In a separate case study I looked at the market leaders in all-gay holidays: Atlantis and RSVP. But there are more players in the field, aiming for the LGBT travellers.
Olivia was originally founded as a women’s record label in 1973, but San Francisco-based Olivia Companies has evolved into the largest promoter of lesbian travel and services in the world, chartering entire ships, resorts and tours. True to its audience, Olivia has featured headliners such as Melissa Etheridge, kd lang, Heart and The Indigo Girls, while sports stars (Sheryl Swoops, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Rosie Jones, Diana Nyad) and comedians (Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin) are no stranger to Olivia, either.
Olivia has taken almost 200,000 women on cruise, resort, adventure and riverboat vacations all over the world, including Antarctica.
Although lesbians are welcome to join the Atlantis or RSVP holidays, they also prefer to be “amongst themselves”, hence the attraction of Olivia. Interestingly, Olivia found it necessary to segment the market even further by introducing the “Sisters at Sea” and “Sisters at Play” programs, which are designed “for lesbians of color and their friends”. Olivia issued a co-branded credit card for a while.
Next to Olivia, Sweet travel company has organizes trips dedicated to the lesbian travellers: cruises, resorts and adventure.
R Family vacations
R Family aims at gay and lesbian families with children, and their friends. Since its foundation in 2003 more than 15,000 guests have travelled with R Family. Rosie O’Donnell, the famous lesbian TV personality who is foster and co-parent to 4 children, was co-founder of R Family, but after her break up with co-founder Kelli Carpenter in 2007 left the company, and was no longer mentioned on their website as such. R Family expanded into different concepts, for instance gay family groups on mainstream cruises.
Since 2011 annual cruises are offered by La Demence, the team behind the longstanding and successful club in Brussels. It started out as pure dance party trips (short, without many interesting stops) “with a host of DJs and an impressive pool deck lighting and sound system” and two parties a day. Leaving from ‘secondary’ port Marseille on a ship over 20 years old, there was little luxury or quality. The crowd is much more diverse than with the American based trips: 60 nationalities among 2,000 guests were found from early on. Over the years, they developed into a broader experience, where more luxury ships were used, and ports of interest added to the party fun.
A first German language gay cruise was set up by Royal Caribbean to set sail late 2017, in collaboration with blu Media Group, under the new brand mCruise. The launch was motivated by the fact that ‘alternatives’ (read: Atlantis) were mostly aiming at the American market. They proudly announced that the ship Jewel of the Seas was built in Germany (as many cruise ships are). The promise of “famous artists of the community”, DJ’s and big shows should attract 2,100 passengers to take the cruise. It is set for the western Mediterranean, “outside the school holidays”. Partners of the organization are dating site Planet Romeo, gay travel agent Dertour, and airberlin.
Special cruises were set up for more specific target groups, like bears: the Adventure Bears Southern Caribbean Gay Group Cruise for instance, as well as cruises organized by BearCruise.com, Cruise4Bears and Arno’s Bear Cruises. These are not always exclusively gay, but sometimes organized as a group trip on board a ‘regular’ cruise.
Also, river cruises have sailed with all-gay clientele: this addresses the more mature crowd where partying is less important than interesting destinations. Brand G has offered European trips as well as cruises to the Mekong in Viet Nam, Central America, the Amazon en Ganges.
Early ‘00s ROmanCE VOYAGES, who cooperated with American Express, was born “when their GLBT family told them they were looking for a more in-depth travel experience rather than another circuit party”. They focused on “intimate voyages for men looking for more culture and class. Their trips are for sophisticated gay men, especially for couples seeking a romantic, cultured vacation.” Destinations were listed as Egypt, Amazon, Greece, Peru, Russia. They no longer exist.
LGBT travel agents have also booked groups of guests on ‘regular’ cruises - sometimes with a theme like “Cinema Diverse at Sea” or “Wine and Western Europe” - but this has not been very successful.
The mainstream market
Mainstream companies have also offered gay and lesbian cruises, or have they?
This print ad appeared in Travel & Leisure and made many people wonder if they were depicting a lesbian couple - not in the least because of the payoff “Nothing excluded”. In fact, the ad stars actress Isabella Rossellini and her daughter, Elettra, who are both unidentified. A company spokesman said they've gotten questions about the nature of the women, but said their celebrity endorser will be identified in future ads. "In the initial stages of launching the campaign we didn't want to do a hard sell with Isabella," explains Brad Ball, Silversea spokesman. Incidentally, lesbian cruise line Olivia Vacations uses the Silversea Line for its trips.
Carnival, Crystal, Celebrity
But gay vague aside, in 2001 American cruise line Carnival was the first mainstream operator to run an ad created specially for gay media. Though they just used a stock photograph, it is a rare setup with just men together - and also rare that the grouping only includes older men in a gay ad. It ran in The Gay & Lesbian Florida Vacation Planner 2001-2002.
The next year, Crystal Cruises was seen with an ad that played with a gay clichés: “Cruise back into the 70s with ABBA”. The small print told the reader this concerned an “English knock-off band”. Both Rainbow Travel and Friends Of Dorothy Travel were mentioned as the sales offices for the cruise. The pictures showed some middle aged men, in pairs or single, enjoying the luxury of Crytal.
In 2014, luxury operator Celebrity (the top brand of Royal Caribbean) showed three men enjoying a ball game. The ad said “We don’t believe in labels. Except, of course, modern, upscale and luxury.” In 2016 they advertised with a mysterious piece of chocolate and the tag line “Celebrate Love In All Its Many Glorious Forms”.
Note: a year before, in 2015, Royal Caribbean made the news when a gay man had “fallen off the ship” after a row he had with the staff, concerning homophobic comments. Cruise line officials maintain the man had jumped himself.
The economic resonance of cruises, especially on the ports of departure or arrival, is huge. Three large LGBT cruises that were departing from Fort Lauderdale in 2015 had a $14 million economic impact on the area, according to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (Note: some 1.5 million LGBT travelers visited Greater Fort Lauderdale in 2014, spending roughly $1.5 billion, the latest tourism bureau data showed).
Needless to say that both ports and cities are keen on attracting more cruises in general, but gay ones especially.
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