Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, Shane Nelson, recently caught up with Jonathan Klein, whose San Francisco-based Now, Voyager has operated in the same Castro District location since 1984, and spoke with the veteran agent about selling Aloha State vacations to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. Travel Weekly: What is it about Hawaii as a destination that attracts the LGBT community?
I'd say that basically the things that attract the gay community to travel to Hawaii are the same things that attract most other travelers: weather, beaches, the outdoor activities, the tropical paradise atmosphere. And for American gay travelers, it's relatively easy to get to, compared with a lot of other places. And it is generally perceived as gay-friendly. TW: What other destinations for the LGBT community compete with Hawaii? What are Hawaii's strengths and weaknesses compared with those competitors?
Mainly you're talking about other tropical or beach destinations like South Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, Tahiti and Fiji. Now, compared to all of these, except for South Florida, it has the strength of not being a foreign country, and compared to all of them, except for South Florida and some parts of Mexico, it's easier and cheaper to get to than the other competitors. At some of the other competitors, you're cautioned not to drink the water, but you can do that in Hawaii, and some of those other competitors don't have any specifically gay venues and no real visible gay community, whereas Hawaii does.
When you're looking at weaknesses, Hawaii has some major weaknesses for gay travelers compared to, say, South Florida and also Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Both of those have many more gay venues and accommodations than Hawaii does, and South Florida is usually cheaper to get to. And even Puerto Vallarta, depending on where you are coming from, can be cheaper to get to. In general, what is surprising to a lot of people about Hawaii is that it has so few specifically gay accommodations and it also has very little in terms of nightlife. Only Honolulu has any gay nightlife. Of course, that's not necessarily important to every gay traveler, but I think there's no question that you find many, many more gay travelers going to places like Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Miami and Puerto Vallarta because there is lots of gay nightlife and there are gay accommodations. TW: Does Hawaii's natural beauty, or some of its other attributes, help to make up for its lack of gay nightlife?
Well, it depends, again, on what people are looking for. There are some people who don't care whether there is any nightlife. That's not what they are going there for, and for them, the natural beauty is the main reason they're going. And quite frankly, there's no question that, although in South Florida they have a lot more gay venues, Hawaii is much, much more beautiful. We just need to make sure people are aware of these kinds of differences. TW: What are some characteristics of the LGBT community that agents should consider before booking trips to Hawaii?
The thing that I always point out to people is that the community is really, really varied. In this community there's all races, all classes, ages and interests. So it's really hard to make any statements about the characteristics of the community as a whole. With anything you say, there are going to be tons of exceptions to the rule. But a couple of the things that I've noticed are that, in general, gay travelers lean much more toward independent travel than escorted group travel. ... And we don't book activities for people. We will occasionally, if people are going to Kauai and they haven't been there before, tell them about taking a helicopter trip, but we don't book it, and that goes along with gay people being more independent travelers. I just don't know any gay people that would want to prearrange a helicopter trip for a particular day at a particular time when they are going to Hawaii. They would want to keep their options open. TW: What about differences in the market itself? Are there details that are important for gay men, for example, that aren't as vital to a lesbian couple?
No question. First of all, I have to say that we have many, many more gay male clients than we have lesbian clients. I think if you just look at the overall gay travel market, it's not a big market to begin with. It gets hyped up the wazoo, but if you consider they say that the gay population is maybe 5% [of the U.S. population] and not everybody who's gay is going to be a traveler, it's not that big a market. And the lesbian market seems to be -- I don't know percentage-wise --but if it were half the size of the gay male market, it would really surprise me. ... One difference in the market is that you will not infrequently find gay men traveling some place solo. You will hardly ever find a lesbian traveling somewhere solo, and when a couple of lesbians are traveling somewhere together, the availability of some kind of nightlife is not at all a factor. And of course, not every gay man cares about that, but there aren't any lesbians that care about that because they know that there just isn't any for them. TW: Are there hotels and resorts you prefer to send LGBT clients to in the Islands?
I try to avoid booking them at properties that strongly cater to families with children: for instance, if they are properties that have a kids' pool and kids' programs or whatever. Obviously it's nice that they do have an area that would keep the kids in one place, but the fact is those are going to attract more families with kids. It's not that gay people don't like kids. But generally they would prefer, unless they happen to be a gay family with kids, to stay in a place that doesn't strongly cater to families with children.
And in Honolulu, we do sometimes get people requesting the Royal Hawaiian, which is always popular with people who have the money to stay there. It's always been popular with gay travelers because it has a cachet. The more upscale gay travelers like style and authenticity. So we do get people sometimes requesting that, but if they're just looking for a more moderate price but good quality and value -- there are so many of those to choose from in Honolulu -- I will go for properties that are on the Diamondhead end of Waikiki, because that's close to where the gay nightlife is. It's also close to where the gay beach is.
There are a couple of properties on the Diamondhead end where we book quite a lot of gay clients, like the Aston Waikiki Beach. That's very popular with gay travelers. Also the Marriott, and if they're looking for a condo, the Aston Waikiki Sunset is great. TW: Are there some properties you like for LGBT clients on the Neighbor Islands?
In Maui, I book many more gay clients at properties of various kinds in the Kihei or Wailea area than in the Kaanapali area. That's because an awful lot of gay travelers like to have easy access to Little Beach at Makena, which is a fantastic place to go, and that's a great attraction of Maui. The places in Kihei and Wailea get plenty of families, but it seems like Kaanapali is more of a family-oriented place, and it's so far from Makena, so it just makes more sense for people to stay in Kihei and Wailea.
I generally recommend Kauai for romantic couples or honeymoon couples. It has what's supposed to be a gay beach, but every time I've been there, there's been hardly anybody there. It's just so much more laid-back. I love it, love it, love it, but I certainly wouldn't send a solo gay traveler there, and I have to make sure that even when it's a couple traveling there that they know there's no nightlife there, and there's not even any real specific gay beaches.
And on the Big Island, there's a place on the Puna side called Kalani Honua. It's an eco-resort that has been around more than 20 years, and it's owned by a gay man. But it's never been specifically gay-only, although they at times hold retreats that are specifically for gay people. It's extremely gay-friendly, and that whole part of the Big Island is really the most countercultural part. ... None of the package companies sell it, but the thing is you really have to qualify the client and make sure that they understand what the area is like, what the accommodations there are like.
For people who are really looking for that kind of more ecologically oriented place, with a real strong sense of Hawaiian culture -- they are constantly teaching hula classes there and things of that nature -- it's a fantastic place. TW: Does one of the islands stand out, in your opinion, for LGBT travelers visiting Hawaii?
For people who really need to have nightlife, Oahu is the only place for them. On the other hand, if nightlife is not really important to them, I always steer them toward Maui.