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As the Gay Market Widens, Straight Operators Zero In

Tours: And operators are carving out sub-niches: family trips for parents and children, circuits of the worldwide party scene, HIV-positive-only groups.

May 11, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Men on Vacation. Pink Triangle Adventures. Toto Tours.

What do these names mean?

They mean that the travel industry is paying more and more attention to the dollars and sensibilities of gay men and lesbians. All these names belong to companies that stage trips for largely gay clientele. Not only are more specialty tour operators tailoring their products to that market, but many mainstream travel companies and travel destinations are taking new steps to win over gay travelers.

"It's amazing how it's changing," says John d'Alessandro, president of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Assn. (IGLTA).

The Key West, Fla.-based IGLTA, founded in 1983 with 25 tour operator and travel agent members, by 1992 had grown to 585 dues-paying members. Then, as the U.S. recession eased, the group began gaining more members. As April began, IGLTA's membership rolls included 1,300 travel professionals.

Until the last few years, travel professionals say, the gay travel market was dominated by RSVP Travel Productions, a Minneapolis-based firm that charters cruise ships to serve a virtually all-male clientele; Olivia Cruises & Resorts, an Oakland company that does basically the same thing with female travelers; and Atlantis Events (based in West Hollywood), which charters Club Med resorts for a week at a time.

More recently, operators have been exploiting niches within the niche. Santa Monica-based Skylink offers lesbian trips in the U.S., Europe and Africa. New York-based Our Family Abroad offers bus trips (mostly male) through Europe. Above and Beyond Tours (San Francisco) and Men on Vacation (San Diego) are among several companies that arrange journeys to stops on the global gay party circuit, such as Mardi Gras in Sydney; Gay Day at Disney World in Florida; and the annual Nabisco Dinah Shore golf tournament in Rancho Mirage (March 27 to 30 this year), which attracts thousands of lesbian revelers to the Palm Springs area.

The list goes on. Club Le Bon of Woodbridge, N.J., runs trips designed for gay parents and their children. Destination Discovery, run by Page Monte Wight in St. Helena, Ca., has been arranging group trips for HIV-positive travelers to Hawaii, Napa Valley and elsewhere since 1995. Hawk, I'm Your Sister of Santa Fe, N.M., specializes in female outdoorsy trips, with destinations that have included the western U.S., Russia, Peru, Mexico and Canada, and attracts a following that the Out & About travel newsletter estimates at 50% lesbian.

Except for Hawk, I'm Your Sister, all the companies above belong to IGLTA. More information about the organization, and travel agents who belong to it, is available through IGLTA's toll-free number at (800) 448-8550.

Industry veterans do caution, however, that consumers need to be careful in a marketplace so crowded with small, young companies. Fledgling gay tour operators, travel professionals say, seem particularly vulnerable to two failings. One is trip cancellations; some companies may understate the chance that a tour will be canceled if it doesn't attract enough takers. The other occasional problem: Some operators have been known to book a gay cruise "group" that amounts to just two or four people on an otherwise straight cruise. All travelers, gay and otherwise, should make it a point to ask how large their tour group will be, who their fellow travelers will be and what kind of experience the company has.

Disney is just one of many mainstream travel companies discovering how big its gay customer base is. American Airlines last year added four sales representatives to specifically target the gay and lesbian community, giving the company a total of five such specialists. In 1996, company officials say, American counted $149 million in ticket sales through primarily gay travel agencies or groups.

Hyatt hotels in Sydney, Australia; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and West Hollywood, Calif., now pay membership dues to the gay and lesbian travel association. And Fodor's, one of the best-known names in traditional travel guidebooks, now publishes a gay-themed guide to U.S. travel.

At Our World, a monthly magazine based in Dayton Beach, Fla., circulation has more than doubled in the last five years, to about 50,000. Five years ago, says managing editor Wayne Whiston, "if you'd have called an airline and said, 'we're a gay magazine,' they'd have hung up on you." Now, says Whiston, "they're calling us." Among Our World's advertisers: Cunard, Celebrity and Norwegian cruise lines, along with United, Qantas and Iberia airlines.

Spirits are similarly high at Out & About, a New York-based monthly gay travel newsletter with about 10,000 subscribers. In January, Hyperion published Out & About's guidebook to "USA Resorts and Warm Weather Vacations" (written by O&A publisher David Alport and editor Billy Kolber-Stuart), and a guidebook to North American cities is due out in May.

Kolber-Stuart suggests that the newer gay tour groups "are really less about meeting other people, and more about enjoying a travel experience that is customized, or being in an exotic environment like scuba diving or an African safari--and knowing that the people you're traveling with are not going to be . . . bigots." However, he concedes quickly, "that's not to say that there won't necessarily be some really obnoxious gay people on your trip."

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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