Hotel owners simply can’t afford to ignore the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning) market.
Gay travellers are a formidable part of the travel industry – spending over $200billion a year, according to a 2016 survey. Specifically, in luxury travel, LGBTQ visitors spend twice as much as the average adult on travel and 76% of them refer to themselves as luxury travellers, taking a minimum of two long-haul luxury vacations each year and an average of five short breaks. Moreover, their incremental spend on wellness, food and beverage and on-the-ground experiences is extremely high. LGBTQ people are also very brand loyal, with 97% saying that they buy from the brands that proactively support the community.
Relatively recent changes to laws across the world have also opened up significantly valuable markets too. The market for destination weddings and gay honeymoons has exploded in recent years, as has the opportunity for brands to explore a lucrative LGBTQ-family market. LGBTQ elders and retirees have also emerged as a high-value group, particularly in the cruise market, as these once career-driven, high-achieving people suddenly find themselves with leisure time, boundless savings in the bank and a penchant for the fabulous.
Personally speaking, I have had a variety of experiences as a gay man, both good and bad. On a recent work trip to one of Cape Town’s leading luxury properties, a friendly member of staff approached me at the hotel’s glamorous pool terrace and asked if my wife would be joining me for a bite to eat. There is nothing untoward about this question – if we all lived in a hetero-normative world – but the reality is that I don’t have a wife, nor do I want one. My same-gender partner wasn’t with me on this trip, but in any case, the ensuing conversation became rather awkward as I tried to explain that I wasn’t married, trying to suggest to him that I was indeed gay. It was really an innocent assumption, but it did spoil the otherwise luxurious experience a little – especially as South Africa is a progressive nation when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
As a gay traveller, I’m adept at laughing such situations off. My sexual orientation isn’t immediately as obvious as my gender, or my race, but it has put me in a number of awkward situations as I travel the world. In fact, gay travellers have to come-out of the closet every single time they go away. For some it is no real bother – for others, it makes them feel like a second-rate person. In 95% of cases, it really isn’t because of any proactive discrimination, but rather due to ignorance and a lack of simple training. More than just being aware of human sensitivities, brands and their employees need to understand that in today’s modern, truly global world, they will encounter many different types of people and one size does not fit all. These little moments can make or break a brand in the eye of that traveller and his or her peers
More often than not, where brands go wrong are in very basic oversights. I can tell you from personal experience that there is usually no malice when it happens – like the time my partner and I checked-in to a hotel in Ljubljana and were asked repeatedly throughout the process if we wanted separate beds. Then there are the numerous times where we find one large bath robe and slipper set and another small in our suite. There are also the occasions where the General Managers, who know I am reviewing the hotel for a LGBTQ magazine, will still have their staff write me a lovely, but glaringly impersonal “Mr. and Mrs. Jong” welcome note. More recently, on a super-luxury hotel chain’s high-tech app, when I entered my gender as male, a female salutation immediately appeared for my partner.
For want of a better phrase, the devil is in the detail. Of course it excites me when brands go out of their way to welcome gay guests and acknowledge our preferences, but while I, like other gay travellers like to be made to feel special, we really just want to be treated like everyone else.
There have however, been numerous occasions where I have been pleasantly surprised. When staying at an Alila property in Indonesia, the team went beyond the call to acknowledge us as a couple throughout our stay and laid our room out daily with his and his amenities. The Conradin the Maldives (where incidentally being gay is punishable by death) went the extra mile to ensure that we felt safe and protected when in the country.
At a multinational level, luxury experiential brand Belmond has a front-facing LGBTQ part of their website and they’re striving to be the luxury brand of choice for this market. High-end hotel portfolio, Preferred Hotels and Resorts have ‘Preferred Pride’, where member hotels can sign up to training to be certified as gay-friendly and participate in marketing programmes targeted at LGBTQ travellers.
Naturally, I have a vested interest in making the world a better place for gay people. But I remain convinced that whilst gay, luxury travellers may seem like a challenging audience, by putting some basic sensitivity measures and the right sort of marketing in place, brands can see great value and bottom line – proactivity in this space can make you rich. I genuinely believe that if brands and their teams can become experts at dealing with an LGBTQ customer, then they can easily deal with any other luxury traveller. They’ll also find that the halo from this approach to diversity and inclusion in travel will benefit all traveller types and enrich their experience. Especially with the lean to the right that is happening in the world right now, a proactive expression of acceptance and a warm welcome for all will surely resonate.
Uwern Jong is Editor-in-Chief of the world’s leading luxury and experiential travel inspiration journal for affluent gay men, OutThere. The coffee-table publication prints twice yearly in July and December, is distributed in 20 countries across the world and complements the brand’s travel inspiration portal at www.OutThere.travel