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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
Additional AdviceDevelop 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
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