A pioneer's tale

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Selling gay travel back in the '50s wasn't just difficult, it was downright dangerous, according to Newt Deiter, owner of Rancho Mirage Travel in California.

For one thing, being involved with anything gay meant you risked having your individual airline appointments revoked for "moral turpitude," one of the clauses in airline contracts back then.

Newt Deiter.For another, "you were opening yourself up to getting on an investigative list," since at this time, homosexual practices were against the law in all 50 states, said Deiter.

"That's the kind of fear and repression we lived under."

Dieter remembered how he promoted a 1956 tour for gay clients to London; Paris; Rome, and Amsterdam, Netherlands, in One magazine, which he recalled as the first gay magazine in the U.S. Since the magazine was presumed to be read by the FBI, local police and postal inspectors, secrecy was vital, so he ran a blind ad with a P.O. box instead of the name of his company.

These days, prohibitive laws are no longer on the books in many states, but the social climate can still be repressive for gay travelers.

Rancho Mirage's mostly gay clientele includes a good percentage of "people all over the world who are still closeted, who would never go to their corporate travel provider or their [local] agency" for a gay tour, said Deiter.

Instead, they look to the Internet for a convenient and discreet way to book trips, and Rancho Mirage's Web site, www.gay-travel.com, accommodates them. In fact, Rancho does about 90% of its business through its Web site."The overwhelming majority of our clients we've never met," said Deiter.

Deiter's pioneering of gay travel on the Internet as well as his helping to found the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association were among the reasons why the gay travel newsletter Out and About recently elected Deiter to its Hall of Fame. (Watch for a piece on the other agent chosen -- Jonathan Klein of Now Voyager Travel in San Francisco -- in a future issue.)

Out and About editor-in-chief Billy Kolber-Stuart praised both agents as pioneers "who have helped build the industry from its infancy and have been active supporters of and contributors to their local communities."

Building an agency specialty

The Web site of Rancho Mirage Travel in Rancho Mirage, Calif., ( www.gay-travel.com), is "bigger than most carrier's and cruise line's sites, with over 3,000 pages," said Newt Deiter, the agency's owner.

It includes an extensive listing of gay and lesbian cruise and tour options, with links to supplier sites that are carefully designed so Web surfers are always sent back to Rancho's area. "Anything that will allow them to book directly is stripped out," said Deiter.

Deiter started Rancho Mirage in 1990 after he'd sold his Los Angeles agency. According to the provisions of the sale, he was able to retain a 300-person mailing list that targeted the gay market. He was happy to give up his mostly-commercial business to sell to his community. "Emotionally and intellectually, it's a very rewarding thing to do," he said.

"You cannot be all things to all people -- you have to find your niche and build it."

While the current staff of Rancho Mirage "is not 100% gay," they all fulfill another requirement: "Everyone is so cool and so current about what's going on in the gay market," said Deiter.

I love my clients!

I really love this business. I don't know where the time or the days go. There never seems to be enough of either, so I must be having fun. Even on the days when I'm not, I'm never bored. Almost all of the good, fun and interesting things that happen are due to clients.

Lucy Hirleman.Take Vincent and Mollie. Their daughter, a longtime client, sent her parents to me to help them plan a cruise for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Mollie is the type of client I love. She takes notes, asks questions and writes everything down.

Vincent is the type that makes me crazy. He worries. About everything. This time he was concerned about hurricanes. "When is hurricane season?" he wanted to know.

"Well, it runs from April to November, but high hurricane season is late August through early October, so don't worry about it," I said.

"Why shouldn't I worry?" he demanded. "You said November and we're traveling in November."

I glared at him. I didn't want him upsetting Mollie. "Do you play golf, Vincent?" I asked.

"No," he replied.

"Good, because you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning on a golf course then being in a hurricane in November." By now Mollie was glaring at Vincent.

"I don't know why my daughter sent us to you," he said.

Mollie looked at him and said, "Probably because she knew Lucy wouldn't put up with your worrying!"

I looked at him and said, "If you want to worry, start worrying about how you're going to keep Mollie happy. She's already heard all of your jokes."

Salud, Mollie and Vincent. Here's to the next 50 years and to clients like you that make me realize how much I love this business. Thanks!

Lucy Hirleman, CTC, MCC, owns Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. E-mail her at [email protected]; fax to (973) 208-1204.

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