Uwern Jong is Experientialist-in-Chief and co-founder at OutThere magazine, and was recently awarded by Travel Trade Gazette as LGBTQ+ Travel Trailblazer of the Year. He also heads up OutThere/Studio, helping brands diversify their content and marketing, and is the global board director of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association.
OutThere was born in 2010 when my co-Founder Martin Perry and I recognised that there was a gap in the market for inclusive storytelling, especially for LGBTQ+ travellers. Things had started to shift, but we understood that the people who were to become our readers – a global community of affluent, opinion-leading and socially-aware LGBTQ+ people – still had concerns when they set out on their travels. We have grown to become the world’s leading luxury and experiential travel media brand for LGBTQ+ people.
A few years in, our research found that 35-40% of our readers were not members of the LGBTQ+ community but were predominantly solo-female travellers who had identical travel needs as LGBTQ+ people: to feel safe, to be recognised and celebrated for who they are and how they identify; and to be treated with respect. Delving deeper, we found that OutThere’s audience is also deeply intersectional – single parents, people of colour, disabled people – all those who are still underrepresented in the mainstream. The travel industry is riddled with unconscious bias; brands still think that their guests are overwhelmingly straight, white, able and nuclear as a family.
My skin is thick – particularly on my knuckles – from years of knocking hard on the doors of travel brands, begging them to be more inclusive. I still have one of my very first OutThere emails from the CMO of a global hotel brand (one that incidentally today falls over itself when it comes to supporting Pride) with a curt, “this is something we’re not ready to support”. But I have also kept an email from our very first supporter, the mayor of Brooklyn, who thought OutThere was a brilliant idea, the borough becoming our first ever advertiser.
Things have become much better since launching, but the community is still scarred from centuries of institutionalised homophobia and transphobia. It also depends where you’re from and where you’re going. Nearly 70 countries still criminalise homosexuality, many of which are destinations we know and love: the Maldives, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Malaysia, Jamaica. Then there are the places where the death penalty applies, some of which are pumping money into tourism and are wholly supported by the industry: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Uganda… So in actual terms, the world is quite small for the LGBTQ+ community.
From a Western-centric standpoint, yes the industry is more attuned to diversity and inclusion. Elsewhere in the world, like Asia, things are also improving, but slowly.
Glass half full, there has definitely been a wholesale wake-up call in the industry – particularly post the Black Lives Matter movement. But I feel that a lot of work done recently in championing minority communities has been performative. We call it rainbow-washing. I can’t begin to tell you how many travel brands out there change their logos to rainbows for Pride Month, but do nothing to improve the situation for their LGBTQ+ staff or give back to the community.
I’ve been working as an LGBTQ+ travel ambassador for the Tourism Authority of Thailand for as long as OutThere has been going. We also run their fully-dedicated LGBTQ+ travel website, GoThaiBeFree.com. I am also on Belmond’s LGBTQ+ advisory board, the only luxury hotel group to have one, and have helped Scott Dunn to become more inclusive. We also run a series called The LGBTQ+ Travel Symposium, that helps educate the industry and bring LGBTQ+ buyers and media together.
I’m part of Checking-IN, an LGBTQ+ hospitality network in the UK, and the global board director of IGLTA, the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association. There, we’ve just launched IGLTA Accredited, the gold-standard of accreditation programmes for hotels who want to prove they are truly LGBTQ+ welcoming.
Companies must take the time to listen and learn… but most importantly, take action. There is a lot of talk about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) but it is mostly performative.
Marketing in our industry is still wholly white and heteronormative. In my opinion, it’s totally out of touch with demographics today. I recently walked the Director of Sales and Marketing of a top London hotel, whose marketing imagery was wholly straight and white, through the lobby of her hotel and asked her to point out a single white guest. There wasn’t one. I asked her to pay attention to the gay couple checking in, and the LatinX American family with the non-binary child.
There is a way of being more inclusive in products and experiences as well. Our world is diverse, brilliant and beautiful: there are black winemakers in the Cape Winelands; indigenous tourism across Canada is hugely fascinating; Mardi Gras in Sydney is not just for the LGBTQ+ community; luxury in India goes beyond colonialism; the story of the Asian diaspora in California is mind-blowing; and there is more to the Caribbean – deep, painful and important history – than just white sandy beaches. Then on top of all of that, disabled people want to travel and see all of the above, but are scared to or can’t find a provider willing to help them.
Beyond DEI, we need to take personalisation seriously. If you are a hotel and you know you have a same-gender couple checking in, why not change the his-and-her sized bathrobes and slippers? Why not consider that there is more than Mr, Mrs and Ms. on booking forms? Why do you still ask me, a journalist you know that’s all about LGBTQ+ travel, if my wife will be joining me for breakfast? We think we are a worldly and welcoming industry, but unconscious bias very often gets in the way and we need to eliminate it.
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