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Fall 2006 | Gay Business Travel

Fall 2006 | Gay Business Travel

While the hospitality industry targets laptop-toting LGBT travelers with ever-increasing accuracy, we talk to travel professionals about what makes gay and lesbian road warriors tick

South Beach's small art deco hotel scene seems like an obvious choice for gay fun in the sun, but that poolside tanner might simply be a business traveler relaxing after a long day. Before becoming president of the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Steve Adkins managed a gay Miami guesthouse. He said there were "a lot of gay business travelers who would use the hotel as a base and go about their business."

Adkins now sees mainstream hotels capturing this market by "reaching out with their advertising in a gay-friendly way."

Style and location also drive gay business travel choices. Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Philadelphia's Equality Forum, travels about two months each year; he says he prefers "hotels that tend to be more stylish, and two examples that come to mind, Kimpton and W, have certainly tried to market more towards the gay traveler." Lazin also stays near gay districts "to enjoy the restaurants and clubs that would be welcoming to the gay traveler."

Kimpton's chief operating officer, Niki Leondakis, likes to hear these things. In 2004, she says, "we decided we needed to target the specific customers who had given us some indications they really liked our product."

Gay business travelers became part of Kimpton's InTouch membership program, which sends out niche-market newsletters via e-mail. Andrew Freeman, president of Andrew Freeman and Co. and former vice president of Kimpton's public relations department, developed the program. "The major market for Kimpton is the business traveler," he says. "There was a natural segmentation, and we decided to go after the pieces of the pie." About 5,000 InTouch members (7% of the program's total) receive the gay and lesbian newsletter.

Travel consulting firm Community Marketing, Inc. began surveying gay business travel in 2005. Jerry McHugh, the company's manager of research and development, says that 53.6% of its 2005 participants took at least one business trip, with 16% taking five or more short business trips and 28% having extended a business trip for leisure purposes. "That has something to do with the dual-income, no-kids [typical gay travelers demographic]--it makes us more likely to make leisure extensions," says McHugh.

Bob Witeck of Witeck-Combs, another gay market consulting firm, concurs, adding that bosses of gay employees "may also find they are more willing--even eager, perhaps--to go on the road, so they are choosing them a bit more than [their heterosexual coworkers]."

American Airlines started marketing to gay leisure travelers in 1994. Last year George Carrancho and Betty Young, comanagers for American Airlines' gay marketing program, developed a business program targeting the 45 gay and lesbian chambers of commerce and corporate gay groups in the United States. "I work with companies who make the 100 [perfect score] on the [Human Rights Campaign's] Equality Index," says Young. "When companies rate high, I target them and I want to do business with them."

Carrancho says American is tracking 223 clients using American's already existing Business Xtra incentive program. But there's obviously room for growth, since 24,000 U.S. companies belong to gay chambers, according to Justin Nelson, president of the Washington, D.C.–based National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, who says that chambers "connect major corporations with small businesses and bring corporate decision makers" together. IBM, Wells Fargo, and Motorola are among the companies he works with.

The chambers hold four or five annual regional conferences and a national event in Washington, D.C., that amasses the country's gay business leaders; event locations are held at various gay leisure hot spots. Nelson says he was recently in Nashville, "which is not a place that comes across as ‘Hey, I am gay.' But from a convention standpoint, it's a no-brainer that we can hold a convention there." All this, Nelson says, "expands the definition of gay travel. You don't have to be a gay mecca to attract gay business travelers and attract gay conferences."

American Airlines' Young believes gay business travel will trend upward, especially as gay equality allows more employees to be openly gay business travelers in the future, he notes.

It's not just that young gay people are coming out earlier in college and business. Out gays and lesbians are now heading the tourism offices themselves, with already über-gay-friendly San Francisco naming a gay man, Joe D'Alessandro, as president and CEO of its convention and visitors bureau. And if any city can meet the business-meets-pleasure demands of the gay and lesbian traveler, it's San Francisco. Go ahead and pack the silk tie, but don't forget the sleeveless tee.

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