Are we there yet?
LGBT+ luxury travel, featuring Simon Mayle, Reed Exhibitions


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 onboard 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.