LGBTQ+, Travel

Out and About: LGBTQ+ Travel Now

London’s Pride Parade 2021 has become a casualty of Covid for the second year running, but the sentiments of love, protest and respect will still be celebrated citywide.

In honour of the date, MOF speaks to Uwern Jong, Experientialist-in-Chief of OutThere, the world’s leading LGBTQ+ luxury travel title, about how the new and the next for gay travellers, how the travel landscape is evolving for this community and what hospitality brands can do to better serve their LGBTQ+ guests. This is what he had to say...

Uwern Jong is Experientialist-in-Chief of OutThere, a multi-award winning luxury and experiential travel journal rooted in diversity, discovery and discernment. He is a board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) and Checking-IN (the LGBTQIA+ hospitality network) as well as holding a number of positions as brand ambassador for travel brands and destinations, including Thailand and Stockholm, Sweden. www.outthere.travel | @outtheremag | @uwern

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Uwern Jong, Experientialist-in-Chief of OutThere

What inspired you to start OutThere magazine?

Over a decade ago, my business partner Martin Perry and I started a magazine and content business with the dream of filling a big gap in both the luxury and publishing industries. We're both proud members of the LGBTQ+ community (plus, I come from an intersectional background), so we both saw – and were – victims of the unconscious bias that was rife in the media landscape. In the LGBTQ+ community particularly, we recognised that there was untapped potential in a very large number of affluent, opinion-leading and socially-aware people who loved to travel, who were disengaging from mainstream luxury media because they felt unspoken to. Furthermore, the world was changing rapidly, especially when it came to diversity and inclusion and travel media seemed slow – or reticent – to react. We wanted to do something about it. 

Today, we feel we’ve achieved our mission to become the world’s leading luxury travel title for the LGBTQ+ community, but we're actually more proud that we are regarded as one of the nation’s foremost travel magazines for all. 

Over our 12 years in print, we have picked up a world of allies, readers, fans and followers, many of which we hadn’t originally targeted. We continue to fill the gap for those who love luxury travel and everything around it, but still feel under-represented in the mainstream: solo-female travellers, people of colour, single-parents – all of which are looking for travel content that speaks to them, that understands that travellers aren’t just white, patriarchal, coupled, or families with one of each, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, cisgendered children – myths that the travel industry still pushes in its marketing today.

How has the travel landscape evolved since you launched the magazine in 2009? 

So much has changed but there’s still work to be done. When we first started OutThere, there wasn’t equal gay marriage in the UK, US and many other places in the world, and there weren’t as many families with same-gender parents. Most LGBTQ+ people stuck to safe, urban bubbles when they travelled – the idea of “adventure" was generally limited to where we wouldn’t be persecuted, be at risk of being admonished or made to feel awkward for just being who we are.

Today, thankfully, the world is more open to us than ever before. We now live in one that talks openly about LGBTQ+ honeymoons, destination weddings and family travel, and one that has a greater appreciation of the value of LGBTQ+ travel. Travel providers in turn are dedicated to greater diversity and inclusion, and courting the community.

We do have to acknowledge that there are still places in the world that are way behind in acknowledging LGBTQ+ rights; some still have archaic laws and regulations that could put members of our community behind bars, or worse, send them to death. I recognise our privilege as LGBTQ+ people who live in a country that is more open-minded and affords legal protections to us, because this is still not a reality for LGBTQ+ people in many (most) other countries.

Uwern Jong, Experientialist-in-Chief of OutThere

We now live in a world that talks openly about LGBTQ+ honeymoons, destination weddings and family travel, and one that has a greater appreciation of the value of LGBTQ+ travel.

What are the current primary concerns for LGBTQ+ travellers?

Safety is still a primary concern, and linked to that is social justice. LGBTQ+ people just want to be themselves on holiday and they generally want to travel to a place where we know they aren't being awful to LGBTQ+ people. Equally, we want to stay at a hotel or engage in an experience that values its LGBTQ+ staff and the local LGBTQ+ community. 

In a society where we are increasingly time-poor, we want to ensure that when we spend money on holiday, we are going to be treated well (not just equally, but well). We don’t want to have to encounter any awkwardness about our sexuality while travelling, or be constantly misgendered, or for someone to ask their child where their mother is when they’ve got two dads, or my biggest bugbear – asked if my wife will be joining me for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. For a lot of people, this seems trivial, but we’ve spent decades – centuries, even – shrugging off these heteronormative notions, in the same way a single parent, or a solo-female traveller is sometimes treated in similar circumstances. It’s time that we stop having to come out over and over again when we travel, or worse, fear having to come out.

We also want to go out and see the world. Yes, some of us do want to go to places that may be more conservative. We may want to see gorillas in Uganda, enjoy the beaches of the Caribbean, explore the Pyramids of Giza and sail the archipelago of Raja Ampat in Indonesia. But it’s hard to know if we will be safe and welcomed in these places. So we rely on experts to tell us how.

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How do most gay travellers research and plan a luxury holiday? Who or what are their go-to resources?

We’d be naive if we said that LGBTQ+ travellers don’t use mainstream resources to plan their luxury travel. They do, but they do so with publications like us in parallel, or other LGBTQ+ storytellers, influencers and travel experts. It all comes down to trust and who you can identify with – and we’ve built that trust with our readers over twelve years. A fab hotel is just a hotel, until we can provide a unique opinion, or an inside track, and test it for real - that’s what we offer, a tried and tested opinion from the perspective of an OutThere Experientialist. 

Word of mouth is extremely prevalent in our community, so other go-to resources would be friends and family. That’s the kind of tone we like to take: independent, friendly, assuring... and we don’t always provide a fully-fledged guide on the LGBTQ+ situation in a destination or the experience that we have as LGBTQ+ people in a hotel. It’s our Experientialists that our readers trust and their perspectives that they value.

Travel advisors are also seeing a renaissance, now more than post pandemic – and we’re proud to work with many of them. The best travel advisors will spend time getting to know you, your needs and wants – and your fears. They can really help travellers navigate the world and plan a hitch-free trip.

I really believe that content is king – the more LGBTQ+ inspired content there is out there in a destination or experience, the more likely an LGBTQ+ traveller will engage. We work with the Tourism Authority of Thailand on their landmark ‘Go Thai Be Free’ campaign, that we helped to develop and continue to curate. It provides the LGBTQ+ community with content that is inspirational and informational, but designed specifically for them. That is a whole other level of community engagement, and it proves to be very successful.

What are LGBTQ+ luxury travellers looking for from their trips - and what are the top destinations and types of vacation currently in vogue? 

At present (post pandemic) LGBTQ+ people are looking to get back into cities. We thrive in cities; they are the heart of our communities. So, while the mainstream are looking to get out into wide open spaces with low human contact, we’re looking to get back into the world’s cities, large and small. 

As a community we have also long been motivated by cultural experiences. During the pandemic, our access to those experiences were curtailed and we’re hungry for it again. We want to repopulate museums, go to shows, eat at local restaurants and imbibe ourselves in the arts, culture and people. 

London as a destination is starting to bounce back, with US and EU travellers able to visit again. But I also know smaller cities like Stockholm, Venice, Barcelona, Berlin and Athens are seeing LGBTQ+ travellers return.

On the social justice note, we’re seeing that LGBTQ+ travellers are also returning to support destinations that have made strides in LGBTQ+ rights. Malta, for example, which has topped the ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) league tables as Europe’s most LGBTQI+ friendly destination for many years now is seeing an influx of LGBTQ+ travellers, helped in part that it is a green list destination. But I see travellers flocking back to Mykonos, Ibiza, Fire Island and Provincetown in the US, plus other traditional LGBTQ+ bubbles, in order to support the community and infrastructure that has long supported us.

Are there any types of event or tailored breaks that prove popular in motivating gay travellers to visit specific destinations or hotels?

Yes, LGBTQ+ specific or Pride-based events prove very popular in driving LGBTQ+ travellers to destinations, hotels and experiences. Gay cruises, both on sea and smaller river cruises, as well as LGBTQ+ ski weeks, music events, dance parties, Christmas markets and film-festivals have been popular for ages now and have succeeded in creating an influx of LGBTQ+ travellers into destinations and hotels, often at shoulder season or less busy times of year.  We’re also seeing a lot more LGBTQ+ group itineraries with LGBTQ+ guides who provide deeper, more informed journeys about LGBTQ+ history etc, as well as LGBTQ+ centred wellness and life-changing retreats. Family travel providers are also offering opportunities for LGBTQ+ families to get together on holiday.

We’ve been working with Belmond on LGBTQ+ centred programming of their Venice-Simplon Orient Express, as well as creating events and reasons for LGBTQ+ people to visit the city of Stockholm, for example. Tailored events can certainly drive LGBTQ+ traffic, but also capture the attention of LGBTQ+ travellers for the rest of the year.

The halo of being diverse and inclusive extends way beyond the LGBTQ+ community. By running LGBTQ+ events or holidays, you can impact other marginalized communities and much more woke, 21st century folk.

Uwern Jong, Experientialist-in-Chief of OutThere

As a community we have also long been motivated by cultural experiences. During the pandemic, our access to those experiences were curtailed and we’re hungry for it again.

Are there any common misconceptions of gay travellers regarding their travel preferences?

Loads...That we’re going to spend every night on holiday at the local gay bar. That we’re all sex tourists. That we all need large, lit mirrors to put our make-up on (I jest!). Seriously, we just want to holiday like everyone else, but safely – and we want to be acknowledged and celebrated. 

The biggest misconception though is that the LGBTQ+ community is one single demographic. We are men, women, in between, genderless ... we’re of different ages, from different backgrounds, have different life journeys and comfort levels when it comes to being out and proud. So, it’s only natural that within our community, people will have entirely different preferences. There are, of course, some community-wide basics and trends that need to be looked after and capitalized on, but the sooner than travel brands understand that real personalisation is we’re looking for, the better – and the fewer issues they’ll have when it comes to meeting the needs of LGBTQ+ guests, or any guests, for that matter.

Also, it’s not always the lead guests that you have to look out for. For example, hoteliers will most probably find that their transgender or gender non-conforming clients are the children of cisgendered, heterosexual parents, these days. This is an example of why we need to look beyond what we think we know of travellers, and what we know of our LGBTQ+ travellers.

Any ideas for inspiring activations luxury brands could peg to the likes of Pride London (the type that resonates well with the community) – and how best to go about the process successfully?

Authenticity is the most important key to success of any such activations. You won’t be immune to the rainbow-washing that sometimes happens around Pride; just because it’s Pride, brands turn their logos to rainbows to look to profit from the community without actually creating initiatives and activations that benefit the community. Activations should always look at how to give back to the LGBTQ+ community, rather than what it can take from them. I also don’t feel that brands should just peg activities to Pride - courting the LGBTQ+ community means that you should be part of the community, and if you are part of the community, you will be working with the community all year round.

But, if you must, then the sort of activations that resonate well are events and exhibitions – creative content – that celebrate the journey, now and future of the LGBTQ+ community. You can make your space available to members of the community that have something to share. You can fundraise for a local LGBTQ+ charity, or engage in mentorship for LGBTQ+ youth.

Covid has taught us that these don’t always have to be live and offline. But if you’re going to do it, don’t just do it because it’s a marketing calendar item - it shouldn't be like Easter, Wimbledon or Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For the LGBTQ+ community, Pride is a protest as well as a celebration, so treat it with care and ensure that Pride is something you can build on, rather than a tokenistic-one off. (Read Uwern’s recent article about hospitality brands doing well for Pride month here).

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Are you able to cite any examples of luxury hospitality brands that have gone above and beyond to ensure that their offerings are LGBTQ+ friendly? How have they achieved this?

Belmond is a great example of a brand that goes the distance for the LGBTQ+ community. We are proud to be founding members of Belmond’s LGBTQ+ advisory board, the only brand we know in existence that has one. Each year, they bring together top storytellers and travel advisors that work with the community, to develop strategies that they can action and implement into their hotels and experiences worldwide. From staff sensitivity training, to marketing know-how, to product development, the board has proved invaluable to Belmond’s engagement of LGBTQ+ audiences.

The Preferred Hotel Group, the world’s largest collection of independent hotels have an initiative called Preferred Pride – a collection of properties that invest together towards making their places to stay, destinations of choice for the LGBTQ+ community. Collectively, they pay for training and development, and host regular thought-leadership events on diversity in travel so that everyone can benefit from know-how and experience.

We recently worked with the 137 Pillars Resorts and Hotels in Thailand to train and workshop their heads of departments on how they can do better to welcome LGBTQ+ guests and get rid of unconscious bias throughout the organization. Additionally, we helped Scott Dunn travel, a “family” travel company launch a whole new LGBTQ+ travel section of their website.

Coupledriving

Any examples of brands getting it wrong – and why?

I won’t name and shame, but plenty of brands have tried to profit from the community without giving back in any way. The LGBTQ+ community has learnt to sniff that out and will hold those brands accountable and in the age of social media, publicly! The days of slapping a rainbow on something and saying that you’re welcoming are over, we actually want to know that you are invested in helping the community. 

Then there are brands who over-sexualise the LGBTQ+ community, particularly in their portrayal of lesbian travellers, but also of men (speedos and six packs all round, yes you know the one). So wrong in so many ways.

Additionally, there are numerous failures to follow through. I’ve seen so many brands that talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk when you’re actually onsite. If you’re going to engage LGBTQ+ travellers, make sure your destination or property can live up to the expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, I think any brand who considers working with the LGBTQ+ market is making a remarkable step, but if they don’t have the expertise in house, they should enlist the help of an expert to get it right.

How do you see the future of LGBTQ+ luxury  travel - what excites you most?

I think the future is bright for LGBTQ+ luxury travel. More and more brands see the value of the community commercially – and also because it’s right to be inclusive – and I think this will impact the wider travel industry as a whole. The halo from brands embracing LGBTQ+ diversity will mean a much more inclusive industry in general, which can only be a good thing. 

At the luxury end of the spectrum, LGBTQ+ travellers are among the highest value travellers there are, both in terms of their spend and the social impact they can leave. In a period of much needed recovery post-pandemic, LGBTQ+ travellers will play an important part in helping economies get back on track.

I also think LGBTQ+ travellers will continue to go further and deeper into more destinations than ever before, as travel providers find safe and meaningful ways for them to travel to the more conservative destinations in the world. There is great power in the visibility of the community. This way, people in those destinations will see that there can be a different attitude, perspective or outlook. Plus, LGBTQ+ people exist everywhere, so our visibility and support may help them in demanding greater equality, justice and inclusion, or compel travellers to do more to help them further when they return home. Travel is powerful in this way, it can help broaden horizons for all.

Uwern’s 5 rules for ensuring your brand is properly engaging with and supporting the LGBTQ+ community

01

Make LGBTQ+ engagement be part of your everyday – not just a flash in a pan. Be part of the community, don’t sit on the outside looking in.

02

Engage in unconscious bias and sensitivity training to benefit both your operations and marketing. In my opinion, the travel industry has always served and portrayed travellers in one, antiquated way. It’s time to shake things up, particularly when it comes to your visual marketing and storytelling.

03

Enlist the help of an expert to advise on strategy, content, operations etc. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution – think the tired rainbow version of your logo that appears each June.

04

Be allies to and value your LGBTQ+ staff/team-members – they are your greatest ambassadors.

05

Do it not just because it is profitable, do it because it is the right thing to do and impacts on your brand’s culture.

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