LGBTQ leaders encourage genuine engagement from travel companies

Jake Graf and Hannah Graf, speaking at the Proud Experiences conference in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Jake Graf and Hannah Graf, speaking at the Proud Experiences conference in Brooklyn, N.Y.

NEW YORK -- Suppliers and destinations looking to attract the LGBTQ market need to do more than hang a rainbow flag, members of the LGBTQ community said at the Proud Experiences conference held in Brooklyn this week.

Speakers said companies need to actually engage with this market, which travels and spends more than others.

"When you're communicating to the LGBTQ community, try to engage with them using LGBTQ people," said Hannah Graf, one-half of the transgender activist power couple with Jake Graf. "If you have a campaign, make sure that you're engaging with the transgender community to develop that. We'll want to work with you and make it better for everyone."

Romey Louangvilay, communications director at Elmntl marketing, which represents Thailand, agreed: "If you're targeting lesbians, hire someone from that community to tell that story. Put the people you want to target on the team. Your story will come off more real."

Many panelists said that small gestures matter. When the Grafs arrived at New York's Beekman Hotel this week, they were given rainbow cookies. "We knew we were accepted," Jake Graf said.

Hannah Graf added: "When you're looking for a destination or a hotel or airline, small signals on a website or any advertisement or campaign saying we understand or support this, I'll always go for that first." 

Jackie Huba, author of three bestselling books on customer loyalty, said companies must ask themselves if their customers would share the experience they have with that company with others. "Generate experiences worth talking about," she said.

Support for LBGTQ people is more than just corporate responsibility. It's good for the bottom line. Community Marketing and Insights (CMI) found that LGBTQ travelers spend 33% more on travel than their heterosexual counterparts and take four to six leisure trips per year, compared with one to two trips for the average U.S. traveler.

Thomas Roth, president of CMI, said LGBTQ travelers are loyal. And though just 3% to 6% of the population, they constitute 10% of the travel market. 

"If you make a good impression with the LGBTQ market, you're going to make a long-term friend," he said.

Huba's research found that 54% of LGBTQ people say they will buy from a company they know is LGBTQ-friendly. On the flip side, 71% of that community will tell friends and family not to buy from a company they see as unfriendly.

Andrea Richardson, Hilton's director of multicultural and diversity relations, said the hotel company has "evolved past the rainbow."

"It's not just doing one activation at World Pride, and that's our LGBTQ effort for the year," she said. "A lot of the work we do is very advocacy-based. We're doing government affairs work that's not marketing but global corporate affairs work in the background."

Not all suppliers think marketing to the LGBTQ community in an overt way is key.

River cruise operator Aqua Expeditions has no LGBTQ imagery in its brochures and makes no overt mention that it is LGBTQ-friendly. Speaking on a panel here, CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro said that instead, "I build relationships with people in the industry. They can trust my brand and that I have an incredible team that caters to families, multigenerational families and individual couples of whatever background."

Louangvilay said, "I try to tell the client it's more than just a rainbow flag or a drag queen on a poster." Instead, he encourages marketing campaigns to show LGBTQ couples "in a normal setting."

And when LGTQ couples arrive, he suggests that properties "treat them as you would a straight heterosexual couple. If you overdo it, it comes off fake." 

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