Companies Work to Atrract Gay Travelers

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Two years ago, American Airlines became the first big-name corporation to add several employees to its 100-person sales and marketing department and assign them the sole task of cultivating its gay and lesbian market share.

Today, the airline estimates that the team of about five employees, dubbed the "Rainbow TeAAm," has reeled in more than $100 million annually in new revenue.

"We have a history of making lemonade out of lemons," said Tim Kincaid, an American Airlines spokesman and a Rainbow TeAAm founder, regarding the origin of the ground-breaking group.

The airline's "lemons" were a few employees who committed some serious gaffes in dealing with gays and lesbians and with people who had AIDS. After those very public missteps, American, Fort Worth, TX, instituted an intensive awareness program for its employees. Soon, Kincaid was fielding dozens of laudatory calls from travel agents and tour operators that catered to gays and lesbians.

"The callers would say, 'I like what you are saying and I think you are doing the right things, so I would like to give you some business,' " he said.

Kincaid began receiving so many calls that a member of the sales and marketing department developed a business plan to bring in gays and lesbians. The plan proved so successful after just one year that American posted an internal ad requesting additional employees to focus exclusively on gays and lesbians. The ad generated hundreds of calls worldwide from individuals eager to be a part of the new venture.

"The travel industry is the most visible industry going after this market," said Bob Witeck, a partner at marketing and consulting firm Witeck-Combs Communications, Washington. "First of all, travel is a universal need and, secondly, gay people are becoming more visible in their travel because they are choosing to select travel providers and destinations that welcome them openly."

Witeck works with the Rainbow TeAAm to develop group sales packages with gay travel companies and sponsorships for gay-oriented events. He said that more sophisticated marketing efforts will be geared at gays and lesbians in time but that no comprehensive research on the market exists yet.

The most cited study, carried out in 1993 by Yankelovich Partners Inc., Westport, CT, found that gays make up about 6 percent of the U.S. population and earn the same as heterosexuals. On the surface, those numbers don't look especially profound, but, said John D'Alessandro, president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, Fort Lauderdale, FL, the travel industry is beginning to look at the potential behind them.

"When someone begins to look seriously at niche marketing in the travel industry, the gay and lesbian community invariably runs right to the top," said D'Alessandro, whose organization provides promotional, educational and networking opportunities for travel professionals dealing with the gay market.

More spending money and more spare time are two key factors that make gay and lesbian couples into hot tickets. The majority of these couples are DINKs (dual income, no kids), and although they may not reel in fatter paychecks than heterosexuals, they tend to have greater discretionary incomes. Lack of children also provides gay and lesbian couples with ample opportunity to get away often and spontaneously.

In addition, most gays and lesbians live in cities, and they often visit the places in which they grew up to see friends and families.

"The final thing is that gays and lesbians generally like to escape and get away to destinations that are more friendly than where they live," said D'Alessandro, who estimates that gays and lesbians account for 10 percent of the $200 billion that Americans dish out annually for business and leisure travel.

The association began with 25 tour operators and travel agents in 1983, grew to 650 travel professionals a decade later and touts about 1,350 members today, including major car-rental chains, the convention and visitor bureaus of large cities and most of the major U.S. airlines.

D'Alessandro lauds American Airlines for setting a precedent.

"It's pretty phenomenal to see a business card that reads, 'Sales Manager/Gay and Lesbian Community,' " he said, noting that other travel organizations are joining the marketing fray.

The British Tourist Authority said it's targeting two key markets: seniors and gays and lesbians. The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau said it's eager to replace young, rowdy tourists celebrating spring break with a more sedate group that visits throughout the year. This spring, the bureau placed full-page ads in two gay publications that read: "Greater Fort Lauderdale rolls out the rainbow carpet."

United Airlines, which was the first airline to advertise in gay publications, said it's stepping up its sponsorships of gay and lesbian organizations, events and affiliations.

"Without question, this is becoming a hot market," Witeck said. "I think that companies know that a sizable segment of their customer base is gay and lesbian, so it's an obvious intuitive response."

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