Uwern Jong (he/him pronoun) is the Experientialist-in-Chief and co-Founder of global luxury and experiential travel journal rooted in diversity, discovery and discernment, OutThere magazine. He’s one of the leading voices in inclusive travel and has shared his expert insight into the latest trends in LGBTQIA+ travel with the Blind Experiences team:
BE: Hi Uwern! You must have seen some major changes in the LGBTQIA+ luxury travel industry since you launched OutThere? UJ: When we first started OutThere magazine in 2010, we were constantly knocking on doors and pushing the envelope to explain the value of the LGBTQIA+ market, I would say back then there was a very low understanding or even a lack of desire to understand. People always responded by saying that they didn’t discriminate and that everyone is treated equally, without realizing that heterosexual-privilege was actually a thing and that the bar was set so low when it came to being LGBTQIA-welcoming, diverse and inclusive. Sensitivity and unconscious bias training was laughed off the agenda. There was no such thing as Pride Month, or equal gay marriage on that note, in most places in the world. But we have come a long way in the decade OutThere has been in print. There has been a greater appreciation for us as travellers and a deeper understanding of why travel brands need to court the segment. Significant social change led LGBTQ+ people in hospitality to be out and themselves at work, and I believe that this representation in the industry saw hospitality business wake up to the need for greater inclusion. Equal marriage also opened up a market for luxury weddings and honeymoons. More visibility of LGBTQ+ families opened the eyes of family travel operators to the notion a “family” could be something different to mum, dad and 2.4 children. And in general LGBTQ+ travellers became much more visible and demanding of inclusivity. We stopped shrugging off inequality as the status quo and with the help of allies, we demanded greater personalisation and better service when we travel. We have also developed as a community from a travel behaviour perspective. Back in 2010, publications and LGBTQIA travel providers were quick to stereotype the sort of destinations that the community wanted to travel to. Given, the conversation around LGBTQIA+ rights and travel at that time was very much about safety and belonging … but today, LGBTQIA+ people want to travel everywhere, they want to see everything and experience the world and interact with our global community. But they still want that level of safety – but not just in a queer bubble. They want to be able to work with travel companies and know that they will be well looked after, and moreover, celebrated. I also think there is a much greater understanding that LGBTQIA+ travellers are just travellers … like everyone else. But at the high-end, when we’re paying for a luxury holiday, we want to ensure that what we’re buying is truly personalised to us and acknowledging of our needs. We also want to put our money where our values lie, more so now than ever before. BE: How has Covid and lockdown affected the travel ambitions of your readership? UJ: Our readers are chomping at the bit to go. 91% are ready to travel now, 72% have a booking in place; and the demand is seriously pent up. In 2020, OutThere travellers felt the same but were a little more patient and were willing to wait and dream big. They wanted to continue to be inspired by the big travel stories, based anywhere in the world. We saw our subscription numbers and online figures shoot up and people researching some truly big ticket ideas for inspiration. While numbers still remain high, the difference this year is that they have got a lot less patient. They are turning to us for specifics – they want to know where they can go this summer, autumn and winter. They are looking for far more guidance and hand holding as to where they can go and what they can do. But all in all, the pandemic has made them want to travel even more, we don’t detect any hesitance whatsoever.
BE: What are the main things tour operators can do to appeal to LGBTQIA+ travellers? UJ: Operators firstly have to consider an LGBTQIA+ traveller’s specific needs. The need for safety, the need for acknowledgment, the need for inclusivity and sensitivity. Operators must learn to value difference and make it part of their own culture, their policies and their partnerships/contracts with third party providers. They need to engage in training. This way they can be truly ready to work with the LGBTQIA+ traveller. Providers also need to look at how they’re giving back to the community. Rainbow-washing is a thing, there are many that just seek to profit from the community but not actually engaging in community activities or concerns. We’ve now learnt to sniff that out from a mile away. This also means looking at marketing and communications and how their brand is presented. In my opinion, the majority of luxury travel marketing is still far from inclusive enough – and that’s not just to LGBTQIA+ travellers, but to people of colour, single parents, solo travellers. Our world is more diverse than ever. Yet luxury travel is presented as the pursuit of middle-class, white, heteronormative families. We’re unlikely to buy into something if we don’t see ourselves represented. The other mistake brands make in marketing is around gender norms. In today’s world, men spa and women play golf for example, but you don’t often see this in hotel marketing. This leads to operators needing to consider their products in more detail. I’m often surprised how cookie-cutter and unpersonalised even the most luxury itineraries can be – not to mention stereotypical. Content is so important in itinerary building and LGBTQIA+ people want itineraries that are reflective of their interests and who they are and we want to know how we can interact with our own community, our own culture, when we travel. In a nutshell, operators need to think about how they can truly be part of the community, not sit on the fringes looking in.
BE: Is it important to your readers that tour operators and suppliers have and promote inclusive policies? UJ: Absolutely. And it is shifting significantly to inclusive policies being a must-have. While you’d think that as LGBTQIA+ people integrate more into the mainstream, they may be less demanding of the need for inclusive policies, it is actually the opposite. Just like our readers are expectant that their travel is sustainable (our recent research shows that OutThere travellers won’t even entertain the idea of a travel provider or hotel, resort of experience if they do not have a sustainable travel policy), they want their travel to be inclusive. I’m still stunned at how many travel websites will show off the brand's sustainability credentials, but not their diversity policy.
BE: Is destination safety a main priority for LGBTQIA+ travellers? UJ: At OutThere we believe in boundless travel. That means we believe everyone should have the choice and opportunity to travel wherever, ideally with whomever they want, and be able to express themselves in the way they’re oriented. But sadly there are still over 40 countries that have laws that punish LGBTQIA+ people, and 11 countries where there is a death penalty. And that’s before we even begin to talk about conservative attitudes outside urban centres or community outposts. So a vast majority of LGBTQIA+ travellers will prioritise destinations that are safe. There are a large number of the community that will proactively boycott destinations that are not. However, there are also others who want to see the world, even the more conservative parts of it. So then this becomes less about destination safety but more about how the travel provider can guarantee safe passage.
BE: Which luxury trends are most in demand by your readers at the moment? UJ: Cities and culturally-drive experiences are in highest demand at present. This bucks the trends in the mainstream. LGBTQIA+ people thrive in cities, the heartlands of our community. So while the mainstream is heading out of urban areas to wide open spaces, LGBTQIA+ people will lead the way in the rejuvenation of city destinations and travel experiences post-pandemic. And with that comes cultural experiences, specifically arts and culture. As culture vultures, the drought of live culture for us over the last 18 months means we are desperate to interact with culture again.
BE: Are issues around sustainability and responsible travel important considerations for your readers? UJ: yes, very. OutThere travellers are very sensitive to sustainability, particularly community-driven sustainability. Socially-conscious travel has always been a high passion point for LGBTQIA+ travellers. But if your products are not environmentally sustainable or responsible, you’re a non-starter.
BE: Is the market for luxury travel growing and how big do you think the market share of global LGBTQIA+ travellers will be by 2025? UJ: Impossible to say at this moment, considering the pandemic. But in 2018 the value of the segment was $218billion. There was a steady 8% growth year on year before the pandemic happened. So if we get back to some kind of normality soon, we could see this number increase even more. And much research is showing that the LGBTQIA+ travel segment will lead the way in recovery.
BE: Do your readers mostly look for travel experiences targeted specifically at their demographic? UJ: Not exclusively, but generally, yes. They mostly want to know that you’re delivering something that’s not a cookie-cutter experience. The best and most engaging journeys happen when someone takes time to outline and showcase things that are relevant to us. It could be as simple as a bit of history and mythology, or the opportunity to meet someone from the community, or support a community business or artist. I’m happy to also see much more LGBTQIA+ content crossover into mainstream content. Why shouldn’t it? Straight travellers are also more diverse than ever. They may want and are more willing to partake in LGBTQIA+ culture, or learn about the journey of the community; particularly if it’s in a place like London, NYC, or San Francisco. And beyond this we have to address intersectionality. The LGBTQIA+ segment is always talked about as one, but within it you can break it down into so many specific demographic verticals.. What a younger single gay male is looking for maybe entirely different to what and older lesbian couple wants, which will be entirely different to what LGBTQIA+ families are after.
BE: Are big brands more appealing or is there plenty of scope for smaller, under-the-radar luxury experiences?
UJ: There is plenty of scope and opportunity for everyone. We find that smaller brands generally have the ability to pivot their experiences better. What is most important is how that brand engages with them and whether they feel we and consequently they can trust the company. Personalisation is massively important to our readers, 100% without a doubt that’s what they are looking for in a travel brand. Down to the most minutiae detail, in fact.
BE: Do you think a boutique, surprise travel agency would appeal to your readership? UJ: I’m excited by the idea. But I would say that there needs to be trust built up first, particularly because of the surprise element. Travel is so personal and subjective. And with the added need for safety and belonging, any businesses looking to appeal to our audience will need to build up that trust.
BE: Where are you planning to travel this year and why? UJ: Wherever we can! I have just returned from the spellbinding Scottish Highlands, but further afield I have the USA on the horizon because we are working with a number of campaigns with US destinations to bring travellers back. And as Malta went on the green-list this week, I think I’ll be heading to discover it very soon.
BE: What is your dream destination and have you been there yet? UJ: I see wonder in every destination, so this is a hard question. But Bhutan has been on my travel wishlist since forever, and more recently Botswana.
BE: Thanks so much for your time and happy travels Uwern!
About Uwern Jong Uwern was the 2020 Winner of “Editor of the Year” at the Campaign Publishing Awards and is a vocal advocate for a more inclusive and intersectional tourism and travel industry. He is the Founder of the LGBT+ Travel Symposium series, co-Founder of Stockholm LGBT (a members-based Destination Marketing platform), runs the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s landmark “Go Thai Be Free” outreach campaign and is a proud Board Director for IGLTA, spearheading the organization’s membership initiatives as well as its new accreditation programme. Follow him and ‘Out There’ on social media @outtheremag @uwernand read the magazine online www.outthere.travel