In 2012, Hilton Hotels and Resorts, an international hospitality group, started targeting a new market with its advertising tagline ‘Stay Hilton. Go out’. Its close rival, Marriott International, responded with its ‘Be you with us’ campaign, topped with ‘Pride and joy’ and ‘Out and about’ packages. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the owner of W Hotels and Sheraton, began offering ‘Pride packages’.
Such nods towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community show that big corporate players are keen to enter a growing segment in the tourist industry. Out Now, an LGBT marketing agency and consultancy, estimates that the annual global spend in the segment is set to exceed $200bn in 2014, with the US the largest market ($56.5bn) followed by Brazil ($25.3bn).
“One could say that this is a niche within the tourism industry. Only it is not [niche] – it is massive,” enthuses Jay Munro-Michell, commercial development manager at the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), a London-based trade association that recently forged an affiliate partnership with Out Now.
Ian Johnson, the founder and chief executive of Out Now, confirms that the number of organisations interested in LGBT tourism is growing at an avalanche-like pace. He points to the fact that his consulting job keeps him on an endless travelling circuit. “I am based in the Hague [in the Netherlands], but my Twitter account says that I live on a baggage carousel, which is about right,” says Mr Johnson, who in the past two years participated in more than a dozen LGBT business forums and travel fairs, from Cancún to Bratislava.
The race for ‘pink dollars’ is hotting up as levels of tolerance towards the LGBT community in the West grows and the tourism sector realises that LGBT tourists are good customers to have. “We found that LGBT tourists, given that they tend to be less bound by family obligations, travel more frequently and have more disposable income,” says Mr Munro-Michell.
“Absolutely, we do gear our offering towards DINKs [couples with a double income but no kids]. When they go for vacations, they treat themselves,” says Milko Rivera from the London office of Mexico Tourism. “Betting on LGBT tourists brings a good return on investment,” he adds.
“[Mexico is] trying to break away from being mainly seen as a spring break destination,” says Mr Rivera. In order to do so, in June 2013, Mexico’s tourism secretary launched its ‘Mexico Friendly’ campaign, while announcing that LGBT tourists already add an estimated $46m to the country's economy.
Mexico is not the only location promoting tourism aimed at LGBT tourists. In the past 10 years, cities as diverse as Philadelphia, Tel Aviv and Helsinki have been running publicly funded campaigns aimed at LGBT audiences. While Tel Aviv has promoted its beaches and attractive residents, Philadelphia has been touting its historic sites and nightlife with the slogan “get your history straight and your nightlife gay”.
But all three destinations have one common thread – they have not traditionally been seen as primary tourist destinations for mainstream travellers and so are looking for a new target audience. “Given that LGBT tourists travel more frequently, they are more willing to consider alternative destinations. This is a chance for less-frequented destinations or ones without the typical attributes of a holiday resort,” says Mr Munro-Michell.
Rivalry among tourist boards to lure LGBT tourists is also on the up. Among places that are already actively chasing pink dollars, Mr Johnson highlights Peru, Manchester, Stockholm, Frankfurt and Munich. “All these locations have tourism offices which fund and implement strategies targeting LGBT tourists from key inbound markets,” says Mr Johnson.
In Latin America, Colombia has also started a new push into LGBT tourism, according to Mr Johnson. And the International LGBT Business Expo, scheduled to be hosted in October in Bogotá, “is likely to add momentum” to the country's efforts. Meanwhile in the Asia-Pacific region, Thailand is also “interested in developing its offering in that segment of the industry”.
Increased interest in LGBT tourism also has to do with the fact that with the growing number of jurisdictions allowing marriages and adoptions by same-sex couples, the market is expanding. Hilton already offers family packages for LGBT couples in its resorts across the US, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, and also features a special offer for couples that decide to get married in Minnesota, a state that in May 2013 legalised same-sex marriages. “This is definitely an interesting opportunity for [Mexico], as we have a very strong offering for couples that choose destination weddings,” says Mr Rivera.
So, how does the tourism sector go about targeting LGBT customers? According to Mr Johnson, LGBT customers do not have any special requirements, except for one. “They simply want what everyone else takes for granted, the ability to relax and be themselves when they are on holidays,” says Mr Johnson.
“The last thing that LGBT tourists want is raised eyebrows,” says ETOA's Mr Munro-Michell. To prevent that from happening, ETOA and Out Now are providing workshops focusing on catering for LGBT travellers.
Hotel staff and tourism information centres should be able to inform LGBT customers where they can find gay-friendly bars and restaurants, advises Rod Stringer, president of Gay and Lesbian Tourism Australia, a non-profit organisation promoting LGBT tourism in Australia. Mr Stringer, who has been observing the development of LGBT tourism over the past two decades, says that LGBT tourism today is completely different from the situation in the 1990s.
“We went from trying to change attitudes towards LGBT tourists to reminding [service providers] that they need brochures listing gay bars, and we went from having Australia as one of a very few places welcoming gay travellers to being one of many,” says Mr Stringer. “The competition is growing, but we are happy to see that. Along with that grows the readiness to accept our needs and rights.”