I was recently at the restaurant of one of Cape Town’s leading luxury hotels, when the friendly maître d’ asked if my wife would be joining me for dinner. There is nothing untoward about this question – if we all lived in the hetero-normative world – but the reality is that I don’t have a wife. Not just because I don’t want one, but more that my same-gender partner wouldn’t be too happy about it. In any case, the ensuing conversation became rather awkward as I tried to explain that I wasn’t actually married, while trying to drop as many suggestions as possible that I was indeed gay. South Africa is, after all, a very progressive country when it comes to LGBTQ rights, so I would have thought he’d have understood quickly. But he didn’t and continued to dig a hole for himself as he laid on the pity, proposing that it was only a matter of time until I found the right girl. With him teetering on the edge of embarrassment, I didn’t feel the need to school him further, it was after all, an innocent enough assumption.
As a gay traveller, I’m adept at shrugging such situations off. I’m one of the millions of people across the world that has to come out of the closet over and over again whenever I travel. My sexual orientation isn’t immediately as obvious as my gender, or my race, but it has given me my fair share of travellers tales like this one. You’ll be surprised though, that when I share this story with some of my straight-friends, or talk to travel industry colleagues, they don’t really understand why such a situation would concern me. That’s at least until I put them in my shoes. I illustrated the scene to one of Hong Kong’s most powerful female GMs, who happens to be single and asked if she would feel awkward if the waiter had assumed that she was naturally travelling on her husband’s dime. I asked my recently divorced friend how he would feel if it was him that was reminded of his recent break-up while trying to get away from it all. It’s all about sensitivity.
In the majority of such cases, it really isn’t because of any wilful discrimination, but more because of ignorance and a lack of simple training. More than just being aware of human sensitivities, travel brands and their employees have 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.
This year, I’m excited to be part of an LGBTQ travel trade show, Proud Experiences. It’s put on by Reed Exhibitions, the people behind the world’s biggest travel trade events, like ILTM and WTM. It’s very much aligned with what OutThere is all about, so it’s a great brand match for both parties. When I met Simon Mayle, the Reed Event Director spearheading the initiative, I was keen to know where the idea came from. As a community, we’ve come very far – especially with the recent advances in equal marriage – and there have been many destinations and brands that have been quick to jump on the bandwagon as they suddenly see the pink pound or dollar as a viable profit stream. Having spent years knocking down the doors of luxury travel brands and being an activist and spokesperson for LGBTQ inclusion in the travel industry, I’m always naturally suspicious of big brands that suddenly get behind the LGBTQ market.
Simon breaks the ice. “As a gay man myself, with a gay father and partner who has both gay and lesbian siblings, I’m well accustomed to the appetite the LGBTQ market has for travel as well as the challenges – or rather the awkwardness – that arise when travelling as a gay person. Reed Exhibitions runs a leadership development programme and the idea actually came directly from this, where a group of event leaders saw an under-developed sector of the travel industry. Many of our existing clients, hoteliers and destinations in particular, are passionately enthusiastic about developing the LGBTQ sector, but are looking for help in how to do it.”
More often than not, where brands go wrong is in very basic oversights. I can tell you from personal experience that there is usually no malice when gay-related issues happen – like the time my partner and I checked in to a hotel in Ljubljana and were asked if we wanted separate beds. There are also the occasions when the General Managers who know OutThere write me a lovely, but mechanical ‘Mr. and Mrs. Jong’ welcome note. And more recently, on a super-luxury hotel chain’s high-tech app, when I entered my gender as male, an unchangeable female salutation 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.
Simon shares a similar experience. “I took my partner to this luxurious hotel in Brazil, that I won’t name. The usual thing happened, two different sized and gendered bathrobes. I don’t know how I ended up with the lady’s one, but I wasn’t pleased to have to chill on the balcony wearing a robe that won’t meet in the middle. Arguably, I should lose a few kilos!”
He then goes on to share a positive experience. Again, travelling with his partner to the Belmond das Cataratas hotel in Fos do Iguaçu, Brazil, where “mea culpa” he hadn’t advised them that the other guest was his male partner; he was pleasantly surprised to find (having returned from catching the sunset over the Iguazu Falls) that the hotel had swapped the bathrobes and complimentary Havaianas for two sets of men’s ones, without any prompting.
“It may seem quite a small touch but we still tell the story every time we talk about Belmond or Iguaçu,” Simon adds.
This sort of word-of-mouth within the community can do a brand like Belmond a lot of good. But on a multinational level, the brand is already quite adept at welcoming LGBTQ guests. They have a front-facing, LGBTQ part of their website and they’re striving to be the luxury brand of choice for this market. I know this first hand because I’m proud to have served on their LGBTQ Advisory Board for the last three years, where we spend days discussing this very subject.
Simon believes that such discussion is important. “It is crucial to connect the dots for these hospitality brands and the LGBTQ traveller. My hope is that together, we can create a greater sense of belonging for the community and that they can travel more of the world with the same level and ease of comfort as any other traveller. I want to bring both sides together to discuss the issues so that brands can learn and have their questions answered – it is as much about helping the travel industry develop their know-how and business as a result, as it is about helping buyers find the answers themselves. I have big goals, but I genuinely believe that we can make a difference and have travel unite people.”
I feel that LGBTQ travellers want to feel like they belong everywhere. For the most part, today’s gay travellers don’t actively seek out exclusively gay properties. But they do look for travel brands and destinations that they feel comfortable with and in, or ones that have made a commitment to the community. And like anyone, they want to travel with and be around like-minded people. They feel like they’re citizens of the world, but there are just some places that are off limits. The sad reality is that there are many beautiful destinations that LGBTQ travellers would not feel safe travelling to.
Simon adds that he feels that politics in many places around the world have polarised. The day we met, news came in that President Trump had rolled back the rights of transgender people serving in the military. Closer to our discussion, there is also a huge debate in the mainstream press concerning the Bermuda-based P&O Cruises, who – due to the reversal of equal marriage laws on the island nation – are no longer able to perform LGBTQ weddings on board their ships anywhere in the world. As a result, the LGBTQ community is calling for a boycott on all P&O products worldwide, a PR disaster that could really hurt their bottom line. And it is not just LGBTQ people that are hitting back, but straight people who believe in a more tolerant, open-minded society and way of doing business.
Simon reminds me of the 2004 Sandals Resorts “Mixed-Sex Couples Only” advertising that ran across London’s public transport network before being banned. It seems crazy today, but only 14 years ago, there was outright discrimination. Today, they say “Couples Only” instead, but many people still remember the campaign like it was yesterday. The reality has shifted, but perceptions are harder to change and it requires people to put their hands up and admit that they made mistakes in order to restore their credibility.
“I fear for the world right now, but I live in the great hope and belief in the power of education and travel in making the world a more accepting and understanding place,” says Simon. “I do think activism is positive and companies and destinations should be held responsible. We must take into consideration the LGBTQ or LGBTQ-friendly staff of such organisations; not to mention the local populations of destinations and how they must feel. Diversity in the travel industry is not just about the traveller, but also the employee and local people. Boycotts show them that we are watching.”
I don’t necessarily agree. Yes, there must be direct action in such cases, but boycotts aren’t always the answer. At OutThere, we believe in boundless travel and the empowerment that our visibility as gay travellers can give local communities. It is of course important that all visitors understand what local anti-gay laws mean to them as travellers and their rights as a visitor, but it goes further than that. Travellers need to evaluate their expectations as a member of the global LGBTQ community and the impact that their visibility has on the local population.
“At the end of the day, the challenge is one of trust; and who we should trust with our most precious resource, our time. Do we want to spend it making great memories or bad ones? With reputable brands and destinations that clearly state what they believe in, that’s easy. Like Vienna, one of our exhibitors. And it’s not just lip service, I went there during Pride month and every tram had a rainbow flag on the front and the parade itself saw all parts of the community of many backgrounds come together,” says Simon.
But what about the lesser known brands or destinations ? How do we know we’ll be welcome in their spaces? This said, there have been numerous occasions where I have travelled to traditionally more difficult, ‘no-go’ zones for LGBTQ travellers and places that have conservative local cultures or laws, and 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 – even tailoring a tour to include some LGBTQ stories. The Niyama Private Island in the Maldives (where incidentally being gay is punishable by death, yet it remains the world’s number one LGBTQ-honeymoon destination) went the extra mile to ensure that I felt safe and protected when I visited. Then there are times where people have told me terrible things that they’ve experienced in Mykonos, or in London, or San Francisco. You just never know, and that’s why it is important for destinations and brands to make a stand on this issue.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some overwhelmingly positive things happening in LGBTQ travel right now. Relatively recent changes to laws across the world have also opened up the market for destination weddings and gay honeymoons, 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 lots of leisure time, boundless savings in the bank and a penchant for the fabulous.
So you start to see what’s in it for the brands who want to engage with LGBTQ people. According to Simon, LGBTQ travellers are just the kind of people they want. Diversity breeds creativity. Creativity breeds uniqueness. Uniqueness breeds profit. Far beyond an inclusive moral compass, the leadership of these brands are investing their time and money in courting LGBTQ guests because it makes absolute commercial sense. Gay travellers are a formidable part of the travel market. And profit isn’t a dirty word – at the end of the day, we are all looking to profit. At Simon’s show, these brands will get to meet the very best travel designers, with a high proportion of discerning LGBTQ clientele, or operators focused on exclusively gay travel. The first step is for these travel brands to demonstrate their commitment to the market, and they will repeat the immediate benefit of this by being there. At the same time, Proud Experiences has created opportunities for both buyers and suppliers to learn and understand how to develop their proposition and business to win the support of the LGBTQ market. They gain this knowledge not only in the masterclasses (one of which I’m presenting) but from the frontline experts, the travel designers themselves and the numerous opportunities to network together. The show’s suppliers are very international and truly mixed. They have both big brands and independents attending; from the classic to the cool. I’m really pleased to see some more ‘off the beaten track’ destinations such as Peru – and its regions, like Lake Titicaca – attending. It’s really gearing up to be a gathering of the most passionate, creative minds in the travel space all coming together.
“The response from everyone we have spoken to about the show has been really positive – it’s great to see how committed they are to the LGBTQ market and how proud they are. Hoteliers and destinations really want an understanding about the nuances of the sphere and the best way to speak to the market. On a more personal note, the most heart-warming thing for me is to see how the senior management at our own company have got behind the event and are doing as much as they can to themselves be part of the LGBTQ business community. Together we are setting a great example, by facilitating important discussions, leading and demonstrating from the top – to show that intolerance is not accepted and as an industry, we are proud to be LGBTQ-friendly.”
Naturally, both Simon and I have a vested interest in making the world a better place for gay people, but I will leave you with this thought: I often say that gay, luxury travellers may seem like a challenging audience, but by putting some basic sensitivity measures and the right sort of marketing in place, brands can really see great value and improved 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 base, 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.
Simon Mayle is Event Director at Reed Exhibitions and Proud Experiences, the global LGBTQ travel trade show. www.proudexperiences.com