When Patrick Gunn and Randle Roper founded VACAYA they were hoping to find a “sweet spot – a great ‘in between’” that blended just the right amount of the “liberating, empowering, and fun aspects of all-gay travel” with the variety of activities, destinations, and types of people found with more mainstream vacation travel.
Roper says VACAYA is the first vacation or cruise company to really cater to “the entire LGBTQIA+ community.” He argues the queer community “sort of segments ourselves into our tribes. And we’ve been holding that model for about, gosh, Olivia [Cruises has] been around almost 50 years. They were all lesbian, then RSVP came along in 1985 as all gay, Atlantis in 1991 as all gay, and R Family Vacation kind of came into the mix to cater to the families with Rosie O’Donnell and Kelly Carpenter. They have a wonderful model, and they do cater to LGBT folks. But we are adults only.”
Don’t get the wrong impression though, VACAYA isn’t that kind of adults-only. “While everyone loves a good time, there’s more to a memorable vacation than just parties,” Gunn says. “We also recognized the trend with Millennials that they didn’t require an experience to be exclusively gay men to be a viable option. They wanted to travel with their friends, no matter whether their friends were gay, straight, bi, questioning — or fell anywhere else on the spectrum.”
VACAYA co-founders Patrick Gunn (l) and Randle Roper (r)
The travel company’s name itself blends elements from gay and straight worlds, Gunn explains. “‘VACAYA’ is a word from Polari, a centuries-old language used by the gay subculture to discreetly communicate.” And of course, “vacay” is a casual mainstream term for vacation. To create the right environment for these experiences, VACAYA charters entire ships and resorts, giving travelers the freedom to express themselves authentically.
“For one magical week, our community gets to be the majority and live life out loud in the blissful utopia VACAYA creates,” Gunn says. “That single change from being an always-minority to a sudden-majority can have a profoundly positive real-world effect on individuals. And in those moments of bravery when an individual is feeling safe within our traveling group, some choose to share their authenticity with the communities we visit, which helps change the world – one story and connection at a time.”
Those stories and the change they engender are a part of VACAYA’s mission, Roper says, “We have an internal model that we’re just starting to put out there that we’d like to leave the places better off than when we arrived. The way we do that is by each of us telling our stories. We all have such incredible stories to share with the world. So when we come to these places, it’s about connecting with the workers, it’s connecting with the locals.”
At a resort vacation in Costa Rica, VACAYA gave guests an opportunity to connect with the local LGBTQ+ community in San Jose, which is a chance to visit a very different environment than that the Pacific remote resort, which Roper describes as “more wilderness for lack of a better way to describe it, with the dry forest and the rain forest. It’s going to be a really great combination.”
As the vacationers travel the five-hour ride between the resort and the city, guides have also arranged for local LGBTQ+ craftsmen to share their wares and their stories. “Which I just love,” Roper says. “Because it gives people a chance to really, really connect. And every time you connect with someone, it just breaks down those walls that are built around ourselves.”
That broadening of minds can also ripple outward, Gunn says. “LGBTQ+ travelers have the potential to impact the lives of thousands and thousands of locals in the destinations we visit along with hospitality workers and their families. One example is VACAYA’s own ReachOUT program where our mission is to ensure we’re giving back more to the communities we visit than what’s being taken away. Partnering with local organizations, we offer our guests an opportunity during their vacation to give back — either with a bit of sweat equity or financially. Helping to make the world a better place for others is likely to be the best thing our guests can do to counter the pain of 2020 for themselves.”
Gunn adds that he believes “that by understanding a place and its people, we can better share our stories and that little by little, sharing our stories can change the world.” This is, he argues, why LGBTQ+ travelers should visit a wide variety of destinations around the world, rather than boycotting those that might not be entirely welcoming to queer tourists.
But that doesn’t mean VACAYA picks unwelcoming locations for their vacations. For example, Roper points out that “Costa Rica really is leading away in regard to LGBT+ inclusivity here in Latin America. I mean, it was really an easy choice for us.”
VACAYA is also embracing the industry’s move toward more eco-conscious travel. “Our guests believe we can change the world… [and they] care deeply about the environment,” Gunn says. “That’s why we aligned with PONANT cruises for our expedition adventures to places like Iceland and Antarctica. PONANT prides itself on a constant respect for the environment, from the design of their yachts and procedures to low-impact shore visits.” The company has won numerous awards for its proactive approach to embracing social and environmental responsibility.
“There is no doubt VACAYA and our guests leave a lasting impression in places we visit,” Gunn adds, pointing to the company’s collaboration with Project Backpack. “One of the most devastating consequences of living in poverty is the impact it has on a child’s education. To an underprivileged student in places like Roatán, Barbuda, or Mexico, being able to start the school year with brand new school supplies is critical to their ability to learn and grow. For the past two years, VACAYA brought Project Backpack to our Mexico Resort experience…[giving] guests the opportunity to collect and deliver these supplies to schools in the ports we visit.”
Gunn argues that travel is an important part of many LGBTQ+ people’s lives. “Travel is our guests’ favorite way to get inspired and become better global citizens of our beautiful world,” he says. “While our guests love the nonstop entertainment and parties we provide, they’re also looking for experiences that resonate on a deeper emotional level: vacations to a wider range of destinations, more personalized, and more attuned to local culture, inspiring our community toward a path of self-discovery.”