LGBT Tourism: Travel Trends and Lessons in an Emerging Market

Published 5/24/16
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With ongoing changes in the nation’s political and social climate, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tourism is emerging as a hot topic in travel marketing circles. Overall, the LGBT community travels frequently, possessing a higher number of passports than their non-LGBT counterparts. Hotels, Convention & Visitors Bureaus and Destination Marketing Organizations have taken notice, and in the last few years have geared marketing campaigns towards gay travelers.

In 2015, Community Marketing & Insights conducted LGBT travel research surveys, and their results offered suggestions as to where this valuable sector is heading.

Big cities still matter, but smaller markets are emerging.

The biggest U.S. destinations for gay travelers are (drumroll please…) New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Washington, DC, Miami and New Orleans also made respectable showings, as did Orlando and Chicago. Hawaii was by far the top honeymoon destination for gay couples. 

While those vacation spots are no big surprises, having long ranked highly among non-LGBT travelers as well, those destinations a little farther down the list offer new insights into where the market may be heading. Nashville, for example, cracked the top 20, as did Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. These and other towns less traditionally associated with LGBT travel indicate a greater push towards inclusiveness nationwide.

The same trend is happening among international destinations. More LGBT travelers are heading to the Caribbean — where conservative social climates (on some islands, anyway) often dissuaded gay visitors — and to Latin American countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, both of which passed gay rights legislation in recent years.

The “sharing economy” and outreach efforts affect where LGBT travelers stay.

 It’s hard to talk about vacation accommodations anywhere anymore, without the hot-button phenomenon known as Airbnb coming up. How’s that play out in terms of gay travelers? That’s tough to say — the rental-by-owner market is in a state of flux right now — but according to 2015 figures, it’s affecting how long LGBT visitors stay in a destination. A full 40 percent of respondents said that staying in a shared economy accommodation, such as Airbnb or VRBO, encouraged them to stay at that destination for longer. Twenty percent of respondents said they tried those services out of curiosity, and because of cheaper rates and the neighborhoods where those accommodations were located.

On the hotel side, one of the biggest findings was that LGBT outreach campaigns work. Marriott’s “Love Travels” campaign, for example, took the hotel chain from a #5 ranking in 2009 to the #1 spot for gay travelers in 2015. The Hilton hotel group, likewise, has a dedicated LGBT travel microsite and vacation packages.

And finally, the push towards inclusiveness among CVBs and DMOs are gaining fans in the gay community. In the survey, 90 percent of respondents said that LGBT-specific information made them feel that the tourism bureau is more welcoming towards them, and 86 percent believed that tourism websites should offer LGBT-oriented microsites and imagery. The New Orleans CVB and New Orleans Tourism & Marketing Corporation has increased its LGBT-oriented content in the past two years. In the nation’s capital, an advertising campaign was recently launched featuring two young men smiling, along with the caption “Hot Dates. Cool City. Washington, DC.” And Las Vegas has had success with its tagline, “Everyone’s welcome. Even straight people.”

The travel community is becoming more mainstream, but LGBT-oriented activities are still a priority.

A 2014 New York Times article on gay travel trends included the quote, “Sophisticated brands and locations are evolving beyond images of rainbow flags and shirtless men,” and noted the phenomenon of specifically gay-friendly business becoming more democratized towards straight people as well. One tourism marketer in Key West remarked to The New York Times that numerous guesthouses on the island that once catered specifically to the gay community have recently gone “all welcome.”

That said, LGBT-specific activities are still a huge priority. This goes beyond the booming market in same-sex wedding planning. Among Millennials especially, more than 60 percent said they visited a gay bar on vacation within the past year, and over half of the group sought out gay neighborhoods in cities they were visiting. Pride events are another huge draw, especially among younger travelers. And finally, a unique phenomenon among LGBT travelers is that many visit other cities specifically to see same-sex friends. This potentially has a huge effect on the dollars spent at local hotels and restaurants.