by Daniel Drolet, from Canada.com
Earlier this year Atlantis Events -- a large U.S.-based travel company specializing in the gay and lesbian market -- launched its first-ever gay cruise in New Zealand and Australia for 2010. Every available berth, with prices ranging from $1,599 to $9,999 U.S., was sold within three days.
Recession? What recession? The gay and lesbian travel market isn't immune to a downturn, say travel experts, but they're behaving differently from the mainstream.
For now, at least, many continue to travel, searching out deals or taking advantage of discounts on luxury trips.
Just like a mainstream cruise, you party till you drop or just chill with some good reading on an all-gay cruise.
As a result, many destinations are actively courting the market. One of them is Toronto, which will host the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) convention in May.
"It's definitely more recession-proof than the community at large," said Pat Barry of Rainbow High Travel, a Toronto travel agency that caters to the GLBT market.
"Sales reps are coming in and they are saying 'Are you able to hold your own?' and we're saying 'We're up 10 per cent since last year.'"
Barry said recent history bears out the notion that gay and lesbian travel is less affected by economic and other woes. He said that when the travel industry in North America went into sharp decline after the 2001 terrorist attacks, "our business didn't even burp."
The same thing happened in 2003 when the SARS scare kept many out of Toronto, said Bruce MacDonald of the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. "People said, 'I've lived through AIDS and lost friends; I'm not going to not travel because of the flu."
Experts say there are several reasons for this reaction.
One is that most gays and lesbian households don't have children, and so have more income for discretionary spending. (That also means they aren't tied to the school year and can travel year-round.)
Another reason is that travel is simply one of the things gays and lesbians do. It's part of the culture, if you will.
"Gay people have a strong affinity to travel," said Bob Witeck, co-founder and CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a strategic communications firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. with expertise in LGBT marketing and issues. "Given the opportunity, they will travel."
He says his research suggests that gay consumers behave differently when faced with an economic crunch. If they have to cut spending, they may cut things other than travel.
And MacDonald of the Chamber of Commerce adds that research suggests that gays and lesbians take more vacations than the general population. Many take four to six trips a year, compared to 1.5 or two for mainstream travellers. So even if they do cut down on travel, they don't cut it out entirely.
David Paisley, senior projects director of Community Marketing, a San Francisco-based firm specializing in gay and lesbian market research, says about one-third of the gay and lesbian community in the U.S. feels threatened economically by the recession and has cut back; another third had not changed its behaviour; and the final third is actually increasing spending. Those people, said Paisley, have told surveys they were "going to travel like crazy."
And he said they are interested in high-end products being discounted because of the recession.
"You can get luxury products now for prices we haven't seen in a long time," said Paisley. "For the gay community, that can be very attractive. To some degree, that's the big story."
Beth Mairs runs Wild Women Expeditions, a company based in Northern Ontario and specializing in adventure holidays for women. Nearly half her clientele is lesbian, and she says business is doing well this year. In fact, she says her most expensive trips for this summer sold first.
"Right now, you cannot buy a trip from us for over $1,000. They are all gone," she said.
"We at Atlantis are continuing to sell out cruises," said Oscar Yuan, Atlantis's VP of sales and marketing. "Both our January 2009 Caribbean and March 2009 Caribbean cruises sailed at or very near capacity. Our Cancun resort in May is sold out."
Witeck says marketing to gay customers "is one of the smarter investments in a down economy."
Toronto, for example, has been actively courting the gay and lesbian market for several years.
"It's one of our highest priorities right now," said Andrew Weir, vice-president of communications at Tourism Toronto.
"We've increased our marketing and sales in the gay and lesbian market over the last two years. It's not something that been done in response to the recession, it's done because we view it as a significant potential growth market for Toronto."
Whether gays and lesbians will continue to travel if the recession continues is another matter.
OUT Adventures is a new adventure travel company out of Toronto for the GLBT market, and co-owner Robert Sharp says he finds he's having to work harder to sell his trips.
People are still booking, he says, but they are taking longer to make up their minds.
In the States, Jeffrey Ward of Savvy Navigator Tours agrees: "I don't think the gay and lesbian segment is booking any less, but there's a lot more deliberation and evaluation of what their travel and tour options are."
Both Sharp and Ward say the market may soften as the recession goes on.
GLBT travellers are a self-aware group, one that identifies and seeks out destinations responsive to them.
John Tanzella, executive director of the IGLTA, said that destinations that appeal directly to the gay and lesbian market -- and make a concerted effort to understand their lives -- will do well.
"Even in difficult financial times, this is a sophisticated market that identifies a genuine connection between your product and their needs," he said.
Daniel Drolet is an Ottawa writer.