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Hawaii gives gays cold shoulder

Andrew Gomes
PBN Staff Reporter
April 26, 1999
Pacific Business News

As Hawaii's visitor industry slumps, an exploding gay travel market is crying out for attention. Yet, local tourism industry officials are doing little to address this niche.

Some industry observers complain the failure, particularly on the part of a Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau that does not specifically market to gays, is another example of the state's narrow-minded vision helping prolong our stagnant economic climate.

Meanwhile, competing travel destinations are more aggressively courting this growing segment.

A lucrative market

The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association reports that gay travel is a $17 billion market. Last year, homosexuals took 162 million trips, including 35 million vacations, according to the Key West, Fla.-based group.

The travel industry already regards gay tourists as ideal customers because most couples are double-income wage earners with no kids. Thus, they have more time and money to spend traveling. And they are.

Organized tours, resort rentals and cruising are all expanding rapidly, according to Out & About, a publication for gay travelers and travel agents.

So, what exactly is Hawaii doing to get its share of this business? Not much, according to one prominent gay businessman.

Benign neglect

"[Hawaii] is not doing anything," said Jack Law, owner of Hula's Bar & Lei Stand in Waikiki and founder of the Gay and Lesbian Cultural Foundation.

Law said he has tried arranging a meeting with the HVCB through the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii to discuss gay-specific marketing. His effort was futile.

"[Visitor industry officials] just pretend like we're not here," he said. "It's like benign neglect."

Gail Chew, HVCB vice president of marketing services, said the bureau only markets to niche segments that set Hawaii apart from other travel destinations. Examples include cuisine, romance, family, education, health and wellness, culture, adventure and golf -- but not sexual orientation.

One local marketing executive of a mainstream hotel believes the HVCB doesn't focus on the homosexual travel market because of potential political fallout.

"A customer's a customer. Right now, we can't afford not to go after anybody," said the person who wished to remain unidentified based on fear such remarks might result in backlash from anti-gay protesters who have threatened to boycott Hawaii's tourism industry during consideration of same-sex marriage laws last year.

Law said gay visitors to Waikiki, like other segments, are fewer as the area suffers. And although Hawaii still maintains some advantage attracting gay travelers who know the islands as a place of tolerance, competing efforts are wooing potential gay vacationers away.

Competition

Out & About claims The Netherlands in 1992 was the first foreign country to officially go after gay travelers. Tourism boards of Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain and other nations followed.

In January, the British Tourist Authority published its first tourism guide for gays. The "ground-breaking," 20-page, magazine-style color brochure went to 75,000 gay and lesbian households across the United States.

The publication is part of a 2-year-old advertising campaign co-sponsored by British Airways and the London Tourist Board. Other ads are being promoted in 1 million copies of Out Magazine and The Advocate, two prominent gay publications.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is another tourist destination reportedly reaping benefits of the gay travel market. For the last several years, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau has beckoned gay travelers, even inviting international travel writers from gay publications on familiarization tours.

Bureau officials last year estimated 500,000 annual gay visitors spend about $1,000 each, or $500 million.

Besides visitor destinations, major airlines, car rental companies and hotel chains are beginning to contend for gay travelers. Even American Express is doing so, advertising "travelers checks for two" in gay publications.

Believers

Some in the local visitor industry firmly believe in focusing on the gay travel market.

"It's a nice market for us," said Thomas Wakita Jr., director of sales for Outrigger Hotels & Resorts.

Although Wakita said gay visitors tend to spend more on accommodations, he could not quantify the economic benefit. Still, Outrigger has targeted gay travelers for a few years with a general sales agent in San Francisco and sensitivity training for hotel staff.

Outrigger is one of 17 Hawaii travel accommodations, including bed and breakfast lodging, that belong to the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. (See sidebar on how major hotel chains rated in terms of being gay-friendly.)

Actually, the state with 17 members was respectively represented among U.S. cities in a search of the association's Web site. Only Florida and California registered more member accommodations with 73 and 72 respectively. New York had 15. Colorado, 2. None was found in Nevada.

Another association member is the Hawaiian Waikiki Beach Hotel. Despite concentrating on the Japanese market, the hotel likes gay and lesbian demographics, said Harald Bindeus, sales and marketing director.

"Everybody would like to have that market," he said.

But the hotel, with just four salespeople addressing the world, is hard pressed to achieve results from what little effort it makes addressing the gay niche.

On the other hand, Lee FitzGerald of The Cabana at Waikiki is specifically targeting gay men as patrons for the gay-owned hotel scheduled to open May 15.

The four-story property at 2551 Cartwright Road is being renovated as a 15-suite hotel and will offer $175-a-night rack rates.

FitzGerald said he sees only opportunity in a growing market. Others see the same opportunity for general economic benefits to the state -- if it only tried.

OUTRIGGER RANKS IN GAY-FRIENDLY SURVEY
[side-bar story]

    In 1995, Hawaii-based Outrigger Hotels & Resorts ranked above seven other major hotel chains across the country as being gay-friendly, according to a survey by Out & About, a publication advising gay and lesbian travelers.

    Outrigger, the only hotel company belonging to the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, garnered an A-rating.  The others ranked as follows:  Hilton Hotels Corp. (B+); Kimpton Group, ITT-Sheraton and Marriott International Inc. (B);  Hyatt Hotels and Resorts (C+); and Holiday Inn Worldwide and Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. (D).

    Criteria for scoring were transferability of frequent guest awards, inclusion of sexual orientation in equal employment opportunity statements, existence of sensitivity training for front-line personnel, and gay-specific advertising and marketing.

    At the time, Out & About publishers wrote:  "The hotel industry is just beginning to address the gay marketplace and work force."

    This, month, four years later, Out & About repeated its gay-friendly index of hotel chains, this time surveying 18.  Criteria was [sic] also expanded to include domestic partner benefits and membership in the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.

    Outrigger tied for third with five others with a B+.

    Here's how those surveyed ranked:  Kimpton and Joie de Vivre (A); Four Seasons Hotels, Marriott, Orient-Express Hotels Inc., Outrigger, and Starwood Hotels and Resorts (B+); Manhattan East Suite Hotels, Ritz-Carlton and Sonesta International Hotels Corp. (B); Hilton and Swissotel (B-); Hyatt and Omni Hotels International (C+); and Bass, Loews Hotels and Wyndham (C).  Promus Hotel Corp., representing Embassy Suites, Hampton Inns and others, did not respond to repeated inquiries.

    Out & About staff was pleased to report "real progress" yet was surprised hotels' progressive policies are not being translated into marketing to gay and lesbian travelers.

 ---Andrew Gomes