Corporate America embracing LGBT customers, travel dollars

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Major corporations and countries are vying to tap into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travel market –what experts are now calling a $65 billion industry.

And that $65 billion is an annual number and just in the United States.

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Major corporations and countries are vying to tap into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travel market –what experts are now calling a $65 billion industry.

And that $65 billion is an annual number and just in the United States.

Gay and lesbian travel has been a growing business for the past 30 years, spreading into everything from packaged vacations to high-end travel destinations.

But only recently has the business really boomed, experts said. The travel industry now has multiple magazines and trade publications dedicated to gay and lesbian travelers. Publicly traded companies have also added LGBT-dedicated marketing departments in order to possibly get a slice of that $65 billion pie.

“After many years of discrimination, gays and lesbians are more interested in companies that treat them with respect and do their best to accommodate them,” said Tom Nibbio, marketing manager with the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association. “And they have the purchasing power to show it.”

Major corporations such as American Airlines (AMR: 8.77, +0.24, +2.81%) and hotel chain Wyndram Worldwide(WYN: 21.48, -0.05, -0.23%), owner of 10 hotel chains including Ramada and Howard Johnson, have full-time employees dedicated to marketing and catering to LGBT customers. The staff work on everything from vacation packages to making sure their respective corporations donate to the appropriate charities.

“We were pretty much alone in our industry for many years,” said George Carrancho, a full-time employee with American Airlines’ Rainbow Team. “Now a lot of our competitors have similar programs, but we often get the respect because we’ve been around the longest.”

There are now a multitude of other companies marketing directly to LGBT customers – both gay and lesbian-themed businesses and mainstream corporations.

Earlier this month at the HX Gay Travel Expo in New York, a total of 75 companies, cities and countries sent representatives including American Express (AXP: 48.02, +0.01, +0.02%), privately-owned Travelocity and PlanetOut Inc. (LGBT: 2.67, +0.09, +3.48%). Chambers of Commerce from Amsterdam, Germany, Canada and others were also in attendance.

“I think corporate America is really trying to get an edge any way they can with us,” said Matthew Bank, chief executive of HX Media, who runs the event in 12 locations in U.S. and Canada. Bank’s company purchased the expo a few years ago and he plans to add more cities in the near future.

Travel expert Nibbio said businesses go after LGBT customers because of the high levels of disposable income and extreme loyalty that gay and lesbian customers usually have. Because they cannot have children without adopting or through other artificial means, gay and lesbians usually have high levels of disposable income compared to their heterosexual counterparts. And statistically, they travel more than straight couples.

“We’re incredibly loyal and we talk among friends just like everyone else,” he said. “If we hear good things about a company, or a destination, it’s guaranteed that we’ll tell everyone and most likely return ourselves.”

Not all corporations have a perfect relationship with the gay community though. The Human Rights Campaign, a non-profit organization that lobbies for gays and lesbian rights, issues a yearly “Corporate Equality Index” that gauges companies’ work with the LGBT community on a scale of 0-100.

Marilee McInnis, spokeswoman with Southwest Airlines (LUV: 13.24, -0.10, -0.74%) said the airline operator wasn’t happy with its 78 ranking a year ago, so the company put together a team of 30 employees to work on how they can improve. The company is now ranked 83 by the HRC on LGBT issues.

Both American Airlines and Wyndram have a “100” rating with the HRC.

Cordey Lash, LGBT Global Sales Manager for Wyndram Hotel Group, said Wyndram not only markets directly to gay and lesbian customers, but also has their front-line employees go through specialized training on how to go handle a gay couple checking in.

“In the end, you treat them as any other customer, but we put every employee through diversity training to make sure that happens,” Lash said.

The industry is also evolving, experts said. With the passage of adoption and marriage laws in certain states, gays and lesbians now are having children.

While the single-sex cruise lines like Atlantis and Olivia still exist, and the gay and lesbian beaches are still around and do great business, family-oriented gay and lesbian cruise and hotel chains that are now taking off.

One of them is R Family Vacations, co-founded by former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell. The company focuses on creating vacation packages for gay and lesbian families.

Gregg Kaminsky, co-founder of R Family Vacations, said the company expects to have 2,500 people on its cruise this June, including 600 children.

“The reality in America is that we’re more gay friendlythan we were even five years ago,” Kaminisky said. “Today gay men and women have a lot more visibility in the work place and in their neighborhoods. But, these couples are looking to meet other gay families so this is a chance for them to do so.”

Kaminsky said the vacations are often great for children as well, who don’t often get to meet other same-sex families.

“You know, some of our couples come from small towns where they don’t have much exposure to other gay families,” he said. “This is a chance for kids to meet other kids like themselves. We get a lot of teenagers on our cruises, and we see they walk away much more empowered after going on these vacations.”

Cities and whole countries are getting into the marketing effort as well. Five or ten years ago, the top international destination for gay and lesbian travelers was Amsterdam. That has now been replaced with a multitude of places fighting for gay and lesbian dollars, including Canada Germany, France and other European countries.

One country not represented there was Jamaica however, and for good reason. The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association has warned its members not to travel to Jamaica because of the safety concerns.

“There are a number of stories of gay bashing in Jamaica,” Nibbio said. “Unfortunately, Jamaica is a fairly homophobic country, so we tell people to avoid it.”

The Jamaican consulate in New York declined to comment for this story.

R Family Vacations ran into trouble in the Bahamas and Bermuda as well, however those protests were individuals not a government.

“We decided not to visit those places because, well, we have children on board and its not healthy for them to see that,” Kaminsky said. “They’re here to have fun.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.