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5 Steps to Strategic Partnerships That Attract LGBT Guests


The world is changing for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. This community has plenty to celebrate these days, with the past five years seeing the number of states that recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions grow to 18—and one great way to celebrate is by traveling.

LGBT travel constitutes an estimated $70-billion-plus in spending annually in the U.S. These travelers also tend to book directly, and spend about 60 percent more in a given trip than straight travelers. Partnering with LGBT organizations is one of the most effective ways to market to this community, and is a great way to show LGBT travelers that your hotel genuinely supports them and welcomes their business.

I spoke with research professionals and representatives from some of the most LGBT-friendly hotel brands about how to identify, create and promote partnerships with LGBT organizations to draw these guests to your hotel. Here are five steps you can follow.

#1: Identify the Right Partner Organizations

When looking for LGBT organizations to partner with, it’s important to remember that the LGBT segment is multi-faceted, with as many subsegments as the straight-traveler group. Stay mindful of the type of traveler your property caters to—be it health and wellness, business, family, luxury or another—and look for an organization with supporters who might have similar interests.

For example, does your hotel attract health and wellness guests who are excited about your new gym and low-calorie menu? Then reach out to the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, the Mautner Project or the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging—all organizations focused on health issues for the LGBT community.

“Many don’t realize that basically all the organizations that exist in the [heterosexual] world have an LGBT counterpart,” says David Paisley, senior research director at Community Marketing & Insights (CMI), which provides LGBT research and strategies for corporate leadership around the world. “If your hotel primarily serves families or health and wellness, or an ‘eco-traveler,’ there are corresponding organizations in the gay and lesbian world that you can connect to.”

CMI offers annual reports on preferences of the LGBT community, including statistics on the reasons gay and lesbian travelers decide on a particular destination, broken down by gender and age. These data can be useful in helping managers understand the behaviors of LGBT travelers and what kinds of amenities to promote seeking and marketing a partnership.

For example, CMI’s research shows lesbian and bisexual women are three to four times as likely as gay men to have children. Thus, if your hotel is a hot spot for families, approaching a lesbian-specific organization for a partnership could be a strategic way to increase bookings.

CMI travel

Research on LGBT travel available from CMI

Or perhaps your hotel is popular with business travelers. A quick Google search of “[city name] LGBT chamber of commerce” gives you contact information for organizations that can help you tap into the local LGBT business community, such as the Austin Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to basing a partnership on the types of travelers who tend to book at your hotel, you should also consider the size of your hotel when choosing a partner organization.

For example, Paisley says, a small, independent hotel could offer a free two-night stay for supporters of a national LGBT organization as a promotion—but that offering might be drowned out by larger brand partners of the same organization, who can afford to offer something much more substantial. Small hotels are better served reaching out to local organizations for partnerships, says Paisley, because “that two-night stay might have a bigger bang for your buck with a smaller organization.”

Many resources exist to find LGBT organizations local to your hotel, such as the CenterLink community’s directory of cause-specific groups. In speaking with leaders of these groups, you can get a feel for the character and needs of the local LGBT community, and decide which partnership is the best fit.

#2: Create LGBT Employee Resource Groups

Chances are, many of your hotel’s employees have political or social causes they are passionate about. Those employees who are passionate about LGBT rights and opportunities might be eager to represent your hotel brand to that community and help you choose the right partner organizations.

Of course, you don’t want to go asking around—sexual orientation is a highly sensitive topic, especially in the workplace, and asking employees about it directly could be perceived as a form of sexual harassment. Instead, create voluntary opportunities for interested employees to serve as ambassadors to the LGBT community.

Andrew Freeman, of Andrew Freeman & Co., is a San Francisco-based hospitality consultant. As part of his ten-year tenure with Kimpton Hotels, Freeman served as a key figure in the creation of its LGBT travel programs in 2004. Today, the Kimpton Hotels brand—named for founder Bill Kimpton, a supporter of LGBT causes in early-1980s San Francisco—is ranked number one in boutique hotels by the LGBT community.

With Kimpton Hotels’ programs, Freeman says, the goal was to honor LGBT employees and the hotel’s founder by giving back to the community. However, he notes, it’s important that your programs represent a legitimate concern for the LGBT community, as its members will see through gestures that are purely for marketing’s sake.

Giving your employees the voluntary opportunity to get involved with LGBT-association partnerships can not only boost morale, but also help ensure that your efforts are genuine. In 2005, a year after launching the LGBT-specific programs, Kimpton developed its Gay and Lesbian Employee Network, an employee resource group (ERG) that helps advise the company on personnel and community outreach.

ERGs are becoming more common across many industries as a way to improve employee retention and gain a stronger connection to what a company’s workforce cares about. They come in a variety of forms: they also exist for different ethnic groups or people with disabilities, for example. A company’s HR department typically creates and promotes the ERG, but participation is voluntary, and employees should never be asked to disclose personal information.

“The qualifications to be in [an LGBT resource group are] not to be gay or lesbian, but to have an interest in the LGBT community,” Freeman says. “Hotels will traditionally train those people to be the ambassadors.”

The primary role of such ERG members is to attend LGBT events and conferences where they can meet with other groups, explore potential partnerships and market your hotel’s LGBT-friendly deals and offers. They may also serve as on-site discrimination watchdogs, who observe the way employees interact with guests and report any violation of the company’s non-discrimination policy.

Hilton provides an example of how powerful these employee groups can be. Hilton’s “Stay Hilton. Go Out.” program launched in March 2012 to offer special packages aimed at LGBT consumers, and helped propel the company to the top of the preferred major brand list for LGBT travelers for two consecutive years, according to CMI.

Hilton Brand Public Relations Director Jacqueline Toppings says Hilton’s LGBT & Friends Team Member Resource Group was developed in June 2012 by the brand’s human resources department as a part of its diversity strategy. Jeff Diskin, executive vice president of commercial services for Hilton Worldwide, sent an email to all corporate team members to invite them to participate. Today, the group helps the brand maintain mutually beneficial relationships with its LGBT partner organizations.

For example, Toppings says, the employee group recently worked with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to help create anti-bullying awareness in schools, and staffed a booth at Orlando PRIDE events where they shared information about Hilton’s LGBT-focused programs with attendees.

#3: Host a Reception for Prospective Partners

Once you have decided which organizations you want to partner with and created a team of ambassadors who can represent the hotel in a genuine and effective way, it’s a good idea to invite one or more organizations to the property for a reception to learn more about their efforts and discuss possible partnership opportunities. Bringing organization members directly into your hotel increases brand recognition and shows them exactly the kinds of benefits your hotel could offer in a partnership.

“Hotels have an advantage in that they have things the organizations need, which are hotel rooms and event spaces, as well as food and beverage,” Paisley says.

John Tanzella is the president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), a trade association for the tourism industry marketing to LGBT travelers. He says it’s crucial for hotel executives to get to know an organization’s leadership before committing to any partnership, and a reception is a great way to get everyone together.

“You can have the general manager and the director of marketing and sales give a welcome, talk about the property and let them know you’re sincerely involved for the long haul, not just to make a quick dollar,” Tanzella says.

Tanzella says this is also a great time for the hotel leadership to conduct a brief presentation of the hotel’s amenities and offerings that might appeal to the guest organization: highlight the healthy restaurant menu for wellness travelers, or a romantic suite package for newlyweds. Paisley adds that this should not sound like a sales pitch: avoid mention of promotional goals or hard numbers, and include a message that shows the company’s support for the mission of the organization.

#4: Establish the Terms of the Partnership

Connecting with an LGBT organization and making an impact in either the local, national or global LGBT communities is often a win-win situation. But these kinds of arrangements are still business partnerships, so drafting a contract can help both entities ensure fairness, maintain a consistent schedule and meet mutual goals.

The organization will typically create these contracts, Freeman says, which are then sent back and forth between the two parties until an agreement of terms is reached. These partnerships are usually known as cause-marketing ventures.

One common type of cause-marketing venture is called a commercial co-venture (CCV), which is applicable if the hotel agrees to advertise to the public that it will donate a portion of sales to a particular organization.

States vary in their requirements for a CCV; a Google search of “commercial co-venture laws in [state]” will produce the requirements for your state, and The National Association of State Charity Officials offers a list of contact information for state government charity officials who oversee these regulations. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has also published a list of best practices for transparent co-venturing, consisting of ways to responsibly disclose details of the partnership to the public.

Venable LLC, a national law firm, recently published a useful document that offers details about what kind of information typically goes into a CCV contract, including:

  • Dates of the campaign.
  • Amount to be donated (dollar amount or percentage of items).
  • Geographic scope of campaign.
  • A schedule for when donations are to be transferred and reported.
  • The charity’s ability to cancel.
  • Branding and intellectual property terms.
  • Compliance with laws.
  • Advance approval terms (e.g., of marketing materials).

The list is not exhaustive, and each partnership will have differing terms, so being aware of your state’s solicitation laws can make this process simpler. And there are numerous contract templates available online, such as those created by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center or Feeding America, which can be adopted and amended to fit your partnership’s needs.

#5: Advertise Your Partnership Strategically

Once a contract is agreed upon, the partnership is made official and your hotel becomes involved in events or begins to donate, the organization will give your hotel access to valuable logos or certifications that advertise your property’s involvement in the community to LGBT travelers.

The Preferred Hotel Group is a global collection of more than 650 independent and luxury hotels and resorts. Three years ago, the Group launched its Preferred Pride Collection, which only includes hotels that have committed to creating an LGBT-welcoming environment by complying with the requirements of either the IGLTA or TAG Approved Accommodations (CMI’s Travel Advocacy Group). Rick Stiffler, vice president of leisure sales for Preferred Hotels, created the Preferred Pride Collection as a way to increase engagement with the LGBT market.

LGBT logos

Three major LGBT hospitality organization logos

Using stickers and logos that advertise your hotel’s compliance with these programs or certifications can give your hotel window, marketing materials or website landing page extra credibility with LGBT travelers.

And different methods work better for different hotels. Tanzella says using a sticker on a window can be effective for smaller hotels, while a larger brand might have the budget to invest in a LGBT-specific landing page on its website advertising its partnerships.

This is the strategy employed by Kimpton and Hilton: their LGBT-program landing pages present logos for their partners, which include Out Traveler and The Trevor Project. Both hotel brands also advertise their 100-percent scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for LGBT equality.

hilton go out screen

Hilton’s LGBT landing page, showing its partners at the left

The Preferred Hotel Group also takes out full-page ads in travel publications for the LGBT audience, such as Passport Magazine and Out, to promote its Preferred Pride hotels, Stiffler says. But he also recommends taking the message to mainstream print.

“The gay consumer is reading Travel and Leisure; they’re reading the Wall Street Journal, they’re reading the New York Times,” he says. “Sometimes doing your ads in mainstream can have more of an impact than just LGBT-specific areas.”

Of course, no marketing plan would be complete without social media—and the good news is that many in the LGBT community were early adopters of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In fact, about 40 to 42 percent of gay and lesbian participants in CMI’s most recent community survey report use Facebook heavily, and are likely to click a social media ad or a banner ad on a website.

facebook CMI

CMI’s gay and lesbian engagement statistics

CMI’s report also shows that 67 percent of gay and 58 percent of lesbian respondents had visited LGBT websites or blogs within the past week, so buying advertising space on popular sites such as The Advocate or After Ellen is another smart way to reach this audience.

The LGBT community can be accessed through a variety of mediums. Thus, using a combination of print, social media and website-banner advertising can help you cast a wide net to reach more potential LGBT consumers.

There’s never been a better time to celebrate the advances the LGBT community has made. By taking careful steps to identify an organization to partner with, craft a mutually beneficial agreement, empower employees through resource groups, participate in events and promote the partnership strategically, any hotel can create an LGBT-welcoming environment that attracts these valuable travelers.

“It’s created an additional [return on investment] for our hotels, but it’s more than that,” Stiffler says. “It’s not just the smart thing to do—it’s the right thing to do.”

12 marcha do orgulho LGBT III” created by Ivo Rodrigues, used under CC BY / Resized.

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Taylor Short

About the Author

Taylor Short has worked as a reporter and writer for six years, focusing on local coverage of city governments, businesses, schools and police. Taylor tutored students in English and writing at Austin Community College and freelanced for Reuters News Agency before joining Software Advice in Fall 2013.

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