The LGBTQ Cruise Industry: What You Need to Know

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 7, 2020

The LGBTQ Cruise Industry: What You Need to Know
  (Source:Getty Images)

With the holidays over, we're now thinking about where and how to travel in 2020. Queer travelers are three times more likely to cruise than our straight counterparts, but studies show we prefer to spend our travel dollars wisely.

When it comes to cruising, how does that play out at a time when the market for queering the high seas is at peak competitiveness? What are the latest trends, and do politics affect decision-making for consumers and corporate leadership?

Gay cruising began three decades ago when 750 revelers set sail from New Orleans on the so-called "SS Brenda Starr," from Bermuda Star Line, one of the few companies then willing to host an all-gay cruise. It was chartered by RSVP Vacations, still going strong, who kickstarted what Wikipedia describes as a "cultural phenomenon."

Today, more than a half-dozen queer cruise operators offer itineraries in and around all seven continents on ships chartered from companies like Celebrity Cruises and Uniworld. But the queer traveler and the cruise industry has changed over the past 35 years. Corporate authenticity and customer expectation are shifting with the tides.

With queer spending in the U.S. worth nearly $1 trillion in purchasing power annually and $1 billion in travel spending each year alone, it's no surprise that cruise lines and operators are increasingly intent on snagging the pink dollar. This trend should only continue as the LGBTQ market is fast-growing in the country, forecast to increase by millions in a few short years.

(Source: Brand g Vacations)

Queer or Not Queer? That is the Question

The queer cruising industry is sailing full steam ahead. According to the "23rd Annual Community Marketing and Insights LGBTQ Tourism & Hospitality Survey" released late last year, 12 percent of LGBTQ Americans took a cruise in 2018, as compared to just a little over four percent of the general U.S. population. However, of those participants, 72 percent chose "mainstream sailing," while 21 percent picked an LGBTQ full-ship charter. New studies have shown that queer millennials, in particular, tend to prefer mainstream products and marketing approaches.

Does this bode poorly for queer cruise operators? Brian Van Wey, co-founder of gay river cruise specialists Brand g Vacations, doesn't think so.

"Queer cruising is healthy," Van Wey suggests. "But I do think you have a lot more guests, especially at the younger end of the scale, that are more comfortable traveling as out LGBT travelers on mainstream cruises and not feeling the need to be part of a larger queer group or to go on a particular charter. They're going to go with what works for their schedule, like a lot of mainstream travelers would, not the designated LGBT charter that's going to be this one particular week."

Heritage queer travel brands like Atlantis Events and Olivia continue to charter ships for a dedicated customer base. Atlantis, which kicked off its offerings in 1991 with an all-gay event at Club Med in Playa Blanca, Mexico, is the undisputed leader in the business of gay cruising. On January 19, 2020, the company will launch what it's marketing as "the world's largest gay cruise" from Miami, aboard Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas — a vessel that can carry upwards of 6,200 guests. Olivia began life as an independent women's record label in 1973, morphing into a lesbian travel company in 1990. Since that time, it has ferried more than 300,000 female clients around the world.

Olivia now looks to be facing some competition from Out Adventures, which has just cut the ribbon on new lesbian programming, including a Croatia cruise, set to depart in July 2020 from Dubrovnik. Millennial travel bloggers Gabrielle Meit and Shanna Sciara of say they're "excited to learn more" about the new venture, no doubt speaking for many underserved queer travelers when they note, "We've noticed in the LGBTQ travel community that a lot of programming and marketing is geared towards gay men and we would love to see that expand to all the other aspects of our community, not just lesbians."

Concerns about lesbian inclusivity led them to pass on an invitation to the inaugural VACAYA launch this summer, which embarked from New York, with stops in St. John, Canada; Bar Harbor, Maine; and Provincetown, Massachusetts. VACAYA intended to appeal to all letters in the LGBTQIAPK alphabet. The numbers skewed considerably toward gay men on the initial launch, but the brand continues its commitment toward broader inclusivity.

R Family Vacations, co-founded by Kelli Carpenter and Greg Kaminsky in 2003, understands the challenge and has found a niche with family-friendly travel.

"We truly do provide vacations for the entire community and their extended friends and family members. We are equal men and women. We have a number of trans guests, but would love to grow those numbers... we proudly invite our straight allies and family members and that represents about 20 percent of our guests," says Carpenter. "Because our family trips include many adopted and fostered children, no family looks the same as far as age, race or sexual orientation."

While R Family now offers some adults-only sailings, VACAYA aims to emerge as the leader in cruises marketed to every member of the queer community—what the company's co-founder and CEO Randle Roper calls, "Pride at sea, a sort of magical utopia with a great mix of people from all walks of life."

It's a solid concept that brings on all the feels, but did it work? VACAYA did due diligence before the Provincetown cruise, reaching out to a range of organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Human Rights Campaign and the Bisexual Resource Center, in an attempt to market their product to more segments of the LGBTQ+ community than just gay men. According to Roper, about 100 of the roughly 1,800 passengers on the inaugural cruise were women. He says going forward, he'd like to see women make up at least 25 to 30 percent of VACAYA passengers.

Corey Craig, a queer person of color who DJed on the cruise, believes VACAYA "did a good job of setting themselves apart from other travel experiences because I did see more diversity than I would see on an Atlantis cruise. I saw different ethnicities. I saw different age groups. I saw more women and more people of color. I saw more people that have more than one percent body fat. I saw people that weren't ashamed to eat that weren't high all of the time... I feel like Atlantis looks forward to not having the diversity, and that certain parts of the gay community look forward to going on those cruises and not being around everybody. So, they're not going to do the outreach to make sure that they reach everybody because they're comfortable with their market not being diverse."

(Source: Gabriel Goldberg/VACAYA)

How Far to Go for the Pink Dollar

VACAYA tapped Celebrity Cruises for its inaugural charter. Under its parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Celebrity has continually earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Corporate Equality Index, essentially giving the brand a stamp of approval for LGBTQ corporate policies and practices.

According to Ron Gulasky, Celebrity's vice president, national account sales and trade relations, the company's new partnership with VACAYA is "ongoing business-as-usual. Having a female president and CEO, supporting diversity and inclusion has been a core value for us since Lisa (Lutoff-Perlo) began. Each of our ships is made up of crew members from over 60 different cultures, varying backgrounds, sexual identities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. We open the world for all, without discrimination."

Lutoff-Perlo has been in her current position at Celebrity for nearly five years (and at Royal Caribbean since 1985), helping to cultivate the brand as the go-to product for large-scale, full-charter LGBTQ cruises. Celebrity tapped into the wedding-at-sea market (its ships are registered in Malta and Ecuador) and will host the "largest Pride party at sea" next June aboard Celebrity Apex, the second ship in the brand's Edge series.

Travelers questioning Celebrity's pursuit of the pink dollar can easily find queer-friendly talking points on the company site. Still, requests for a phone interview with Lutoff-Perlo to more personally discuss her inspiration for forwarding the LGBTQ agenda, as well as any internal challenges she may have faced, went unanswered. For now, what transpires behind Royal Caribbean's boardroom doors regarding the impetus behind its LGBTQ agenda remains a mystery.

The economic impact has undoubtedly played a role, particularly when juxtaposed against much of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s Chairman and CEO Richard D. Fain's U.S. campaign contributions. With an estimated net worth of $233 million, Fain has often donated to anti-LGBTQ Republican politicians and organizations, including Jeb Bush's super PAC leading up to the 2016 election. According to The New York Times, Bush once wrote to a gay friend, "I don't believe that your relationship should be afforded the same status in the law as a man and a woman agreeing to marriage."

Fain's more recent financial support, as reported by the Federal Election Commission, includes Senator John Cornyn (Texas) who voted yes for a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage and Representative Vern Buchanan (Michigan), whose voting record has consistently opposed LGBTQ rights. Royal Caribbean and the office of Lutoff-Perlo did not respond to requests for comment.

With the impending 2020 election, LGBTQ consumers and their allies are becoming even more discerning in where they spend their dollars. Earlier this year, Equinox and Soul Cycle customers promised to boycott the companies to protest owner Stephen Ross's fundraising endeavors for Donald Trump. But members of the queer community may not always be quick to dismiss companies with CEOs like Fain who make unappealing political contributions. That is, as long as they aren't openly issuing virulent anti-queer statements of the kind for which Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy has become notorious.

As Craig says, "Cathy was confronted about this and he doubled down. So, you know he knows he's doing anti-gay things, and gay groups are calling him out about it, and he's still vocal. That's different than somebody who hasn't made a homophobic statement. I think it comes down to how that person expresses their own personal views about the community."

For Roper, it's far less about any one individual's opinion and much more about "what the company stands for. At the end of the day," he adds, "Celebrity Cruises is who we work with, and they have led the way with regard to inclusivity and accepting the LGBTQIAPK community. A single opinion doesn't really matter to me, but the company and the way they address our community is everything."

(Source: Kathy Valentine/R Family Vacations)

Corporate Authenticity and Transparency: Does it Matter?

A company's engagement with the queer community relates directly to its brand authenticity, a term that's earned big buzz thanks to the tidal wave of businesses promoting Pride celebrations as a way of making what might be seen as a fast buck.

According to a survey out this year from public opinion firm YouGov, 30 percent of gay men and lesbians "say that if a company debuts special Pride-themed gear or content (like rainbow-colored merchandise or special menu items, for example), they're likely to see that decision more as a marketing tactic than as a genuine reflection of the company's values."

Does brand authenticity even matter? It depends on who you ask.

"Authenticity is key," says Carpenter. "It is important for the companies that are wanting the pink dollar to put a mirror in front of themselves first. Make the changes from within for your LGBTQ employees. Then you can feel free to reach out for our money. Uniworld (River Cruises) did just this. From the president of the company to the person that cleans your stateroom, they provided sensitivity training for each employee. They are proud of our partnership with us and can provide a wonderful vacation for our community."

Millennials and Generation Z are thought to genuinely care about brand authenticity, and certainly, it's crucial to folks like Meit and Sciara. But Gen Xer Josh Rimer, Mr. Gay Canada 2019, has a slightly different take. "It doesn't really matter to me if a company suddenly wants to support Pride or seems to be chasing the pink dollar. In my view, I'd rather have a company's support of the community than not... It wasn't that long ago that hardly any company would have been willing to support us openly. So, I welcome it now from everyone who wants to show it, as long as they aren't also doing anti-LGBTQ things as well."

Rimer's comments were made before a run-in with Puerto Vallarta's Sheraton Buganvilias Convention Center, which deflected his request for a same-sex wedding. Both Hilton and VACAYA have stepped in to show their pro-LGBTQ solidarity and also capitalize on the unfortunate events for cause-marketing.

Rimer's right—it's only recently that the LGBTQ community has had the option of supporting, or not, tour operators and cruise lines we deem authentic. In the past three decades since RSVP's historic all-gay sailing from NOLA, the queer cruising industry has diversified in a way that mirrors the changes in our community. R Family, VACAYA, and now Out Adventures challenge the assumption that gay white males are the dominant consumer group by targeting lesbian and gay parents, blended families, queer and gender nonbinary travelers, and queer millennial women. Their expansions into new markets hope to appeal to every color in the rainbow coalition. Only time will tell if they'll hit rough waters or find smooth sailing in our ever-evolving LGBTQ community.

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.


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