Pride persists

As travel slowly starts to return post-Covid, the LGBTQ community, which travels more and has more disposable income than the general population, is an important target for destination marketers.

PRIDE PERSISTS

As travel slowly starts to return post-Covid, the LGBTQ community, which travels more and has more disposable income than the general population, is an important target for destination marketers.

By Tovin Lapan

The new coronavirus has shredded the summer calendar of Pride events, and perhaps no destination has felt the sting of Covid-19 chaos more than San Francisco.

The city was preparing for the 50th anniversary of its Pride celebration, and upward of 1 million revelers were expected at numerous events over the final weekend of June. It would have injected hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, but by mid-April, the organizers made the gut-wrenching decision to cancel. 

“We were all heartbroken; it was an extremely difficult decision,” said SF Pride executive director Fred Lopez. “It’s the largest outdoor event in San Francisco. We are always aiming to engage a wide audience and highlight the LGBT community, not only in the Bay Area but globally.”

A crowd during San Francisco Pride. (Photo by Nader Khouri/SF Travel)

A crowd during San Francisco Pride. (Photo by Nader Khouri/SF Travel)

A crowd during San Francisco Pride. (Photo by Nader Khouri/SF Travel)

SF Pride quickly pivoted to a virtual event. There will be a parade, 13 hours of musical performances and other original content and a film festival, all broadcast on the internet. But nonetheless, thousands of trips planned around the event were canceled. 

“People come and stay in San Francisco hotels, visit Bay Area shops, go to bars and nightclubs. As important as it is for highlighting the LGBT community, SF Pride is a moment for the city to take pride in itself,” Lopez said. “That was absolutely part of our decision process, but of course, public safety was our overarching concern.”

On average, the U.S. LGBTQ community travels more frequently and enjoys more disposable income than the general population. In mid-May, California-based LGBTQ tourism research and communications firm Community Marketing Insights (CMI) surveyed LGBTQ adults and found 72% had already canceled a vacation in 2020 because of Covid-19. More than two-thirds, however, said they planned to take at least one overnight vacation trip this year, and 42% were envisioning multiple trips.

LGBTQ community members are travel consumers in transition, and now the question is who will do the best job of capturing them. Based on historical trends and polling, the LGBTQ travel sector could be one of the first to bounce back, and it comes at a time when marketing is transitioning from niche campaigns to integrated messaging and product development.

Travel advisors and destination marketers, take note: Only 29% of those who said they planned to travel in the remainder of 2020 had actually booked a trip. 

“Most [LGBTQ travelers] have canceled previous trips, most are open to planning a vacation, and most have not yet booked their future trip,” CMI senior research director David Paisley said. “This creates a tremendous opportunity for destinations and travel suppliers.”

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A parade in San Francisco, where Pride visitors bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. (Photo by Nader Khouri/SF Travel)

A parade in San Francisco, where Pride visitors bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. (Photo by Nader Khouri/SF Travel)

A parade in San Francisco, where Pride visitors bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. (Photo by Nader Khouri/SF Travel)

A parade in San Francisco, where Pride visitors bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. (Photo by Nader Khouri/SF Travel)

Summer shutdown

San Francisco was not the only city planning its largest Pride festivities ever. In Fort Lauderdale, planners had spent years developing Pride of the Americas, an expansion of the city’s 42-year-old celebration, to include the Caribbean and Latin America. Now the event, originally scheduled for late April, is indefinitely postponed as organizers wait to see when large gatherings will be permitted again.

A Fort Lauderdale beach during Pride. (Courtesy of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

A Fort Lauderdale beach during Pride. (Courtesy of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

A Fort Lauderdale beach during Pride. (Courtesy of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

“I know there are over 400 Pride celebrations affected, either canceled or postponed,” Lopez said. “And for some, it might be their first, second or third time through in a small community. Around the nation and the world, Pride events are picking up momentum, and it’s a shame to miss this year.”

A 2015 economic impact study on SF Pride found the event pumps $350 million into the city, including spending on retail, restaurants and lodging. While all varieties of vacations and activities are being put off and tourism economies around the world are being hit from every direction, when it comes to recovery, massive public events are likely to be the last things to return. 

Along with waves of cancellations came a new list of travel anxieties. And much like surveys of travelers in general reveal, the LGBTQ community has strong preferences for certain destinations, accommodations and activities in the absence of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus or an effective treatment for Covid-19.

In the May CMI survey, 96% of LGBTQ travelers said they would be somewhat comfortable or very comfortable hiking outdoors, and 92% would be at least somewhat comfortable visiting an urban park or garden. As soon as the venue turns indoors or large crowds are involved, however, the comfort level drops sharply. Just 49% said they would be very or somewhat comfortable going to a museum, and roughly two-thirds said they would not feel comfortable attending a large outdoor event “like a Pride festival or street fair” for the remainder of 2020. 

Transportation is another hang-up, as only a quarter said they would feel comfortable taking a bus or subway, and more than a third said they are waiting to see how the pandemic progresses before deciding to fly again. Among the LGBTQ respondents who are planning a vacation in 2020, 69% said they expected to travel within driving distance of their home, compared with 36% who anticipated flying two hours or more. 

“Planes are a huge issue, and there is a lot of unease over long flights and flying in general,” said John Clifford, president of San Diego-based International Travel Management. “There’s no trust in the airline system. There’s no trust in their safety and sterilization procedures. Poor policies for handling cancellations have been highly publicized … it’s hindering the recovery.”

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A Pride event in Fort Lauderdale, where the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau was the first tourism board to create an LGBTQ division. (Courtesy of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

A Pride event in Fort Lauderdale, where the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau was the first tourism board to create an LGBTQ division. (Courtesy of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

A Pride event in Fort Lauderdale, where the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau was the first tourism board to create an LGBTQ division. (Courtesy of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

A Pride event in Fort Lauderdale, where the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau was the first tourism board to create an LGBTQ division. (Courtesy of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau)

A resilient community 

Despite the reservations indicated in surveys, LGBTQ travelers are traditionally more sanguine than the general public.

“LGBTQ travelers have been historically resilient and are often the first ones to get back out there. After 9/11 and tragedies like the attack in Nice [in France], the sector bounced back faster,” said John Tanzella, president of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, whose own recent survey of the sector found 57% plan to take a domestic leisure trip before the close of 2020, versus 33% of the general public. 

“Historically, I think it’s been true that we travel more,” Tanzella said. “A lot of LGBTQ people grow up in small towns, they feel isolated and not able to be themselves. Traveling and seeing the greater world is something that many aspire to do. … Travel is a part of the fabric of who we are.”

Gregg Kaminsky, the co-founder of R Family Vacations, said he also expects LGBTQ travel to bounce back swiftly. He has been experimenting with new products, like a recently introduced Thailand cruise for February 2022. 

“It’s been one of the best trips we’ve put together since this thing all started. When we put it up, we immediately saw demand. People want things on the books,” Kaminsky said. “What we’re seeing is that the luxury traveler is always going to travel, but also the LGBTQ community, whether luxury or not, we travel more than everyone. We have clients who are absolutely champing at the bit, and we are looking at some things domestically to channel that demand.”

Previous CMI surveys indicate 77% of LGBTQ respondents have a current passport, compared with 36% of the U.S. general population. Among those with passports, more than half had traveled internationally within the previous year. Now, with international travel and long-haul flights less attractive, that travel interest is likely to be channeled closer to home. 

“The LGBTQ market is a good market that overindexes for travel, and coming into 2020 it was looking like a very good year for the sector,” Paisley said. “So there were a lot of cancellations, but now they are starting to look at traveling again. Everything is in the air, and how it falls down is the opportunity for the destinations.”

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San Francisco Pride participants. (Courtesy of San Francisco Pride)

San Francisco Pride participants. (Courtesy of San Francisco Pride)

San Francisco Pride participants. (Courtesy of San Francisco Pride)

San Francisco Pride participants. (Courtesy of San Francisco Pride)

No longer a niche

Tourism experts peering into the immediate future see increased domestic travel, more trips by car and greater interest in open spaces and outdoor activities. 

“I think, for now, it’s back to the old days, like the Griswolds in their station wagon,” Clifford said, referring to the 1983 road comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” “People are darn afraid to get stuck in a plane with Covid. … Seclusion and safety are the two new currencies coming out of Covid-19.” 

LGBTQ travelers are more willing to put long hours behind the wheel this year, the CMI survey indicated, and Paisley said he would encourage destination marketers to expand their typical drive market. Urban destinations, he added, will have to look at repositioning campaigns from activities like nightlife, restaurants and concerts to parks and outdoor attractions.

Richard Gray, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau’s senior vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, said, “We are looking closely at Florida and the drive market. It is such a pivotal time for travel, and we have a great opportunity to satisfy this pent-up demand for wanderlust, but travelers are scared. 

“We are raising awareness of the enhanced health and safety measures that our destination’s hospitality community and local businesses are taking so visitors can enjoy a change of scenery while having peace of mind.” 

LGBTQ travelers appear to have the same concerns — cleanliness, confined spaces — as travelers in general, so that aspect of marketing will be similar. 

“In general, the [LGBTQ] market today is less and less self-segregated and more integrated in travel and tours as a whole,” Clifford said. “In a lot of ways this idea of a separate LGBT market is outdated, aside from some niche markets like targeted cruises. Most of the market travels like everyone else.”

Gray, who in Fort Lauderdale was part of the first tourism board to create an LGBT division, agrees segmenting is evaporating. 

“As greater acceptance of diversity and inclusion become more of the norm, I believe that destinations will integrate their niche markets, as we did five years ago, into their overall mainstream campaigns,” he said. “I think that in 10 years’ time, there will be less and less of a need for specific LGBT+ campaigns.”

That does not mean Pride events and other celebrations of diversity are no longer important. Not every destination has proven itself as welcoming as San Francisco or Fort Lauderdale. The Pride of Americas event was specifically designed to address the lag in acceptance in Caribbean and South American countries, which hold potential for growth in LGBTQ tourism. In May, Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to legalize gay marriage. 

“Although Greater Fort Lauderdale is close in proximity to Latin America and the Caribbean, they are miles apart regarding the treatment and acceptance of the LGBT+ individuals in their communities,” Gray said. 

Large gatherings such as Pride may be the last things to return, along with indoor concerts and events, but when they do, expect records to be broken. 

“We as a community will come out of the crisis stronger than before, and when we are able to gather as a big family again, it will be something to remember,” Lopez said. “It will be spectacular. Social distance makes the heart grow fonder.” 

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