will & Grace" began its six-year run at the top of the Nielsen ratings in 1998, the same year that a widely applauded, industrywide hue-and-cry was raised after gay cruise charter firm Atlantis Events infamously was denied docking rights, sight unseen, by the Cayman Islands. (It was the last such incident in the firm's experience until this past March, when a male couple were arrested by authorities on the Caribbean island of Dominica after engaging in outdoor hanky-panky on their cabin balcony while their ship, the Celebrity Summit, chartered by Atlantis, was docked in port there.)
But in the 14 years since, 10 countries in North America, Europe and Africa have legalized same-sex marriage, as have eight U.S. states, the District of Columbia and other municipalities and governing bodies worldwide. (In the U.S., various polls taken this year show nationwide support for gay marriage ranging from 47% to 52%, with opposition ranging from 40% to 44%.)
Ten more countries are considering such legalization. And in September 2011, Congress repealed the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that effectively banned gays from serving in the U.S. military. In addition, Tanzella noted, the pool of potential LGBT travelers is growing because "today people come out at younger ages" than they did decades ago, even as the pioneers of gay and lesbian liberation, the "Stonewall generation" of baby boomers, approach retirement.
This shift in attitudes and policies has been mirrored in the travel and tourism industry. In the last decade, mainstream airlines such as American and Delta; destinations including Las Vegas, New York and San Francisco; and online travel agencies such as Travelocity and Orbitz began launching LGBT-specific pages within their larger websites. Even mainstream U.S. tour operators have joined in. Witness Farmingdale, N.Y.-based mass-market operator Travel Impressions and its TI Gay & Lesbian Travel Program.
"More and more businesses are getting into the market," Tanzella said. "There's just so much more of that now than even five years ago."
And the trend extends far beyond U.S. shores. The IGLTA now counts member companies, tourism boards and organizations in 88 countries worldwide, according to Tanzella, and itself joined the United Nations' World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in November 2010.
The two bodies jointly produced a 40-page "Global Report on LGBT Tourism" that was delivered this past January to the ministers of tourism of every WTO member nation.
"This report demonstrates the clear relationship between countries' progressive policies toward LGBT people and the economic benefits for their tourism sector," Javier Blanco, director of UNWTO Affiliate Members, said in a statement at the time of the report's release.
For all the steady progress on the LGBT civil rights and travel-marketing fronts, all-gay-and-lesbian travel product development has occurred in seeming fits and starts, comparatively speaking.
A wave of all-LGBT cruise charters from companies such as RSVP Vacations, Atlantis and R Family Vacations began over two decades ago and was once the talk of the industry. The segment is now old news in travel circles, though bookings remain steady and the segment is largely profitable.
"We do see a little bit of a downturn when the economy is down," said Jeff Gundvaldson, president of RSVP Vacations in Minneapolis. "But overall, it's been positive and remains strong. We're not completely recession-proof, but we are a little bit immune to it."
According to Tanzella, the IGLTA is tracking both steady growth and evolution in the gay cruise charter market. "We see a lot of the smaller, 200- to 300-person ships being chartered by small gay-tour operators to go up the Nile or sail the Mediterranean," he said. "You're seeing a lot more diversity in the LGBT cruise market. ... Cruising is still pretty huge among LGBT travelers."
So what's really new in LGBT travel? If the first 10 years of the new millennium were the decade of gay cruising, the "teens" could turn out to be all about new, LGBT-focused but straight-friendly hospitality businesses.
In an interesting and certainly business-savvy twist, these new gay and lesbian travel suppliers are also wooing so-called "mainstream" business. New "hetero-friendly" outfits such as The Out NYC and Lords South Beach boutique hotels, and the combination bar/bowling alley Drink & Drag on Las Vegas' Fremont Street, are turning the proverbial cheek, as it were. Relegating any lingering resentment over past injustices to the historical dust bin, they are rolling out the welcome mat for open-minded, nongay guests.
Once upon a time, groundbreaking mainstream hoteliers such as Ian Schrager built "straight hotels for straight people, but they were officially homo-friendly," said Ian Reisner, owner and operator of the 105-room The Out NYC resort in Manhattan. "But I wanted to go the other way: I wanted to open a hotel built by gay people for gay people and officially known as a gay hotel, but straight-friendly, where maybe 80% of guests would be gay and 20% straight." (See "Higher-end and 'hetero-friendly'"). It's a model that Spain-based Axel Hotels Group, founded in 2003, has already achieved great success with at straight-friendly gay hotels in Barcelona, Berlin and Buenos Aires.
This new, pragmatic approach both ensures LGBT suppliers' own long-term profitability and furthers the "normalization" and integration of gay and lesbian Americans, industry players say. Once effectively segregated by law, custom, necessity or choice, the LGBT community are both full-fledged citizens and desirable consumers of travel products.
Taking this tack makes sense on a number of levels. For one, America's LGBT leisure travel market is anything but monolithic. Gay, lesbian and other nonstraight travelers vary in income level, age, household size, ethnicity and interests as much as non-LGBT Americans do. In fact, many LGBT travelers prefer a welcoming mainstream hospitality venue to an all-gay-and-lesbian one.
"The vast majority of LGBT travelers prefer to stay in a gay-friendly mainstream hotel," said Community Marketing's Paisley. "But if you have 100 rooms to fill in a city like New York, you'd probably have enough of the segment that prefers an all-gay environment to make [an all-LGBT boutique hotel] work."
Plus, mainstream travelers are simply more receptive, open or tolerant than they once were. Eric Peterson, co-owner of Drink & Drag, a 22,000-square-foot space featuring 12 bowling alleys, five pool tables, dart boards and Sony PlayStation 3 consoles, in addition to drag performance venues, said that even "five years ago, we'd never have been able to do this."
"But today, with the popularity of TV shows like 'RuPaul's Drag Race' [broadcast on VH1 and Logo], more and more people are loving drag," he said. "It's definitely more mainstream today."
Peterson said his marketing team is "reaching out to everybody, [as] we're not necessarily just a gay product." For the last seven years, Peterson and his business partners have operated Krave, a popular gay nightclub on the Vegas Strip where the clientele is up to 30% straight on any night.
"We're on Fremont Street, and it's mainstream Americans who are going to be coming up for bowling, dollar draft beer and drag shows, something they're not going to get in Kansas," he said. "Drink & Drag is ... just a fun, out-there venue that anyone could come to and not feel uncomfortable."
Reisner at The Out NYC said many of his heterosexual guests, particularly those from Europe, tell him they specifically seek out gay-centric but hetero-friendly accommodations. "They tell me that staff and guests seem to be much friendlier, happier, smiling, and there's no uptightness," he said. "I ask them, 'What do you think the word gay means? It means happy.'"
Even the choices made by gay and lesbian travelers themselves can defy preconceived notions. Paisley said that LGBT couples with children under age 18, estimated to comprise some 3% of male couples and 19% of women, place more value on the family-friendliness of a travel product or destination than its gay-friendly factor, by a two-to-one margin.
"When you have children under 18 in the home, your priorities change," he said.
While eager marketers have often touted the high spend of LGBT travelers, particularly gay men, and pushed luxury products at the segment, the reality is that the growing number of LGBT households with kids are looking for something else. When it comes to gay-travel ABCs, LGBT no longer immediately equals DINK (double-income, no-kids). The times, they are indeed a-changing.
"You have all these issues, from budgets to acceptance of children to gay-friendliness," Paisley said. "Traditionally we've pushed luxury hotels in the LGBT market, but they're not always child-friendly. They're also not very budget-conscious."
In fact, for all the longtime talk about that higher LGBT spend on travel, so-called budget and middle-market gay and lesbian travelers outnumber their luxury or upscale counterparts by far. In that, gay and lesbian travelers in many respects more closely resemble mainstream travelers than is generally assumed.
In Community Marketing's latest survey, 45% of gay men and 52% of gay women described themselves as "economy/budget travelers," compared with 28% and 21%, respectively, for "luxury travelers."
"We've shown that while everyone concentrates on the luxury market, that's not where the LGBT people are," Paisley said. "There's a gay budget market, and most people fall in the moderate travel range. The concentration on luxury is really misplaced."
Community Marketing notes, however, that references to "economy/budget" travel among LGBT consumers are not necessarily about income levels but rather about spreading travel funds, regardless of household income, across as many vacations as possible. It's a case of choosing quantity over quality, so to speak, reflected in the three to four annual vacations reported by LGBT travel survey respondents last year. Still, nearly 28% of gay men and 35.4% of gay women attributed their "economy/budget" travel habits to "low-income" status.
The LGBT and mainstream markets are slowly converging, with gay moms and dads choosing family-friendly hotels over all-gay ones, and ever more open-minded straights booking LGBT-run accommodations. At the same time, another trend is popping up, for good or ill, depending on one's political stance or approach to business.
"A new trend that is very powerful is LGBT-inclusive mainstream advertising," said Tom Roth, president of Community Marketing. "What it means is mainstream ads that just happen to include LGBT imagery."
Roth pointed to the new "Land of Dreams" video from federally funded private-public tourism promotional partnership Brand USA, which briefly features a gay male couple cuddling on a New Orleans streetcar (the clip can be seen at www.youtube.com/yourdiscoveramerica), and a TV ad from Orbitz that discreetly integrated a rainbow flag and a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of gay rights organization the Human Rights Campaign.
The message? That LGBT travelers and citizens are part and parcel of American society, neither discriminated against nor afforded "special" rights, nor cordoned off in some kind of marketing ghetto.
"A destination doing an ad campaign that only features white people would be unheard of today," Roth said. "There are diversity departments to make sure that never happens." But most companies, he added, are not making sure that LGBT people are not excluded. It's still a really rare but exciting emerging communications development for the LGBT community. Gay people do bring [these commercials] up, that they make such a difference."
But what does "mainstreaming" portend for all-LGBT travel products and suppliers? Will gay charter cruises and the like one day be a thing of the past? After all, in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Norway, which have a long history of sexual tolerance, it's been difficult for some time now for visitors to locate an all-gay bar or club, Nordic nightlife being thoroughly integrated and egalitarian.
Gundvaldson at RSVP said that "there's always been speculation that our market will go away or be integrated at some point, but I don't see that in the very near future. We still have a strong population that wants an all-gay vacation ... something with an utter sense of comfort and being able to travel with people who are like-minded while completely being themselves."
Moreover, he said, "Even as gays gain rights around the world, there's still not that complete and total acceptance where [LGBT] people can be completely comfortable everywhere."
Still, Gundvaldson allowed that travel will certainly become more integrated with time, and, he said, even today "there's room in the market for a product that encompasses both the gay and straight communities."
Cruises an 'easy sell'
For the time being, industry figures say, gay cruises, as an established, known quantity in the marketplace, happen to be the best entree into the LGBT market for travel agents of all orientations.
According to Gundvaldson, retailers are "extremely important" to RSVP Vacations and still account for 60% of all bookings.
"We don't directly track agent [sexual orientation] but we have several good agents who cater more to the LGBT market," he noted. "Probably the top 10% of our agents who do the majority, or 80%, of our bookings deal mostly in the LGBT market. And then the rest are a mix."
Gundvaldson said selling gay cruises is "a good way for agents to win over LGBT clientele. ... We make it extremely easy for the agent, providing a turnkey product for their client, something with an extremely good reputation that they know they're going to succeed with and that their guests will be extremely happy with."
He added: "If agents are looking to get into the market and attract LGBT clients, it's a great time to jump in and earn some great commissions."
Gay specialist agent Klein at Now, Voyager agreed.
"The great thing about a gay cruise is that it's the one LGBT travel product out there that appeals to almost everybody," he said. "So it's a fairly easy sell for agents, and it's a nice commission."