What The Travel Industry Still Doesn’t Understand About Gay Travelers

LGBT Pride Flag, Brussels gay belgium

Every few months I see something that provokes a ranty post, usually about the LGBT community and how the travel industry doesn’t do a very good job of marketing towards us. Well guess what time of the year it is? That’s right, time for another thoughtful if not somewhat ranty post about the dismal, horrible, awful job most (but not all) companies and destinations that comprise the largest industry in the world – travel – do when it comes time to put together a marketing campaign that would appeal to the LGBT market.

Why Care?

Good question and I’m glad I asked. First there’s the business angle. The worldwide LGBT travel market is conservatively estimated to be well in excess of $150 billion annually. I say conservatively because it’s frankly a hard number to suss out as many don’t necessarily self-identify as LGBT, but it’s a good place to start. On average, gay couples include two individuals who both have full time jobs, good jobs that provide a lot of extra income. The majority of us don’t have kids so apart from mortgage payments and weekly brunches, we typically choose to spend that money on luxuries like travel. I’m not sure that there’s any other minority group out there that enjoys travel a much as we do, but our interest in travel is sadly nowhere to be seen when it comes to travel advertising and outreach.

We should all also care because there is a dignity issue at stake here. I don’t care if you hate me because I’m gay (not quite true, but that’s not the point) we should all care that the companies and destinations we decide to donate our hard-earned cash to do the utmost to treat everyone with respect. I’m not talking about checking into a hotel, I am talking about directing significant portions of marketing dollars to targeting the LGBT community, which I don’t see a lot of. I think most companies figure we’ll travel anyway, so why bother. I’ll get to that in a second.

Grand Cayman pool

But Wait, I Thought Companies Do Care?

Sort of. They care about the money we bring them and so many commit token gestures of kindness or empathy in the hopes of higher ratings with the Human Rights Campaign or a blurb in a LGBT magazine or web site. To show you what I mean, let’s look at a certain travel company for a moment – let’s call them Company X. A couple of years ago they produced a beautiful commercial highlighting the story of a lesbian couple. It was a great ad, it wasn’t over the top and it achieved their marketing goals while at the same time showing some respect in how they treated the LGBT community. The problem is that I never saw that ad anywhere except by people who shared it online; most of them involved with the ad’s development. When I turned on the TV I never saw it, when I scrolled through online news sources I never saw it. I’m sure they bought some airtime somewhere, but it was minimal. A year later though when Company X came out with an iPad app you better believe the airwaves were inundated with those commercials. I couldn’t turn the channel without being bashed over the head with it. Now let’s take a look at the Company X web page devoted to LGBT travel. It hasn’t changed in at least 3 years, and probably longer. The page is pathetically light on any information and highlights a few gay ghettoes as travel destinations. The page itself isn’t only useless, it’s offensive. I have no doubt that the individuals who work at Company X care immensely about LGBT rights, I know for a fact that they do. But when it comes time to devote money and corporate resources to integrating LGBT messaging in mainstream advertising, that care is sadly nowhere to be seen.

Company X is who I decided to pick on today, but they’re not alone. Most major travel companies do this, destinations too. They devote precious little attention to the LGBT community and when they do it’s dripping with stereotypes. Rainbow flags, half naked men and the like. That’s not how the majority of us travel, a fact they still haven’t come to understand.

Berlin Gay LGBT

You’re Awfully Complainy, What Do You Want?

I am complaining a lot and it’s because I’m angry. I’m angry that for as much progress that we have made legally and culturally that it doesn’t seem to really matter. I’m not looking for big ad campaigns filled with rainbow streamers; in fact I think that would be horrible. Instead I just want companies and destinations to include the LGBT community in their advertising naturally, just as they do with other groups. Commercials are becoming more reflective of our changing demographics and that’s great. Thirty years ago most ads just had white folks, today you see all groups represented. It helps, it gives members of these communities a feeling that they matter. Children look up to role models who look and act like them and it’s great that these now exist for most minority groups, but it doesn’t for the LGBT community. When I watch an Expedia or Travelocity ad, I don’t see members of the LGBT included in natural ways. I don’t see us represented at all. That’s what we need. We need to feel like we’re part of society, that we aren’t separate from it and pop culture helps aid in that effort.

We also need better role models. The average gay traveler is not a party-going 20-something. A company’s key target demographics don’t change just because you want to talk to the LGBT community. If you’re a luxury hotel and the average age of a guest is 45 and affluent, then those are the same metrics as your LGBT guests. But you need to include them, have them feel like they’re a part of your business model. When you produce a print ad, why not showcase a gay couple once in a while instead of a straight couple? Companies and destinations should work with people who can help shape and share these messages. I see a lot of companies work with young actors and writers to serve as token gays, and that’s sadly all they are. They conform to a stereotype and with very little exception do little to advance the conversation. There are exceptions to this rule of course, and they should be lauded for their efforts. Just as I ask companies to portray the LGBT as a normal, everyman so should writers and influencers. Instead of highlighting exclusionary activities that are gay-only, we need to serve as role models and show other members of our community that we can go anywhere and do anything, that hate and prejudice don’t hold us back. Case in point: The other day I posted a photo of Bermuda to my Instagram account. I had a reader comment that he had cancelled a trip there because a friend told him on the whole it wasn’t a gay-friendly destination. I shared with him my own positive experiences and now he’s reconsidering that decision. That’s what it’s all about. Real people sharing real stories and helping change opinions along the way.

As with all of my ranty posts this one is somewhat rambling and I think I forgot a few of my key points, but in general it’s all there. I shouldn’t have to parade around in a tank-top, partying the night away in order to be seen as a gay traveler. The travel industry should instead realize that we’re not all that different from other travelers with a notable exception, we need to be shown more respect. We need to be included and we need to be portrayed in ways that advance the causes we’ve fought so hard for instead of shoving us back into antiquated and offensive stereotypes.

Marketing and PR is all about storytelling; it’s high time they started telling our true story.

What do you think?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

6 thoughts on “What The Travel Industry Still Doesn’t Understand About Gay Travelers”

  1. Thank you for this great post, Matt! I must admit that we have stopped looking for gay and lesbian (or gay friendly) destinations. We have done it a few times, and it was always a disappointment. Like you said in your post, there are only two things that the travel industry has to offer to us (LGBT people): places to date same-sex persons, and places for 20s-something party animals. There certainly are gay and lesbian travellers looking for this kind of experience, but that doesn’t mean that each and every gay and lesbian is into that! What about gay or lesbians who just want to relax at the beach with their children (not our case, but still..)? Or what about couples who are interested in exploring local culture,arts and history, architecture, food, etc. (totally our case!)? Why would they think that gays and lesbians are not interested in history? Last month we visited an old church during the European Heritage Days. There were about 10 people in the group, and suddenly it occurred to me that 7 out of 10 of us are gays and lesbians. None of us knew each other (besides me and my partner), and later we found out that none of us is Christian. A coincidence? Maybe. But what I’m trying to say is that gays and lesbians are interested in history, and much more than the travel industry wants to believe!

    Now we’re not asking the travel industry to offer “special” city tours, or hiking tours, or whatever tours and trips they have, to the LGBT community. We don’t always want to be secluded. In the contrary (just like you said above), we would like to be included in all the kinds of travels they have. Since the racism debate, they often include – consciously I should add – at least one Black and one Asian in their ads. Personally, that doesn’t make me feel better (as an Asian). But I know it does make many Asians feel better – or at least it shows the newer generations that this is the normal and natural thing to do. So when are they finally going to to include gays and lesbians into what they call “normal society”? When are we going to have a status in their ads?! How long do we still have to wait?

  2. Matt,

    First of all, hat’s off for this excellent post! You hit so many intersting points that truly pose an even bigger question about the 21st century gay community. What exactly is the gay community today? Attitudes towards the GLBT community have changed so dramatically in such a short period of time that not only companies are taken off guard but we ourselves as a community are becoming more and more diverse as time goes by. Reaching our community now is so tough because we are not so locked into gay ghettos and stereotypes anymore.

    Advertisements for gay travel with shirtless men in skimpy swimsuits have no appeal to me whatsoever, that’s my personal opinion. However, there is still this mass appeal and form of marketing that still persists in the community that appeals to them and generates millions of dollars every year. Even the city of Barcelona where I live is flaunting itself as a premier gay travel destination and their weeklong summer Circuit Party brings millions of euros to the city. Why? Party, beach, fit men on the beach. The thing is…sadly, it works. It’s not something I necessarily like but I’m not going to be the Don Quixote fighting this battle either.

    But another question remains…the gay community is now truly assimilated into society now, something the gay rights movement has sought for decades. In this shift from being different to a regular joe, it has eroded the “community” as we knew it. We are not as restricted or limited to mass pink destinations like Key West, Phuket, Cape Cod, etc. anymore. Possibilities for us are better than ever now to see the world. However, what is nice is having the sense of being in a comfortable place where we can be ourselves and act like a couple instead of “brothers” or “travel buddies” as many people see my partner and I when we travel. This is where the travel industry could really score some brownie points. It’s not just hotels but also countries as well. Just by giving a We accept you type of confirmation is enough to entice many gay travelers to a place they might have never considered.


  3. I think a lot of tour companies can do a better job of making their LGBT+ clients feel safe.

    A lot of us travel solo, and unless you’re willing to pay extra for a private room most companies will pair you up with a same-sex tourmate. This person is a stranger, and you kind of have to weigh the pros and cons about being “out” on the tour when you’re essentially stuck with this person for anywhere from a week to a month. It becomes even harder to deal with a potentially homophobic tourmate when your tour manager is fostering a homophobic atmosphere in the group by cracking “dyke” jokes (I’m looking at you, Contiki).

  4. I am totally undecided about that topic.
    Frankly, if I’d see a hotel or travel agency advertising with LGBT vibes that would put me off. Like: “Hey why are you doing this? you are not doing this because they feel it is right and natural, but because there is some ulterior marketing goal.” So really..no I don’t want LGBT ads and/or marketing.

    Also the whole idea of a LGBT hotel or travel really puts me off. It actually gives me nightmare. I don’t want a lgtb cruise ship or hotel. THat would feel like a ghetto or worse.

    As for feeling representent: I actually feel represented, because I really don’t feel special. My sexual orientation is completly irrelevant when it comes to travel. Its

    But as I was saying: my experiences are probably way different than 98% of the other gay travelers around the world, who are not fortunate enough to afford luxury travel the way I do, and who are not fortunate enough to having grown up in such a tolerant country.

  5. I love your post, Matt!
    I think I really get to understand what you’re meaning here and truly agree. Not all gay guys (regardless the age) are into all-night parties and being almost naked on the beach, with stunning bodies and a margarita on the hand. I work in a luxury travel company in Mexico and this is exactly what I meant the other day during a marketing meeting. It’s quite insulting that the companies want our money, but they don’t really care much about how to make us spend our money with them – sometimes I even have heard that they would have trouble with other guests if they found out that the company is LGBT-friendly so they prefer not to be exposed and still show a happy face to the members of the LGBT community that come as guests (at the end of the day, it’s still cash in their pockets, right?)

    I also agree with you saying that we as a community should visit non-LGBT destinations. I often say that to my partner. I have been telling him to visit the countries where the LGBT community is not well received, but have beautiful natural spots and charming cities with a lot of history – I mean, only he and I would know that we’re gay if we keep it low-key, right? I think that it’s not necessary to scream to the entire world that we’re gay. We just need to live as regular people, behave as regular people and, maybe, the companies will start treating us as regular people.

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