Why we need to talk about LGBTQ+ destination development

All those who are interested in the LGBTQ+ travel market need to put a renewed focus on what’s actually happening in their destinations if they want to secure long-term success.

“Ask not what your destination can do for more LGBTQ+ visitors, but what they can do for your destination.”

This was my message at the recent IGLTA Annual Global Convention, held in an iconic place and time for the global LGBTQ population: the heart of New York on the 50th Anniversary year of the Stonewall uprisings, the event that triggered the global Pride movement.

We live in an era when tourism, its impact on the environment, local people and the economy is  coming under increasing scrutiny in destinations around the world – not just in those places which are experiencing the most acute seasonal overcrowding, or ‘overtourism’ as it has become known.

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For this, and a variety of other reasons, those responsible for planning and marketing tourism are now having to spend less of their time and money on promotion and more of it on destination development, which, according to the UNDP, destination management can be defined as ‘shaping the development and daily operation of tourism activities’. The recent shift by Amsterdam Marketing to become ‘amsterdam&partners‘, focussing on quality of life in the city is just one example of this.

As I told the audience in New York, there are five big reasons why professionals in the LGBTQ+ travel community need to turn their attention towards destination development:

  1. It’s a global movement. A global shift is underway towards a renewed focus on destination development. For government organisations, spending on product development, supporting local business networks, crowd control and infrastructure investment is taking priority over promotion. Among the reasons for this, are that firstly, local residents and politicians are increasingly asking public authorities to intervene to manage their places better, to keep visitors flowing and address jens-herrndorff-399248-TLV trafficnuisance issues. Secondly, as arrivals grow, people are questioning more where their spending is going, and whether places are benefitting as much as they should be. Thirdly, there’s less of a need for the public purse to sponsor destination promotion if visitors are doing the promotion by themselves and seem to be travelling in ever greater numbers anyway.
  2. We’re rethinking tourism. Rapid growth and negative outcomes for the environment and local communities is leading us to question whether full-speed 9growth is the ultimate goal. Is growth always good? Is there another way that has better outcomes for local people? As my Toposophy colleagues and I wrote in our Toolbox on Tourism Growth for European Cities Marketing, ‘if you’re not actively solving your city’s problems with tourism, then maybe tourism is adding to them?’. As my friend an industry colleague Anna Pollock has pointed out, the tourism industry is good at quantifying (and occasionally inflating) the positive impact, while barely bothering to quantify its environmental impact, among other things.
  3. We’re re-focusing on impact and quality of life for local people. How much is tourism adding to their prosperity? How much does it impact daily life for local people?
  4. We need to re-focus on how to stand out in a crowded field, in order to compete. First and foremost, this means focussing on developing a great series of products or experiences for visitors, by making the most of our own assets. It means genuinely understanding what we have, and ensuring that local people (with their consent) are part of the experience that we’re offering.
  5. I believe that the LGBTQ segment can and must lead the change and be proactive, rather than defensive in showing how tourism can be positive for destinations. The LGBTQ segment is often highlighted as one that is innovative and ‘leads the way’ for other market segments. The whole LGBTQ market needs to get on the front foot in showing how this can be done.
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What’s the way forward?

As a result of my expansive work on destination  masterplans and research elsewhere, I set out a three-point framework that that destinations everywhere can adopt in order to channel LGBTQ tourism for good:

  1. Ensure that LGBTQ tourism contributes to the destination’s wellbeing – its people, economy and environment. Essentially, I challenged the audience to consider their whole local community as the start and end point of everything they do. In particular, we can all improve the support we give to local residents who could use some extra support, such as the LGBTQ community.
  2. Prepare the ground with great products and strong networks. Rather than DMOs doing all the work alone, it is essential that they can count on local businesses in a ‘coalition of the willing’. They can be helped best by having opportunities to network and learn from each other, and being part of the destination’s LGBTQ market strategy (rather that watching from the side-lines while the local DMO does it all). This was something I covered in last year’s Handbook on the LGBTQ Segment, for the European Travel Commission.
  3. Concentrate on building inclusive, diverse places to live (which make great places for LGBTQ people to visit). It’s hard work and it involves moving way beyond the world of tourism but ultimately destinations need to reflect the people they wish to attract. It’s something I’ve written about extensively in my 2nd Global Report on LGBT Tourism for IGLTA and UNWTO.

What about marketing?

It’s also crucial to know that marketing still has its place in this puzzle; DMOs can still play a vital role in crafting a brand, marketing strategy which should include supporting local businesses in doing their own marketing. However they also need to turn their talents to explaining to local politicians, businesses and residents what they are doing and why.

Who’s doing well at destination development?

During the masterclass, we heard from one mature and one emerging LGBTQ destination: Barcelona, and Colombia. Mateo Asensio, International Promotion Manager of Barcelona Turisme described how they’re taking a new approach to getting specialist LGBTQ tourism suppliers and mainstream tourism suppliers to network and learn from each other. His organisation also organises an annual educational forum on the market, to help businesses develop and market their own products more effectively. In a similar way, I like the way that Stockholm LGBT under Christina Guggenberger acts as an informal arena for LGBTQ+ staff to come together to share their experiences and support each other, as well as its function as a marketing network.

Meanwhile, Francisco Sierra from the Colombian National Tourism Organisation ProColombia explained the rationale behind a major LGBTQ destination development project that I led wit them last year (find out more here). ProColombia knew the country had a competitive advantage in the market as an emerging LGBTQ destination, but wanted to ensure that tourism suppliers in the country were best able to seize those opportunities themselves. This done, we also worked on a longer-term strategy and Trade Guide for developing the market within Colombia and overseas.

In summary, the concept of destination development is nothing new. Finding consensus among businesses with competing interests, addressing problem issues and addressing the tough questions that tourism increasingly throws up is hard work and rarely glamorous. Yet in my view, it is essential that all those who care for LGBTQ travel pay closer attention to what’s happening on the ground and use their talent, contacts and energy to prove that the LGBTQ travel market really can bring a net benefit destinations across the globe.

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