Taking stock of LGBTQ+ travel at the Proud Experiences conference

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Travel advisors and supplier reps took advantage of networking opportunities at Proud Experiences.
Travel advisors and supplier reps took advantage of networking opportunities at Proud Experiences. Photo Credit: Nicole Edenedo

BROOKLYN, N.Y.  -- Over the last two years, LGBTQ+ travelers have become more introspective about expectations and supplier marketing has become more inclusive, said attendees at the Proud Experiences conference this week at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.

In addition, organizers said, the social upheavals of the last two years have led the LGBTQ+ community to broaden the call for equality to be more inclusive and specific to diverse groups. 

The three-day conference, which offers networking and educational opportunities about the LGBTQ+ travel market, resumed for the first time since 2019

"What I saw coming out of Covid was a tremendous amount of innovation on the product side, on the marketing side and on the operation side," said Shannon Knapp, CEO of Leading Hotels of the World (LHW) and a Proud Experiences panelist for the "Road to Recovery" discussion. 

Knapp said LHW members had to think differently about how to reach audiences outside of their usual target areas.

"It forced our members to cultivate new markets," she said. For example, in Europe, when borders closed, LHW cultivated more of the local and regional LGBTQ+ markets. 

From left, Out Magazine editor in chief Jacob Anderson, NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon, BBC presenter Ben Thompson, Leading Hotels of the World CEO Shannon Knapp and Manchester Pride CEO Mark Fletcher on a panel at Proud Experiences.
From left, Out Magazine editor in chief Jacob Anderson, NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon, BBC presenter Ben Thompson, Leading Hotels of the World CEO Shannon Knapp and Manchester Pride CEO Mark Fletcher on a panel at Proud Experiences. Photo Credit: Nicole Edenedo

What LGBTQ+ travelers want more than ever, said Mark Fletcher, CEO of Manchester Pride, is "an authentic experience and opportunity to explore new places and to be ourselves."

He said the pandemic provided an opportunity for the individual LGBTQ traveler to reexamine needs and expectations. 

"What are our expectations from a destination? What are our expectations from a hotel, from a flight company? Our expectations are based on being recognized for all of who we are," Fletcher said. "One of the key things is to recognize the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ communities, protected characteristics, who we are and the different challenges we face as individuals."

First-time conference attendee Lissa Iscoa-Rolon, a travel advisor with American Express, called the conference information "eye-opening" and said it gave her new ideas to better serve LGBTQ+ couples, which make up 30% of her client base. 

"Travel has to be for everyone," Iscoa-Rolon said. "With the hotels, I needed to understand that when guests arrive, the whole Mr. and Mrs. [robes] isn't what everyone has in mind, and that hotels need to know that there is a Mrs. and Mrs. or a Mr. and Mr. That's life now and we need to cater to everyone. So when my clients go to a hotel now, there better be two male robes or two female ones."

Stefan Lechner, director of sales of The Dilly, a historic five-star hotel in London's Picadilly Circus, said the hotel's top priority is making everyone feel welcome and putting their individual needs first.

"The Dilly is all about giving a safe environment and accepting everyone for who they are, regardless of their gender, their ethnicity, where they're from," Lechner said. "It's much like having an open door for anyone." 

Authenticity of voice is important

Proud Experiences CEO Simon Mayle said the message of this year's conference was influenced by events beyond the walls of the LGBTQ+ community. 

"This event is not about treating everyone equally, but treating everyone differently and understanding the nuances that go with diversity and inclusion," Mayle said. "What has happened in the past two years has been an armageddon-sized awakening, particularly with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, which really demonstrated to the world that we have so much more to do. We have to be talking about diversity and inclusion because it is the language of all of our future clients."

That is certainly true in New York City, where NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon said that lessons learned when the city hosted WorldPride in 2019 were used to approach various markets over the last two years.

"We did learn so much about the authenticity of voice and the importance of speaking in authentic ways to communities and that when you try to speak to everyone, you speak to no one," Dixon said, adding that those learnings contributed to a new diversity-driven content strategy with website content highlighting the city's Black, Latino and Asian experiences. 

Dixon said NYC & Company hired content creators and found voices that "could speak to the authentic experiences that are found in communities and put paid media promotion behind it."

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