Gay and Lesbian Travel: Market Strategies

Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., prefers the term "market segment" when talking about gay and lesbian travelers, one of the most important sources of her agency's business. It's been more than seven years since Hirleman began actively targeting the gay and lesbian market, although she notes that she's had gay and lesbian clients "since the day I opened. I knew that because one was my brother, who would send all his friends."

Hirleman is one of the growing number of travel agents who aren't gay, but who've found a loyal client base in the gay and lesbian community. "The intrinsic value of this market lies in the referral and loyalty value," Hirleman says. "It supersedes any other market segment I've dealt with. This market provides clients for you if you are good. They send their friends. They send their family. They send their straight friends. I haven't found a downside to it yet."

Hirleman says that agencies -- whether gay- or straight-owned and operated -- looking to build business would be wise to consider serving the gay and lesbian market. "They should have no problem, but they have to have a marketing plan," says Hirleman. "We're travel consultants, serving many market segments. And you have to be comfortable with it."

Eileen Wolf, of Travel With Eileen in Livingston, N.J. stresses that agents shouldn't target the gay and lesbian market just to make a fast profit. "You have to have heart and understanding," she says.

Building an agency's gay and lesbian following can come from several possible tactics. Supporting gay and lesbian community organizations is key to Hirleman's business plan. "That's very important -- giving back to the community," she says.

Hirleman, who is preparing a CTC report on gay and lesbian travel, noted that agents may be surprised at how similar the gay market is to others. "I really think the gay market patterns the straight market in more ways than people realize," she says.

As with any traveler, the qualifying process is important. "The questions I ask are the same questions I ask straight people," says Hirleman, noting that she must determine the kind of vacation the traveler is looking for -- keeping in mind that some destinations and vacations attract more gay people, while other types of travel are not as gay-friendly. "I ask people do you want a gay-saturated experience, or do you realize that if you want to do [certain kinds of trips], you're going to give up having a totally comfortable experience."

And then there's the quandary when an agent is unsure about the sexual orientation of a new client. "I had a young actor call me and he wanted to go to South Beach," Wolf says. "I called my husband and asked, 'What do I do? I don't know if he wants gay or straight.' I called the man back and said, 'South Beach has a lot of hotels, and they come gay, straight and gay-friendly; do you have a preference?' He said, 'You couldn't have asked me in a nicer way.'"

In the time since Hirleman and Wolf entered the industry, gay and lesbian travel has changed radically --in terms of the suppliers and the clients. "It's very much more couples-oriented now," Hirleman says. "The market's maturing. I still get the younger people, but the older ones have more money. It's a much more monogamous, couples-oriented market than we used to do. There are more couples out there, committed, celebrating anniversaries. Some of them are repeat clients. Five or six years ago, it was more singles."

In addition, Hirleman says, "More of my clients have children. I'm working with a gay parents group."

"I've seen a trend in the last several years with my gay clients that they don't want to go on gay tours," says Wolf. "I've had some girls call me who were lesbians. They wanted to go to Cancun, but they didn't want a gay or lesbian spa, they just wanted a good hotel."

Hirleman notes that with the entry of increasing numbers of mainstream companies into the market, she sometimes finds herself faced with the choice of gay-owned versus mainstream suppliers. "I like supporting the good gay and lesbian companies," she says, "but my client is first." She notes that price is often a determining factor in choosing suppliers.

But the essence of doing business with gay and lesbian travelers is no different from anyone else, according to Wolf. "You treat everybody the same way, with respect."

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Additional Advice

  • Develop a marketing plan. Know what you're going to do before you do it.
  • Be patient. Realize that it may take a while before the profits come in.
  • Make a commitment. Support gay and lesbian organizations; this will build credibility with the market, and help to increase recognition of your agency's name.
  • Educate yourself about the market. Gay and lesbian travelers are as diverse in their interests and tastes as anyone else, and you need to be able to match the client with the appropriate vacation.

    Educate yourself about suppliers. With so many suppliers now courting the gay market, you need to know who's who.

    Build a reference library. Educating yourself and your clients starts with a reliable library of books, brochures, videos and periodicals. Some material can be obtained free or for a nominal fee from suppliers, tourism departments and other organizations.

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