Gay travel. It’s a thing. And no, it’s not about finding the best dance parties in Provincetown, or at least not just that. It’s about, well, the same things straight travel is about—relaxing, having fun, getting in touch with history—with the added wrinkle of wanting to spend one’s precious time and money in a place that’s tolerant and welcoming in a world that can be anything but. LGBT travelers represent a massive section of the market, spending $65 billion on travel every year (according to some survey that I’m going to accept unquestioningly), which is to say there’s a lot of money to be made catering to this segment. And doing just that is former BlackBook contributor and prolific travel writer Jimmy Im (pictured), who, along with Todd Murray, is about to launch Out Escapes, a travel portal and flash-sale website that sells LGBT-friendly travel and event experiences selected by LGBT experts. I chatted with Jimmy to find out what exactly gay travel is, and how the site will meet the needs of gay travelers.
Where are you from, and how did you get into travel?
I was born in Atlanta and grew up in Marietta, Georgia. We had a map of the United States and I remember looking at all these places and thinking “I’d like to go to Oklahoma City someday. I’d like to see Tulsa. I want to go to Mississippi.” This one map birthed my interest in travel. It opened up all these possibilities. And where I grew up in Georgia, there’s not much there. I was always looking for ways to get out. When I got older I studied abroad in the Netherlands. I was 19 and I did all the stupid things you do in college. I got a tattoo when I was in Budapest. I slept on trains. Since then I’ve written for everything from Fodor’s to the New York Daily News to Travel + Leisure to Out, Passport, Travel Weekly. A lot of different publications. I’ve been a host on the Travel Channel and on Logo, which is MTV Networks, and I also teach a travel writing class with Media Bistro.
What was the genesis of Out Escapes?
Todd and I wanted to create a site where we could have so many exclusives for gay travelers. They spend so much money on travel and I thought it was time they had deals for them. It’s harder for gays to travel. They always question hotels, like, Is this gay-friendly? Same with destinations. When we partner up with hotels, it has our stamp of approval, like this hotel’s okay. So it’s not only for travelers, but the partners that we work with, for them to get exposure and let the world know that they’re gay-friendly. But we’re definitely not going to ask for a gay card. There’s a lot of non-LGBT people signed up, friends of the gays or family or what have you. Some of these deals are so awesome and you can’t find them anywhere else online.
How does the site work? Deals pop up for a limited amount of time?
The flash sales site is one component, but it’s going to be a complete travel portal. The first two things we’re launching, and these are the first of their kind, are the flash sales site for the gay community. We’re going to be featuring luxury boutique hotels, a lot of gems you might not know about, but I’m familiar with because of being in the travel industry for 10 years. We’re also going to be an events platform, where we’re going to feature gay-friendly and gay events around the world where promoters can sell their tickets, where gay travelers can buy tickets and get value-added perks. One of our events I can’t say much about yet, but it is this world-renowned event that’s notorious for long waits, up to an hour and a half just to enter. But if you buy the ticket from our site, you get expedited, you don’t have to wait in line. Perks like that. We’re also going to have a social media platform called Meet Me Here, where members can link up with other members and potentially meet up on trips. It’s optional, but if you want you can be active in it and be part of a community. There’s no other site quite like ours.
How do you get deals for your site?
I personally handle the deals on my own. I’ve been in the industry for such a long time that I have a lot of connections with people I’ve worked with in the past. They do offer some amazing deals, but it’s not only just a discount off a hotel rate. I get them to throw in some added value benefits, like round-trip airport transfers, or a bottle of champagne upon arrival.
Have you given any thought to what exactly is gay travel? I imagine gay travelers want many of the same things straight travelers want, but are also concerned with finding tolerant places and environments. Is that the main difference, or are there other priorities?
I think gay travel is basically just travel for the gay community, but there are different things that gay travelers have to think about. One of my goals for this site is to get gay travelers out of their gay bubble, going beyond that gay-owned hotel and that gay-owned boutique and letting them know that there are lots of great gay-friendly places out there. It’s also about letting hotels and resorts know that gay travelers are coming at one point or another. I’ve heard so many horror stories about gay couples traveling, and complaining that some waiter made them feel uncomfortable, or “We couldn’t wear Speedos at the pool, even though straight people were getting away with it.” Gay people should have the right to do what everyone else does on a trip.
Is there a segment of the gay community that holds back on traveling to certain places?
They do have an apprehension about going to a lot of places. Take Morocco, for example. It’s still basically illegal to be gay there, but it’s one of the gayest places I’ve ever been. I want to make people aware that you can go to Morocco, and these are hotels I approve of. Obviously don’t walk around holding hands, that comes across as disrespectful to the culture, but as long as you play your cards right you’ll be fine. But now gay travelers are going to the ends of the earth, and I want to push that.
What are some other destinations for gay travelers that they may not have thought of yet?
The Atacama Desert and Chile in general is pretty great for gay travelers. There are some islands in the Caribbean, believe it or not. Because of what happens in Jamaica, some gay travelers feel like all the islands are like that, but Turks & Caicos is one of the gayest islands I’ve been too, gayer than St. Barths. I was down there a few months ago and ran into so many gay couples. Curacao actually has a gay tourism outlet out there and a huge annual gay event. Beirut is gay-friendly, there are some gay bars there.
Is there anything travel providers need to know about meeting the needs of gay travelers?
Not too much, really. At this point it’s working with tourism boards and working with publishers and communicating. They can offer gay-friendly packages. There’s been a rise in gay honeymoon packages, for example. But when two guys check into a hotel, there’s that moment of discomfort when the front desk agent gives them two different beds, and they’re like, we want one bed, we’re a couple. And the front desk person doesn’t get it, so we want to help let hotels know that these are the travelers we’re sending you. Hopefully we can help with that.
What do you think of Barack Obama’s recent support of gay marriage as it pertains to gay travel?
It definitely helps, it’s a sign of great things to come, but we were going through a natural progression anyway. Gays have the money to travel, so many of them are DINKS (Dual Income No Kids), so they’re going to travel, but it’s a matter of them going beyond the destinations they’re used to. They’re discovering that a lot of places are gay-friendly, and we’re there to reinforce that.
It seems like you’re a conduit between gay travelers and the travel industry.
I’ve been approached by a lot of hotel sales managers asking me, How can we tap into the gay market other than advertising in a gay magazine? I’m like, just work with us!