A post DOMA world

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In late 2010, syndicated columnist Dan Savage launched an Internet-based anti-bullying campaign called "It Gets Better," to encourage and support LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth who are facing harassment.

The title was coined in the wake of several highly publicized suicides, but the effort's tagline now seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy: It was followed, in relatively short order, by the U.S. armed forces' repeal of its anti-gay "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the advance of same-sex marriage in the U.S. and abroad -- most notably with the Supreme Court ruling against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June -- and even the call by Pope Francis just last month for increased tolerance in the Roman Catholic Church.

NYC PRIDE FLAGWhat a difference three years can make.

But in the travel and tourism sphere, things have been "getting better" for LGBT consumers for some time, and the trend shows no sign of slowing.

Since the launch of the first all-gay charter cruises more than two decades ago, the industry -- sometimes driving change, at other times simply reacting to it -- has slowly but surely increasingly recognized the value of this once-marginalized segment that now more than ever is marketed to.

A couple of factors have been behind the push.

For several years now, research has shown that LGBT consumers spend about $65 billion a year on travel and are more likely to book irrespective of economic or geopolitical uncertainties. Both traits make the demographic appealing to marketers.

LGBT travelers also seem to have rebounded more quickly from the ill effects of the recession, according to the 17th Annual LGBT Tourism Survey released last October by San Francisco-based research firm Community Marketing.

The study found that one-third of gay and lesbian respondents increased their 2011 level of travel in 2012. Survey respondents added, on average, one trip a year to their travel schedules, for a total of 4.7 leisure and 3.2 business trips among gay men and four leisure and 2.1 business trips among lesbians.

Urban vacations were most popular with gay men, while gay women favored outdoor and family travel.

Public opinion in the U.S. has shifted in favor of same-sex marriages.More broadly, LGBT stock has risen significantly among the general public as well. For example, several recent major polls have found that between 53% and 58% of Americans now favor same-sex marriage; that's about a 6% increase compared with last year. (The LGBT community itself is estimated to account for anywhere from 3% to 10% of the U.S. population; many researchers settle on 5% as likely being most accurate.)

As a result, agents today would be hard-pressed to find a major travel and tourism supplier that does not court the segment, said David Paisley, senior projects director at Community Marketing.

"Looking at suppliers, basically every hotel group and airline is reaching out to the LGBT community, so I don't know if there's any room for any other player to come in," he said.

From Marriott and Hilton to Delta and United, he said, "they're all there." And tour operators such as Travel Impressions have been early adopters. The Farmingdale, N.Y. firm, which offers its Gaytravimp.com website and "Come Out and Travel" brochure, began its LGBT marketing effort back in 2008.

John Tanzella, president of the Fort Lauderdale-based International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, said, "More and more businesses are reaching out to the LGBT market, whether it's coming up with gay-friendly campaigns, running specials or participating in their local Pride celebrations. They're trying to get their brand names out there."

Among destinations, longtime players in the field -- large cities such as Miami, New York and San Francisco in the U.S. and, abroad, Amsterdam, London and Berlin (see related story, "Berlin's 'Pink' red carpet") -- continue aggressively to woo LGBT travelers. But of late, smaller and sometimes surprising destinations are also joining in. 

Community Marketing's Paisley pointed, for example, to Reading, Pa., population 88,082. Last fall, the Greater Reading Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a marketing campaign to draw LGBT visitors to the city and surrounding Berks County. For good measure, it debuted a sensitivity training program for its merchant members, as well.

"We're seeing a big change, particularly among small cities and rural places coming in to reach out to gay and lesbian travelers," he said. "Before, it only tended to be the bigger destinations."

In Paisley's opinion, if there are any laggards, they're to be found among cruise lines, a surprising conclusion given that gay cruise charters were pioneering LGBT travel products and remain big sellers. Yet, for all the welcome the cruise industry has long given LGBT passengers, it does seem prone, at least anecdotally, to occasional missteps.

For example, Carnival Cruise Lines found itself in hot water with gay activists late last year, when it banned cross-dressing aboard a heavily LGBT, Carnival Glory December sailing from Miami just before departure, citing incompatibility with the line's "family-friendly atmosphere." Facing an uproar, it quickly did an about-face: Some 1,000 passengers, one-third of those onboard, had specifically booked the scheduled sailing as a "Drag Stars at Sea" group through AlAndChuck.travel, an LGBT-oriented, Sarasota, Fla., travel agency.

In the end, Carnival Cruise Lines President and CEO Gerry Cahill penned an apology letter, offering full refunds and additional compensation to offended LGBT passengers who canceled in protest.

Such public relations errors aren't likely to cost cruise lines much, however; Community Marketing has found that only 18% of gay men and 19% of lesbians consider a passenger line's LGBT-friendliness a factor when booking a cruise vacation. (Comparable figures were 40%/39% for destinations, 33%/31% for hotels, 20%/21% for airlines, 18%/19% for online travel agency purchase and 12%/12% for car rental.)

Sandra Pollack and Ana Zamora of Journey Weavers Educational Travel.This attitudinal change among mainstream travel companies looking to win business from LGBT travelers who have come out is part of an ongoing process of integration for gay men and lesbians, specifically in tourism and, more broadly, in society at large, according to industry players.

Two trends identified in Travel Weekly's 2012 Focus on LGBT Travel issue continue apace: the rise of gay-owned travel businesses that also seek out open-minded "straight" clients, and the growing regular use of LGBT imagery in mainstream advertising and marketing. 

These currents will only accelerate as younger, more accepting travelers of all orientations enter the market, Paisley predicted, potentially one day rendering specifically LGBT travel product obsolete or, at least, less common.

All-gay hotels and tour departures are not something that younger LGBT travelers are interested in, he said.

"Younger gays and lesbians are more interested in mainstream travel, and that's a reflection of their lives," Paisley observed. "When we look at the peer structures of under-30 LGBTs, there's much less segregation. They're hanging out with their peers, both gay and straight."

Thus, Paisley foresees "real issues, in the long term" for gay-only travel product, "something on the order of 10 years from now."

That jibes with another of Community Marketing's findings: That partnered gay men and lesbians traveling with their children as families value the family-friendliness of a product or destination over its perceived or actual gay-friendliness.

Gregg Kaminsky, founding partner of LGBT family-travel purveyor R Family Vacations, which offers cruise charters and summer camps for both families and adults, agrees with that conclusion. But he also noted that "gay families are always going to want to have their kids meet other families like theirs, and that's what our vacations provide." For that reason, he sees the next three to five years as a period of growth.

"What we provide for them is a week during their year when they can be in the majority, be with other families like theirs and take that experience back with them into their daily lives," Kaminsky said.

Gay Pride parade participants in San Francisco.He did stress, however, that R Family is also popular with straight clients looking for a diverse vacation atmosphere.

The same holds true at gay-run but straight-friendly The Out NYC hotel, which opened in New York in March 2012. Clientele at the 103-room, boutique property, which markets itself as an LGBT-oriented lifestyle hotel, is currently up to 60% heterosexual on weekdays, according to General Manager David Lopez. International guests, in particular, find its so-called hetero-friendly spin "interesting ... but it doesn't make them want to book; they just like our design, fashion and culture elements."

One blotch on an otherwise rosy picture, he cautioned, is the concern expressed by some potential straight guests from conservative parts of the U.S. about staying at a gay property during business trips. That is not a small issue for a mid-Manhattan hotel looking to fill rooms.

"Some clients are nervous to book because of what someone might think of their having stayed at The Out," Lopez said. "Guests have told us they were worried what their bosses would say when they turned in their expense reports and receipts."

Still, at The Out NYC, integration and co-existence is the norm, with sexual orientation a mere side note. "In essence, we're just saying that LGBT clients will be comfortable, but so will everyone," Lopez said.

Market experts say that suppliers of all-LGBT travel product targeting just gay men and lesbians needn't fret just yet. For example, baby-boomer travelers over age 50, who came of age and came out as LGBT in less-integrated times, remain a force to be reckoned with.

"They are still very much traveling in all-LGBT departures, [and] there's still a lot of money to be made there," Paisley said. "Baby boomers have both a lot of money and a lot of time to travel, [so] that market's not going away just yet."

For its part, R Family Vacations has "seen huge growth in the market, and the various partners we market with have grown substantially," Kaminsky said.

San Francisco travel agent Peter Greene, who in 1984 co-founded of one of the nation's oldest LGBT specialist agencies, Now Voyager World Wide Travel, said gay cruise charters are still mainstays of his business, though other LGBT-specific product is becoming less popular.

"These cruises that hold thousands of people seem to be sold out every year," Greene said. "But perhaps the gay guesthouses and the like, which once were thriving, where you're forced to remain in a small environment, are losing a bit of their cachet."

Instead, much of his LGBT clientele, when not cruising, is mixing more when traveling, he said. "Fifteen of them, including their straight friends and family, are now renting a villa in Puerto Vallarta."

Recent social and political advances by the LGBT community here and abroad will ensure even more interest in crafting both gay-friendly and gay-specific product from both mainstream and niche suppliers going forward, experts say.

Worldwide LGBT Rights, Same-Sex Marriage LawsIn the 16 months since Travel Weekly last explored LGBT travel in depth, five more U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage, as have France and, within the U.K., England and Wales. (Click here or on the image for a larger view of a map of same-sex marriage laws worldwide.) 

In total, 13 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia and five Native American tribes, now allow gay weddings, as do 17 foreign nations (up from just 10 in mid-2012).

Even more importantly for LGBT Americans, some travel industry observers say they are already seeing an impact from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June striking down DOMA, which had barred federal recognition of state-sanctioned same-sex unions.

The repeal of DOMA, said Tanzella of the IGLTA, "is affecting tourism because [gay marriage] is now more front-of-mind for hospitality businesses trying to attract LGBT travelers. Suppliers are ratcheting up their efforts to be proactive and go after the gay wedding market. They see the opportunity there and want to go after it."

For its part, Community Marketing has been contacted by several localities and businesses in areas such as upstate New York, according to Paisley.

"That region has always had a good weddings business, and now they see an opportunity to tap into the same-sex marriage market," he said.

In Paisley's view, federal recognition of same-sex marriage is more significant than legalization on the state level, thanks to "huge [financial] incentives for same-sex couples to get married."

"When individual states approved same-sex marriage, there certainly was a rush [to wed] but it's expected that was nowhere near the rush we'll see now, because the federal benefits are huge."

Hotels, in particular and in the short term, look most likely to benefit from gay marriage, Paisley said.

Kimpton Hotels courts same-sex couples on its website."I just got off the phone with Kimpton [Hotels and Restaurants], and they're getting overwhelmed with requests for same-sex marriages, at levels they'd never seen in the past," he said. To wit, Kimpton (which earned a perfect 100 score in LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign's 2013 Corporate Equity Index measuring workplace friendliness) has added a special "LGBT Events, Same-Sex Marriages and One-of-a-Kind Parties" page to its KimptonHotels.com website.

On the other hand, frontline travel agents and tour specialists focused on LGBT travel say they have yet to see the wedding-banns bonanza materialize. Still, they remain hopeful. Sandra Pollack, co-owner of Journey Weavers Educational Travel in Ithaca, N.Y., hasn't gotten any LGBT-honeymoon bookings for her birding and adventure tours to Costa Rica and Peru, but she remains hopeful about the effects of the DOMA repeal.

"I'd love to be able to build product around honeymoons now that DOMA's been repealed, and I think this will open some things up," she said. "But I honestly don't know. I think it's going to be more about an increased general climate of acceptance."

What Pollack has seen recently, she said, is more and more straight couples booking her largely lesbian departures of education trips to Latin America.

"With these [specialized] trips, trying to appeal only to our own community just wasn't going to work as effectively, so we opened them up to everyone," she said. "But we make it very clear that if [straight] clients are not LGBT, they're allies."

The same goes for all of Pollack's supplier partners south of the border.

"We tell the Costa Rican drivers of our vans, for example, that many of our participants are LGBT ... so that it doesn't come as a shock to anybody," she said. "You either have to accept who we are or forget it, we'll find somebody else."

In general, Pollack's experience working with local suppliers, and on the ground as a lesbian traveler herself, in non-U.S. destinations has been positive. That's good news for stateside travel purveyors, because LGBT consumers tend to travel internationally more often than their mainstream counterparts. According to Community Marketing's survey, 79% of LGBT Americans hold a passport, and 51% used them to travel abroad in the 12 months prior to October 2012.

A street festival on Motzstrasse in Schoneberg, a hub of LGBT life in Berlin.According to State Department data, those figures stand in stark contrast to the general population, in which about 35% of all Americans hold passports. And a 2012 survey by MMGY Global/Harrison Group found that just 9% of U.S. leisure travelers vacation overseas.

The same study found that the top 10 international destinations drawing LGBT Americans were Canada, England, France, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands and Greece. Perhaps not coincidentally, eight of those 10 countries, or specific jurisdictions within them, offer their own LGBT citizens same-sex marriage or civil union rights, an indication of a general climate of acceptance for gay men and lesbians. Given that gay-friendliness is a factor for nearly half of LGBTs in choosing a vacation destination, it all adds up.

Big gains in popularity are also being made by South American destinations such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile, Community Marketing found.

"All three are very LGBT-friendly and have become big attractions for North American travelers in general," Paisley said.

R Family Vacations' Kaminsky concurred. "I just went to a gay-travel conference in Argentina. It's wonderful; they've had gay marriage and gay adoption rights there since 2010. I finished my presentation, and the first question was if I was going to do an R Family Vacations product to Argentina."

To help LGBT travelers vet potential vacation climes, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), a U.N. World Tourism Organization member operating in 90 countries, has embarked on two unique, related online initiatives: one, already complete, in partnership with the U.S. State Department and another, still in development, with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

Following a roundtable meeting with U.S. federal officials last autumn, Tanzella and the IGLTA helped launch an LGBT Travel Information page on the State Department's Travel.state.gov site.

Given the fact that "gay travelers tend to travel more frequently than the mainstream and, as adventure travelers, to head for less safe destinations around the world, [the government] felt there was a need to provide information to the LGBT traveler community," Tanzella said. "It's phenomenal [and] fairly exciting that the U.S. government is doing this, trying to help gay Americans traveling abroad who may be affected by [anti-LGBT] laws."

The West Hollywood website.The IGLTA's online partnership with ILGA, meanwhile, will result in the former's website featuring links to civil rights-related content at ILGA.org.

"If you're looking for a gay-friendly travel option -- say, Peru -- on the bottom of our site there will be a link to ILGA saying, 'Click here to learn about LGBT rights' in that country, which will be really helpful for people considering travel to there," Tanzella said.

The twin Web efforts could be seen as timely: Witness the negative official and media reaction in Senegal to the repeal of DOMA during President Obama's June visit to that West African nation or Russia's recent legislation criminalizing all public expressions of LGBT identity, putting avowed gay and lesbian visitors at risk.

Neither of the sites crafted by the IGLTA, however, addresses U.S. domestic travel and the gay-friendliness factor. Will American states that continue to ban same-sex marriage suffer responses such as boycotts by LGBT consumers? Paisley at Community Marketing thinks not.

"Traditionally, that hasn't happened because though the larger state, such as Florida, may be anti-gay-marriage, individual destinations within it -- like Fort Lauderdale, Key West and Miami -- are much more supportive on the local level," he said.

LGBT travelers don't usually punish favored local destinations for the perceived sins of their states, he said, "but there may come a tipping point, when more than half the states approve same-sex marriage and holdouts such as Florida don't."

Correction: The OUT NYC has 103 rooms, not 66 as previously reported. 

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