ITB 2024 Special Reporting
Gay & lesbian travel no longer a niche but a 'state of mind'.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Wednesday, 24th March 2010
History is made as a gay and lesbian travel panel makes itself heard at ITB Berlin, Yeoh Siew Hoon was there to steer the conversation and to record it.

So I was part of history at ITB Berlin. It was the first time a "Gay and Lesbian Travel" panel discussion was held as part of the convention and I had the pleasure of hosting it. And what an eye-opener it was.

Instinctively we know what a big market it is – in fact, I ran into a German tour operator who said it's so big it's no longer a niche market but really part of mainstream, and should be regarded as just another market segment along with baby boomers or empty nesters or whatever.

To Peter de Wilde, Administrator General of Tourism Flanders in Brussels, however, gay marketing is a "state of mind" and that "most of the gay marketing is done by people who are not gay" although he declared, "I'm gay", and jested, "There, I've come out of the closet."

Brussels, he said, has had very liberal legislation since 2003. Same sex marriages are allowed, and adoption is also permitted. "Being open and credible and diverse has paid off," he said, but he cautioned the tide was turning and "we have to be aware".

In marketing to gays, he said, "we strive to get away from all the insignia that makes gay and lesbian travellers different because we are all the same".

Ralf Ostendorf, Director Marketmanagement & Director of Sales of Berlin Tourismus Marketing, said that before you can declare yourself a gay-friendly destination, you have to have support from the local community. "Gay life is part of Berlin history, we didn't have to invent anything."

American Airlines created a Rainbow team in 1994, the first and only American airline to have a dedicated team serving this market. Rick Walker, sales manager, Germany & Austria, said it has paid off. Bteween 2008 and 2009, it saw a 12% increase in revenues from this market, and its subscribers to its online Rainbow newsletter doubled in 2009.

The airline supports the Gay Lesbian Film Festival in the UK as well as the Gay Games in Chicago.

Companies however must start within and like American Airlines, which has same sex benefits for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender staff, Hyatt also has "a diverse and inclusive workplace".

Scott Seed, director of business and leisure marketing, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, said the company hired a vice president of diversity 13 years ago to ensure that happened. "You can't get fired because you're gay. You have to get the corporate culture right before you market yourselves. Otherwise, people won't believe your story."

Hyatt first turned its attention to this market after September 11 when leisure travel dropped and it saw an opportunity. Its first efforts were "poor", said Seed. "We had girls who looked more like twins than gay."

Its new campaign is more sophisticated, he said. Its new print ad shows two men embracing each other in front of a waterfall with the tagline, "Experience the destination from the inside out". Its online advertising has the highest click-through rate in gay.com, said Seed.

It's also running for the first time a lesbian ad and has developed an iPhone application. "We know we can do a better job with social media," said Seed.

Thomas Bomkes, who runs the gay portal, Tomontour.com, said that gay travellers want to be treated like "ordinary" travellers.

In the same breath though, he said companies had to learn to cater to "their special needs".

This is the tricky part. I remember the same discussion around women travellers – should we treat them differently? Should we have special women floors? Different room fittings? Or do we treat them like we do all guests – with respect and grace?

On the one hand, the panelists argue that "gay tourists want to be seen as regular tourists", but on the other, they say companies must be sensitive to their needs. And that could mean, for example, if two men or two women are checking in, "do not assume they want single beds".

The other challenge is how do you tell if someone is gay and how do you quantify the market? As de Wilde of Tourism Flanders said, "We don't want to screen our travellers".

There are some things that are certain though. If you want a slice of this market, do not compromise on quality, ‘don't be too gay to sell to gays, be authentic' and use search well.

Which goes to prove, you just have to approach it like you do any other market segment.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com

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