Out and About
Earning long-term loyalty from the LGBT segment presents a significant opportunity for the hospitality industry. In the United States alone, LGBT travelers generate approximately $70 billion of the $1.4 trillion produced from travel and tourism annually, according to an LGBT Tourism Survey released by Community Marketing and Insights in October. Despite a challenging global economy, the World Travel and Tourism Council reports that the LGBT market grew year-over-year by almost 10 percent in 2012, against global growth of the travel and tourism industry of around 3 percent. Not only are members of the LGBT community avid leisure and international travelers, but also the majority will go out of their way to purchase products and services marketed directly to their segment.
“It’s a huge revenue market,” admits John Tanzella, president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA). “It’s the largest niche market in the States, larger than Hispanic or African American markets as far as travel dollars are concerned.” More important, hotels that market to the LGBT community in an authentic way are demonstrating their commitment to diversity and inclusion, he says.
Aqua Hospitality, a Waikiki-based company that manages 24 hotels across Hawaii, has been pursuing the LGBT segment since Aqua’s beginnings in 2001. Although marketing to gay travelers is a financially prudent strategy, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Elizabeth Churchill says Aqua values diversity above all else. Aqua was the first hotel company in Hawaii to receive TAG Approved certification across its entire portfolio, which qualifies its hotels as LGBT friendly. “When you embrace diversity across the board,” she says, “it strengthens your organization exponentially.”
To gain a better understanding of what LGBT travelers feel is true and authentic for their market, Aqua has done a lot of research within the gay community. “We have a lot of openly gay individuals who work for our company,” Churchill adds, “so they provide a lot of insight into the market as well.”
Nancy Deck, vice president of full service and multi-brand marketing for Hilton Worldwide, agrees that hotels should conduct thorough research so they can identify the travel preferences and attitudes of LGBT travelers, as well as key destinations and booking periods. “Most important, make sure you’re engaging with the right messages in the right channels and building ongoing lifetime loyalty for this segment,” Deck says.
Hilton Hotels and Resorts’ goal when marketing to any of its niche segments, which include LGBT, Chinese, family, and business travelers, is to inspire reasons to travel. “Our brand promises that every guest feels cared for and respected,” Deck says, “so we spend a lot of time making sure we’re being very data driven and customer focused in everything we do.”
When compiling marketing materials, Tanzella says hotels should accurately portray what they have to offer the LGBT community. “If it’s a boutique hotel in a small town in Omaha, Neb., and there’s nothing really gay-friendly there but they’re trying to promote themselves as a great gay destination then it’s false advertising,” he says. “It’s better to tell what you have, whether it’s great dining experiences, cultural events, museums, or festivals.”
Hilton promotes an added-value package for LGBT travelers called “Stay Hilton. Go Out,” which includes an online subscription to Out magazine, free Internet access, two welcome beverages, and a late checkout. The LGBT traveler program has been receiving accolades in the marketplace. Hilton was ranked the number one hotel brand with the best outreach to LGBT consumers in Community Marketing’s 2012 LGBT Tourism Survey, and readers of g3, a U.K. magazine for lesbian and bisexual women, recently named Hilton organization of the year. To stay connected and build loyalty, the brand encourages its LGBT guests to sign up for a targeted e-newsletter. “We’ve grown that community online and it’s a great way for us to engage with our consumers and let them know about upcoming events or special packages,” Deck says.
LGBT consumers appreciate when hotel brands are actively involved in the market, so it’s important to sponsor organizations and fundraising events that are meaningful to the community, in addition to advertising in gay and lesbian media. This year, Hilton sponsored several gay pride parades across the country, including in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and had a presence at IGLTA’s 30th anniversary global convention in May. “Our goal is to continue to reach out to individual LGBT travelers and organizations that support this community,” Deck says, “and build lifelong relationships with a group of folks who value travel both internationally and domestically.”
Aqua Hospitality advertises in national LGBT publications and offers gay-friendly hotel packages but Churchill says it’s the company’s advocacy efforts and diversity and inclusion training that have made the most impact. “You have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” Churchill says. Aqua’s commitment to the LGBT segment has grown from sponsoring Pride and Rainbow Film festivals to advocating for marriage equality. When Hawaii’s civil unions bill was up for vote in 2010, Aqua employees met with state representatives to show their support for the bill, and voiced their disapproval when then-governor Linda Lingle vetoed it.
Hotels that demonstrate consistency and true dedication to the LGBT segment ultimately have the most success, Churchill says. “We’re looking at ways to become more involved in everything we do,” she says. “We don’t just jump into something and that’s why we’re pretty particular about the different segments that we’ve targeted. We have to be passionate about it and believe in the market and respect it.”