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Focus on LGBT travelFamily travel


By Paul J. HeneyJune 29, 2015

Jackie Cooper, a curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, grew excited when she located the clownfish — made famous as the central character in the animated film “Finding Nemo” — swimming in the facility’s enormous blacktip reef tank.

“With clownfish, they’re all born gender-neutral,” she told the assembled parents and children. “When a spot opens up, one turns female … that’s the dominant one. If a female’s lost, one of the males will turn into a female to take its place. Wrasses do the same thing, but the male gender is dominant to female in that family."

To fish, flexibility regarding gender and related identity might be somewhat old hat, but we humans are coming a bit late to the party. Only in the past decade have lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people gained wide societal acceptance in the U.S., highlighted by the right to marry in (currently) 37 out of 50 states [Note: The day after the print version of this report went to press, a U.S. Surpreme Court ruling that gay marriage is a constitutional right made gay marriage legal in all 50 states]. Gay and lesbian families, while not a new phenomenon, could arguably see an upswing in numbers in the coming years, as more and more LGBT individuals exchange wedding vows and then ponder whether children should be the next step in their relationships.

Community Marketing & Insights’ most recent LGBT tourism and hospitality survey, published in December 2014, found that 15% of women and 4% of men in the study had children under 18 years old in their households. The vast majority (96%) of these LGBT families had three or fewer children, and by a two-to-one margin, they focused on looking for family-friendly destinations over gay-friendly destinations.

Convention and visitor bureaus are taking notice of the trend. In Baltimore, the families interacting with Cooper at the aquarium were participants in Visit Baltimore’s Modern FAMily trip, a specific outreach to LGBT journalists with children. Over a three-day weekend, the participants, including myself and my younger son, were shuttled to the aquarium, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Port Discovery Children’s Museum and the inner harbor. They even treated us to a lunch with a penguin at the Maryland Zoo.

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, explained that their own surveys had revealed that 10% of LGBT adults who visited Baltimore had children under 18 in their travel party.

“When Visit Baltimore entered the market in 2008, we adopted a broader strategy to address the mature gay market but also focused on families that would appreciate the wide range of family fun available in Baltimore,” Noonan said. “In addition, when gay marriage became legal in Baltimore, we rolled out the red carpet through a special website, TAG hotels and customer engagement trainings for our business."

Blogger and journalist Frank Lowe with his son, Briggs, join the author and his son at the National Aquarium.
Blogger and journalist Frank Lowe with his son, Briggs, join the author and his son at the National Aquarium. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Paul J. Heney

Noonan said that from the beginning of their LGBT marketing campaign, families have been a valuable segment, as the city is recognized as a family-friendly destination.

“Our first ad campaign featured a female couple and their children along the Inner Harbor with the iconic rainbow-colored dragon boats. We have made significant outreach to media that reach LGBT families, and have always highlighted our long list of family-friendly attractions in our messaging,” he said.

Ali Daniels, vice president of marketing at Visit Seattle, expressed similar sentiments, pointing out that the city has a well-supported Pride celebration and that the bureau created the “Marry Me in Seattle” marketing campaign following the passage of Referendum 74, which legalized same-sex marriage in the state of Washington.

“We believe that LGBTQ travelers and LGBTQ family travelers are looking for something special, a welcoming city,” Daniels said. (Adding a “Q” to the more common LGBT acronym signifies those who are questioning their sexual orientation.) “We have focused messaging and advertising around that concept. While not specifically for LGBT families, we have targeted the LGBTQ community in paid and earned media promoting the fact that Seattle welcomes all."

For the past three years, Visit Baltimore has produced a print LGBT Visitors Guide, in partnership with GayLife, which is distributed to visitors regionally and at local businesses, hotels and visitor centers. The website Baltimore.org includes a section for LGBT travelers, and the city has an active LGBT Tourism Advisory Committee, comprised of representatives from the LGBT community as well as hotels, museums, attractions and events.

Similarly, other cities, like Cleveland, which hosted the 2014 Gay Games, actively post LGBT happenings and feature special gay sections on their visitor websites, in an effort to attract this growing segment of travelers. However, specific LGBT family sections don’t seem to be on the horizon yet.

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Different needs and experiences?

Gay travel has historically focused on the mature gay male audience, as research has shown that this segment has the highest opportunity for increasing travel and economic impact, Noonan said. Oftentimes, that meant high-end luxury travel or cruises specifically geared toward gay men or lesbians.

According to Ed Salvato, co-founder of ManAboutWorld, a gay men’s digital travel magazine available exclusively on the iPad, travel professionals and brands in some ways still largely focus on the gay male market.

“This is because two men traveling together typically have more disposable time and income than other groups,” he said. “But there is some emphasis on lesbian travelers. There’s a small amount of emphasis on transgender travelers. There’s no emphasis on bisexual travelers. With respect to families, there are very few destinations and hotels that are actively marketing to this group.

Jeff Bennett, publisher of Proud Parenting, noted that gay dads are an emerging market in luxury vacations, and this can create lucrative prospects for travel agents.

“This means aggressive agents who work with gay men will mold their offerings to include family-friendly options to become more successful,” Bennett said.

Salvato said LGBT families tend to make decisions based on their children first and their own “gayness” second. Many of the same issues are played out as in straight families, such as school vacations or the needs of younger versus older children. But being LGBT parents can complicate travel.

“With respect to the fact that the parents are of the same gender, there are considerations,” Salvato said. “There are legal issues to be cognizant of. Are both parents the legal parents/guardians? Do they have the paperwork to back that up in case there are any questions, especially when traveling abroad or returning from abroad? Do last names match across travel documents? If not, is there paper backup that can be produced to prove familial ties?"

Brian Rosenberg, publisher of GaysWithKids.com, a Web resource that helps gay fathers navigate parenthood issues, adds that LGBT families need to conduct due diligence before contemplating certain travel options like the Caribbean or other less welcoming parts of the globe.

“[We need] to make sure we understand local laws and social tolerance about same-sex couples and families,” he said. “Just because a destination is popular for friends and neighbors doesn’t mean it would be a welcoming destination for our families."

Salvato said, “The parents have to worry about whether they will be warmly welcomed at mostly heterosexual resort destinations. Will there be uncomfortable questions or looks?”

But Rosenberg thinks that most all LGBT families are simply looking for enjoyable and memorable vacation experiences at a fair value.

“LGBT families are looking to be treated with the same sense of fairness and respect [as] typical heterosexual families,” he said.

Bennett agreed that respect is paramount.

Real-world families

Two LGBT families discuss their approach to family travel. Read more

“LGBT families aren’t looking for anything different from other families in terms of vacation facilities,” he said. “But we do expect respect from those around us. This is why I recommend travelers let establishments know about their family makeup before they book anything. Trust your instinct if you sense homophobia. Don’t give anyone your business unless your call or email is met with [overwhelming] enthusiasm! Make sure your host knows that you’re a gay family, so there are no surprises.”

Gregg Kaminsky founded R Family Vacations 12 years ago and runs a variety of LGBT-oriented trips, including cruises and camping excursions. He said that LGBT families have more in common with the family travel segment than with the LGBT segment, but thinks both sides of the coin are important.

“Being family-friendly is the most important thing, and then on top of that, the destination or vacation needs to be gay-friendly,” he said. “Nobody wants to spend money where they are not welcome, and there are many options that have always welcomed our community. LGBT family travel is interesting because you really need to fill two needs.”

Kaminsky said that LGBT families sometimes just look for traditional family vacations like Disney or the Grand Canyon, but it’s also important for LGBT families to see other families like their own. Vacations such as Provincetown family week — the world’s largest gathering of gay families, which is held each summer on Cape Cod — can be great options.

Rosenberg agreed. “It is always nice to encounter other LGBT families when traveling."

Steve Brister of GayFamilyTrips.com said that LGBT parents generally look for destinations that are both gay-friendly and family-friendly.

“Standouts in my mind include Orlando, Hawaii, California (San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Palm Springs) and New York in the U.S.; major cities in Canada; London, Amsterdam and Spain in Europe; and Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific,” Brister said.

Community Marketing & Insights’ data suggest that Disney is a motivating factor for LGBT families. In a recent poll, 16% of LGBT parents vacationed with their children last year and spent a night in a hotel in Disneyland, Disney World or Orlando.

Brands get into the game

Kaminsky said that more travel-related brands are now including the LGBT community in their ads.

“Marriott made a big splash with their #lovetravels campaign,” he said. “Most major airlines have an LGBT page on their website, and Orbitz has had a dedicated LGBT family page for many years."

Barry Pollard, senior vice president of hotel operations for Kimpton Hotels, said his brand feels that families are defined by their deep relationships and commitment.

“There isn’t a ‘typical’ LGBTQ family dynamic,” he said. “We see that families are all looking for similar things when they travel: a safe and welcoming environment, the opportunity to try new things that can be enjoyed by guests of all ages and of course, spending quality time with one another in a new or familiar city."

Kimpton plays up the family angle well. On our Baltimore visit, my son loved the in-room Xbox 360 console and separate room with bunk beds at the Hotel Monaco. At Kimpton’s RiverPlace Hotel in Portland,  Ore., the Bedtime Butler visits on random evenings from approximately 6 to 9 p.m. He (or she) carts around nighttime goodies such as books, hot chocolate and stuffed animals along with slippers, fresh towels, tea and calming oils for the parents.

The author, left, with his partner, Lance Jethrow, and children Matthew, 8, and Joshua, 14, meet Mickey Mouse.
The author, left, with his partner, Lance Jethrow, and children Matthew, 8, and Joshua, 14, meet Mickey Mouse. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Paul J. Heney

While Kimpton doesn’t explicitly ask its guests about their sexual orientation or gender identity, Pollard said Kimpton has heard positive organic feedback from LGBT travelers, and it has “definitely noticed an uptick” in the number of LGBT families.

“Within our community of Karma loyalty program members, we have approximately 70,000 people who have signed up for our dedicated LGBTQ newsletter asking to hear information that’s relevant and important to their community,” Pollard said.

The brand has what Pollard described as a thoughtful, integrated marketing strategy that showcases LGBTQ families in its marketing campaigns, including the company blog and social media communities.

“We never hesitate to publicly celebrate momentous milestones for the LGBTQ community,” he said. “For example, Kimpton was one of 379 companies to sign an amicus brief this year urging the Supreme Court to support marriage equality for all."

A Southwest Airlines representative said that the company’s Customer Insights team works to understand the wants and needs of different segments of travelers, but the airline isn’t doing specific marketing to gay families.

“To date, we have not broken out our LGBT outreach by age or gender. Southwest.com/gaytravel contains content that is broad and intended to reach the entire spectrum of LGBT travelers,” the representative said.

Brister said that Disney was a standout in his opinion.

“I’d give Disney credit for providing a welcoming, enjoyable experience for every guest they serve, whether it’s at a theme park, a resort or on a cruise ship,” he said. “They’re definitely a leader in employee training and marketing efforts that are inclusive of our families. But I’d also compliment most of the major airlines, cruise lines and hotel chains, as they’ve had the opportunity to serve a larger number of our families and adjust their employee training to provide a welcoming, comfortable experience for our families.”

Looking ahead

Kaminsky said he thinks LGBT travel has become much more diversified in the past 10 years.

“Traditionally, it was gay or lesbian cruises and resorts,” he said. “Now, you see additional travel options including LGBT family vacations, riverboat cruises and upscale vacations on Seabourn and Azamara. This segment continues to grow as more LGBT couples get married and build families. I do think this is a huge opportunity."

Community Marketing & Insights reports that in 2014, LGBT parents took a median of two vacation trips with their children. Of those, 74% stayed in a hotel at least one time, and 46% flew to their destination at least once.

Bennett said he believes that families who previously felt the need to hide have benefited from the discussion underway in the U.S. about marriage equality.

“The marriage rulings have opened the doors for everyone to come out if they wish, and proven public support will embolden more LGBT families to walk through airports, hail taxis and giggle together on a first subway ride,” he said.

Salvato said that while this is still all relatively new, that also means opportunities are at hand.

“Gay families are very eager to travel and find others like themselves,” he said. “It sounds like a good opportunity for travel agents to become familiar with this segment, find products that make sense and then connect buyers and sellers … everyone wins!”