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TRAVEL INSIDER : A More Tolerant World Sees Boom in Gay Tours : Marketing: New companies catering to homosexual travelers are springing up to cash in on a growing trend.

August 16, 1992|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

About eight years ago, a couple of Minneapolis travel professionals named Kevin Mossier and Jack Sroka had what seemed to them a great idea: They'd find a cruise ship, charter it for a week and market the cruise as a vacation getaway exclusively for gay men.

The two called a cruise company and set up a meeting. But when the cruise officials heard the specific nature of the charter group, Sroka recalls, "the smiles froze on their faces. They couldn't get that meeting over with quick enough."

Times have changed. Mossier shrugged off that rejection, found a willing cruise company and built RSVP Travel Productions into a profitable Minneapolis enterprise, with seven charter cruises on the company's 1992 schedule and a big billboard over Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. About 40% of the company's customers come from Southern California.

Last year the company bought its own ship at a U.S. government auction. And this December, the 100-berth Seaspirit will make its maiden voyage as this country's first year-round, all-gay cruise ship.

This is no isolated success story. Throughout the travel industry, gay vacationers have become a prime marketing target, and scores of special-interest companies have arisen to serve them. Many, but not all, are gay-owned. (One entrepreneur asked me if he could go off the record, then confessed that he is heterosexual, but couldn't resist such an attractive market niche.)

The International Gay Travel Assn., a Key West, Fla., networking organization of travel agents and other professionals, was founded in 1983 with about 40 members. Since then, membership has grown to 125 in 1987, 385 in 1990 and about 585 now, said board member Andy Schmiedel. (The group's May, 1993, convention will be in West Hollywood.)

The enterprises range from luxury cruises to safaris, the destinations from Charleston to Mykonos. And the number of possibilities in between may surprise many travelers. For instance: Every spring, thousands of lesbians converge on Palm Springs in an informal celebration inspired by, but not formally associated with, the Nabisco Dinah Shore LPGA golf tournament there.

"It's really kind of amazing," says Marianne Ferrari, a Phoenix-based publisher of guidebooks for gay and lesbian travelers. "We can hardly get over the increases we've had in our listings. It's doubling every year . . . and it's only in the last five years that it has exploded like that."

Her Phoenix, Ariz., firm, Ferrari Guidebooks, now publishes four guidebooks aimed primarily at gay and lesbian travelers in the United States, Europe and Canada. The 1991 edition of Ferrari's $14.95 accommodation guide, "Inn Places," lists about 1,200 gay and "gay-friendly" hotels and inns worldwide, as well as travel agents and other resources. Next year's is likely to include 1,400 hotel and inn entries if the current boom continues.

"It's historic," asserts Robin Tyler, whose San Fernando Valley-based Robin Tyler Productions stages tours and special events for lesbians and other women. "And this is not just happening. It's happening as the result of a 25-year-old civil rights movement."

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Private businesses aren't the only ones vying for the attention of gay travelers. Earlier this summer, the Netherlands Tourism Bureau opened an international campaign that targets gay travelers and include ads in such prominent U.S. gay publications as The Advocate. ("Sincere greetings," reads one. "From people who respect your choices.") The city of Palm Springs' tourism division in December co-sponsored a familiarization tour for about a dozen writers from gay and lesbian publications nationwide.

"We treat everybody equally, and since we've got 25 or 30 hotels in town (serving predominantly gay clienteles), it is a viable, visible portion of our business," says city tourism office director Murrell Foster. "It's just another segment of the market."

Most travel professionals see at least two contributing factors: recession economics and AIDS.

After a history of reluctance to be associated with gay customers or business partners, travel professionals say, many companies in the industry have been swayed by the weak economy and the increasingly obvious purchasing power of gay and lesbians. But the relationships remain delicate. RSVP cruise officials, for instance, note that cruise companies they charter ships from are still reluctant to be publicly linked with a gay company.

Among gay consumers, meanwhile, the advent of AIDS has raised interest in leisure travel.

"A lot of people are traveling because they don't know what tomorrow's going to bring," says Sroka of RSVP cruises. "A lot of people have seen friends die without getting the chance to do the things that they wanted to do with their lives."

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What does this mean for straight travelers?

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