LGBTQ Travel: A Q&A with Jeff Guaracino

Formerly the Vice President of Communications for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, and now the president and CEO of Welcome America, Jeff Guaracino has spent much of his career marketing destinations to straight and LGBTQ travelers. He sat down to talk to us about his new book, The Handbook for LGBT Hospitality and Tourism, and the needs and experiences that are unique to this segment of travelers.

Q: What drew you to the travel industry, and LGBT travel in particular?

My passion is travel. The wonderful thing about it is that it connects people globally. I believe all travelers are created equal, but not all LGBTQ travelers, over time, have been necessarily welcomed. The travel industry has been a leader, frankly, in travel equality and inclusion for the LGBTQ community, for decades before other industries caught up.

Q: Philadelphia is your hometown, but you left it for awhile to pursue your career before coming back. What is it about the city that speaks to you?

I love Philadelphia. It’s my hometown, and it’s a beautiful city, but it’s also a city where LGBTQ is celebrated. Since our country’s founding in 1776, we’ve always wanted to make the world a better place for all people. Over the centuries, Philadelphia has played a role in that, and, naturally, that speaks to me as a global citizen who cares deeply about the LGBTQ community.

Philadelphia is on the rise. It’s a bit European — we have a lot of historic attributes and centres, so those things are great. It used to be that Philadelphia had a middle child complex, where we were the smaller city between massive New York and DC, but now we’re finding we’re the perfect size with close accessibility to both those places.

Q: This is the time of year that Gay Pride is celebrated with events all over the world. Why do you think we need these events?

Prides are important because they are symbols to people around the world who may not be as free to express themselves as we are in North America. When you look at the anti-diversity and LGBTQ laws in some countries, showing our global pride and coming together as a community, both LGBTQ and straight, is really important.

I also think that Prides are a celebration of the unique culture, identity, and fabric of our community. It’s a great opportunity for our drag queens and female personas to express themselves, and to celebrate our cultural icons and history.

Prides are also an easy entry point for LGBTQ youth who want to build a community. In your early years, you may not have a lot of LGBTQ people in your high school or neighbourhood. With Pride, you can immediately find a global family of people like yourself.

Q: When we say “gay-friendly hotel”, what does that mean?

In my first book, I asked what makes a hotel gay friendly, and one of the things that came up was that it used to be the in-room movies that were offered for purchase. Hotels used to offer adult entertainment for purchase in the privacy of your own room, yet they didn’t offer the same for same-sex couples, whether gay or lesbian. That is an innately exclusionary practice. So that is one example, but a very laymen’s kind of example.

Now, ten years after my first book, it’s more about how you treat your employees. Do you treat your employees with equality? And do you actively market to the LGBTQ community?

I also think it’s about not just good business, but being good community citizens. Hotel chains have really begun to adapt a good business model in terms of weddings for same-sex couples or milestone anniversaries. I think they’re doing a much better job at building a real relationship with the LGBTQ customer.

Interestingly enough, this relationship has translated into revenue and dollars, and more importantly, I think it has had a halo effect on other groups of customers, especially Millennials, who think differently than previous generations about gender fluidity and equality. I think those brands that have had a long history of marketing to the LGBTQ community, like W or the Kimpton brand, have a real leg up.

Q: How can hotels create an inclusive environment for their employees?

First, it begins with your recruitment policy. Do you have a diverse workforce? Do you encourage diversity? I also think it’s about management and boards. Are people of varying backgrounds in leadership positions?

I also think that employees who can be out while at work is a very freeing thing, because not all employees can be out at home or in their religious institutions. It’s not just about the non-discrimination policy; it’s also about the recruitment and advancement policies. The good ones are really forward-thinking and respectful.

Q: What unique challenges do LGBT travelers face when they go abroad?

Part of it is safety — that’s one of the biggest issues, especially in foreign countries. As we’ve become more global, cultural sensitivities, homophobia, and violence against LGBTQ people can happen in varying ways.

There are also subtle forms of discrimination. In India, for example, there are some very subtle questions on the application for your visa. Not only do they want to know if you’re married, they want to know the gender of your spouse. Indian laws are still considered to be anti-LGBTQ, so something a simple as a business traveler going to India for work could become something that is of concern.

In addition to that, for our leisure trips, when we get away, we like to let our hair down, be who we are, and shed our masks. We might forget about travel safety tips. Through Grindr and other apps, where sex is a primary activity, you get into safety issues in terms of strangers who you meet.

From an economic point of view, LGBTQ travelers also need to watch their pocketbooks these days. There are stewards and well-trusted brands in LGBTQ travel, like Atlantis Events or even Olivia Travel. But you also get a lot of operators out there that will say they’re gay-friendly but which may or may not be reputable.

Q: Besides the obvious — such as safety and acceptance — what can hotels do to make their properties more appealing to LGBT travelers?

Know what the customer’s wants and needs are, but I think that’s universal for all customers. For the LGBTQ traveler, one of the easiest things hotels can do is make LGBTQ travel information more easily available, whether it’s in the hotel rooms, the content channel, at the concierge, or even maps. Not every traveler wants to come right up to another person, like the concierge, and say, “Hi, where’s the local gay bar?” And you don’t know if that person is pro-gay or anti-gay. It turns the experience of asking for basic information that might be of interest into a coming out process for some.

Q: Why do we need LGBTQ travel marketing?

For a group of people who may or may not necessarily not know if they’re invited, the power of the invitation is extraordinary. Now, if you’re not gay-friendly, you’re basically saying you’re unwelcoming. You constantly need to remind the traveler that you’re there, that you want their business, that you’d like them to come back.

It’s also important to keep in mind that travelers have different stages in their lives. LGBTQ travelers who are single may have one travel pattern. If they happen to be in a relationship, or marriage or children are in their plans, it changes their travel patterns and habits. It creates new opportunities for travel companies and hotels to introduce their products or services to them.

Q: What compelled you to write The Handbook for LGBT Tourism and Hospitality?

It was the ability to give back to the tourism and hospitality industry, which gave me so much. The industry has been so good to me. My mentors have been very good to me.

So I hope this book is a teaching book. I hope it is part of a revolution that continues to evolve the industry globally. I hope it becomes a resource for people who want to be better at their jobs or make impacting change.

The unintended outcome, which I did not consider before, is that really, it’s the first written history of the LGBT travel industry by the people themselves who have contributed to it. We have the interviews with them recorded — it’s an oral history of the LGBTQ community and travel.

As time goes on, people will see how the travel industry has led other industries — the auto industry and the consumer packaged goods industries, for example — in terms of leadership and how to treat not just the LGBTQ community appropriately, but also all diverse communities. While it’s not intended as a history book, I think the outcome will be that it is a history book.

Q: You interviewed a lot of people for The Handbook for LGBT Tourism and Hospitality. What did you learn when you were conducting your research for this book?

I learned a lot about lesbian travel. I myself am not a lesbian, nor a woman, so that was extraordinarily insightful for me. I hadn’t considered the lens that a lesbian woman might have on the travel world. I am honoured to now have a better understanding, although I don’t live it, of everything from travel safety to travel motivations, which differ from those of gay men. Lesbian women tend to travel less in groups, and more independently, and they don’t necessarily travel to hook up. My eyes were most opened by the experiences that women, and women who are lesbians, have in the travel experience.

Q: What are your top three tips for hotels or other travel companies for marketing effectively to LGBT travelers?

Know your customer. Know your employees. Know your goals.

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