When Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, a royal gay activist in India, advocated to his government for the decriminalization of homosexuality (which occurred last September) and for broader societal support of LGBTQ citizens (which is ongoing), he says he spoke in a language that politicians understand: money.
"Because I attend a lot of travel conferences, I would always talk to the government about pink money, the pink economy," he told me June 18 in an onstage interview at Proud Experiences, an industry conference in New York for travel advisors and suppliers focused on LGBTQ travelers.
The "pink economy," aka "rainbow capitalism," reflects the broad spending power of the LGBTQ community. And because travel is -- depending upon whom you listen to -- either the largest or second-largest industry in the world, it's a smart lobbying strategy to link pink money to travel and policy when speaking with governments.
Showing support to the LGBTQ community would encourage tourism and improve the economy, Gohil would tell Indian officials, pointing to a World Bank study that connected economic development to human rights.
As speaker after speaker at Proud Experiences pointed out, travelers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or otherwise identify as "queer" also travel more and spend more than others. One presenter showed stats demonstrating that an increasing number of young people are questioning, or fluid, about their sexual or gender identity.
This is Pride Month in the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York, a pivotal moment in the gay rights movement. Whether, as a business person, you're motivated by economics, a sense of fairness or some combination of the two, it's a good reminder to re-evaluate how you're communicating with this growing subset of consumers.
Many of the conference speakers structured their messages in personal rather than overtly economic terms, and it became clear that when the tables are turned -- when businesses want to take advantage of the economic benefits of LGBTQ travelers -- it is equally important to speak in a language that resonates.
I found the travel anecdotes of transgender couple Jake Graf, a writer/director/actor, and his wife, former British army captain Hanna Graf, to be particularly compelling and instructive in this respect. The couple responds well to verbiage on websites as well as to promotions that indicate an enterprise is a "transgender-safe space" and will deliver on the sensitivities that implies.
Hanna's voice is deep, which can lead people to "misgender" her and assume she is male, which upsets her. On the other hand, the couple appreciates it when, for example, a server simply asks which pronouns they prefer to have used when addressing them.
A gay couple, Triton Klugh and Jonathan Bailey, adopted two Hispanic daughters and gained wide public attention after Sophia Bailey-Klugh, 10 years old at the time, wrote to then-President Barack Obama in 2010 expressing frustration over the lack of understanding and acceptance from her peers about her nontraditional family. The president replied with a sympathetic and supportive note.
The two men started a blog, 2DadsWithBaggage, in which they often chronicle their travels. Their stories underscored how, when businesses remain in the paradigm of traditional assumptions, missteps follow. Klugh and Bailey look for kid-friendly vacation spots but, for example, when checking in to a family resort, were once told by a desk clerk, "How nice that you're giving Mom a break."
As irritating as that was, it was nothing compared with an experience they endured when preparing to return to the U.S. following a vacation at a Mexican resort. After they were seated on their return flight, federal officers boarded and removed them and their children. The pilot had reported that he suspected they were kidnappers.
The hospitality and aviation industries provide training to watch for the signs of human trafficking, but in this instance, the training was clearly incomplete: The men were carrying paperwork showing the children were legally adopted.
So, what's the takeaway from these cautionary tales? It would be a fallacy to think that businesses have a choice in the matter of engaging with the LGBTQ community of travelers. Yes, one can consciously choose whether to market specifically to this vertical, but choosing not to doesn't mean your enterprise doesn't interact with it. And in the travel industry, sensitivity and courtesy come with the territory.
There is a name for those outside the LGBTQ community who support its initiatives, business or otherwise: allies. At a reception following the opening conference programming, I spoke to Robert Geller, who created FabStayz.com, a web directory of homeshare vacation rentals that lists "LGBT and ally" hosts of Airbnb and Vrbo properties. A full 96% of those listed self-identify as allies.
At heart, the message of Pride Month is inclusion. At heart, the message of the travel industry is welcoming hospitality. As a society, we're not there yet. But travel should be at the forefront.