What Does an “LGBTQ+ Friendly” Hotel Look Like?

More companies and organizations are striving to make hotel stays more welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community. But what does it take for a hotel to be truly LGBTQ+ friendly?

The Moxy hotel in Chelsea has floor-to-ceiling glass walls and plant-filled common areas.

The Moxy hotel in Chelsea offers regular LGBTQ+-friendly programming.

Courtesy of Moxy Chelsea

Matthieu Jost understands firsthand the challenges LGBTQ+ travelers can face in a hotel. He was checking into a small retreat on an island in Brittany several years ago with his then-partner. After requesting a room with a single bed, the two men were nonplussed when offered a room with twin beds. “They insisted,” he recalls. “It was clearly discrimination—we had no choice. It was short notice, on a small island, and we couldn’t find another hotel.” Experiences like that are one reason Jost went on to found MisterB&B, a booking service that allows LGBTQ+ travelers to find apartments or hotel rooms at more accepting properties.

Jost’s experience is a glimpse at one of the many layered ways the LGBTQ+ community might experience discrimination at hotels. There’s the overt hostility he experienced, and then there are subtler signals that suggest a less welcoming place to sleep—the amenity with a note addressed to “Mr. & Mrs.,” for instance, or a double-vanity bathroom with only one shaving mirror. Language barriers and varying cultural norms add confusion to the situation, making it even harder to ascertain what a same-sex couple or family’s reception might be at a given property. LGBTQ+ travelers are also often lazily shorthanded as a pair of wealthy, white, gay men, according to Ed Salvato, a hotelier turned NYU instructor who helps organize Proud Experiences, the two-year-old LGBTQ+ travel industry trade show held in Los Angeles every June. “When it’s two masculine presenting black women? Forget about it, all bets are off,” he says, recounting the story of a nonbinary, masculine-presenting friend in a hotel restroom. “A woman pulled up her shirt to see if she was a woman.”

In recent years, advocacy groups have created accreditation systems that hotels can acquire and display, usually after undergoing training of some kind. The IGLTA Accredited program, for example, uses eight data points, including training and community engagement, for a hotel to secure its endorsement. Then there’s Queer Destinations, a four-year-old firm that’s worked with both Marriott and Hyatt with hands-on executive training to tee up staffers to handle community needs with sensitivity; those who pass earn what it dubs its “Distinction” designation.

There’s a practical reason why hospitality firms are keen to commit to such programs: LGBTQ+ travelers in the United States take an average of 6.8 trips per year, according to data from the most recent LGBTQ+ travel study, and are more than twice as likely to have a valid passport than other Americans. Their spend? More than $63 billion annually. It’s easy, though, to check a box to chase the rainbow dollar, but how and where are hotels truly making both an effort and a difference?

How MisterB&B will decide whether a hotel is truly LGBTQ+ friendly

MisterB&B aims to help travelers make that informed choice. It uses several metrics to assess hotels, from investment in local LGBTQ+ media outlets and NGOs to rainbow flags on display. “That’s making an effort to give a wink to the community,” Jost says.

But later this year, MisterB&B will go much further in its vetting process, deeding much of the power to travelers themselves. At the end of a stay booked via MisterB&B, guests will soon receive a brief, seven-question survey. The questions will expressly address the needs and feelings of the LGBTQ+ traveler: How comfortable did you feel (on a scale of one to five) regarding the attitudes of both staff and other guests, for example, or would you say inviting someone external to a room in the hotel is easy? Responses will be weighted and processed before an algorithm declares whether or not travelers have deemed the property LGBTQ+ friendly. “It’s the first time that certification will come from the community, not from that hotel buying something to say that,” Jost claims. He’ll support these efforts with a relaunch of a social travel network under MisterB&B’s banner, which allows members to see whether others have already booked a room somewhere and connect with them.

Jost hopes his new community-generated accreditation will make an impact, especially since he intends to open up the raw data on results to hotels. If a property fails to secure the endorsement, it can seek more information about why and then address those specifics.

Two travelers set up a game of chess on Belmond's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train.

Belmond works with guests and travel specialists to tailor their hospitality to the individual needs of traveling couples.

Courtesy of Belmond

Beyond marketing: Hotel groups are proactively embracing LGBTQ+ travelers

Industry insiders point to a few operators that are already standouts and likely to ace such questions. Marketing umbrella Preferred Hotels & Resorts has operated Preferred Pride for 12 years. The micro collection of hotels is proactively LGBTQ+ friendly, says John Clifford of International Travel Management. The gay, San Diego–based luxury travel specialist also calls out Belmond for praise, calling the LVMH-owned global luxury hotel group a “shining and singular example.”

Belmond created an account director for LGBTQ+ sales in 2015 after it published a white paper that explored all the ways it could embrace the community as an ally. It consistently engages with LGBTQ+ travelers through programming, including an upcoming night on its Venice Simplon–Orient Express from Paris to Venice. Clifford regularly steers clients to Belmond’s properties and says it’s easy to reach a staffer and prime them for a couple’s particular needs. Clifford is especially keen to make sure that such details as in-room robes and slippers match the sizes of a traveling couple—an issue he often runs into himself when traveling with his husband. “We’re both big bear guys, not skinny little twinkies, so we want XL-size robes and two pairs of men’s slippers.”

Often it’s easier for a property to serve the LGBTQ+ community beyond simple certification if the owner or GM identifies as LGBTQ+, Clifford adds. Take Kevin Wendle, the Hollywood exec turned hotelier who owns and runs Hotel Esencia in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, another favorite hotel among Clifford’s clients. Recent concerns from one client about safety in the area led to granular, proactive advice from Wendle and his team. “We have to liaise with people on the ground to get a handle on things,” Clifford explains. “I just called Kevin to ask him what was going on.”

Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is a Spanish Revival beach resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is a member of Preferred Pride, a collection within Preferred Hotels & Resorts that is proactively LGBTQ+ friendly.

Courtesy of Preferred Hotels & Resorts

There’s a price to pay for inclusivity—and one that’s harder for mass market hotels

All these properties, of course, are in the luxury sector—and it’s easy to forget that not all LBGTQ+ travelers are booking five-star trips. While the community may be avid travelers—see those 6.8 trips per year, versus the 1–2 trips taken by the general population—they are not always traveling with blowout budgets. Indeed, data showed that 22 percent of LGBTQ+ adults in the United States are living in poverty, compared with 16 percent of straight, cisgender people, and earn 90 cents on the dollar for every buck a typical worker might bank. And it’s much harder for three-star hotels—whose staff churn is often higher, and whose number of guests is so much larger—to enact the same level of LGBTQ+ awareness as a five-star property with only, say, a dozen rooms.

It’s not impossible, though, as Lauren Levin has shown. The coauthor of Same Sex in the City, she’s CMO of Lightstone, the owner of several Moxy hotels, Marriott’s hip-but-affordable chain in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. Its Chelsea location in Manhattan was recently named the first hotel to ever earn Safe Spaces accreditation from Stonewall Inn’s nonprofit arm. “The crew had to complete a comprehensive, elective training program for that, so that at the close of training they understood why it was so important to create those spaces,” Levin tells AFAR, noting that her programming has been assertive in its inclusivity strategy. There are maps in the rooms that include stand-alone LGBTQ+ listings for the area, the creation of a cobranded craft beer with Stonewall, workout classes with LGBTQ+ instructors, and free event spaces for companies like Coming Out Happy. (Levin met her now-wife at the bar of one Moxy property.)

She notes that one aspect of the Moxy hotels has proven an unexpected asset for the community: its bunk bed rooms. The four-berth, railway-carriage style design was originally aimed at providing an affordable option for parents and children. “Come Pride weekend, those rooms are full of young people—we’ve seen them as promoting group travel really well, and LGBTQ+ travelers stick together with their chosen family. It’s a more affordable option, and there’s safety in numbers.”

When hotels make LGBTQ+ travelers welcome, it resonates with other groups, too

A traveling couple steals a moment for a kiss in Malta, which has held the top spot on the International Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Intersex Association Rainbow Index for more than five years as Europe's most LGBTQIA+ friendly country.

A traveling couple steals a moment for a kiss in Malta, which has held the top spot on the International Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Intersex Association Rainbow Index for more than five years as Europe’s most LGBTQIA+ friendly country.

Courtesy of Visit Malta - Photo by Martin Perry/OutThere

That unexpected overlap doesn’t surprise Uwern Jong. He’s an inclusive tourism advocate and the cofounder of OutThere magazine. Many of the issues facing LGBTQ+ travelers apply equally to other groups, he says, and hotels that address them may inadvertently secure bookings from straight, cisgender people as well. Indeed, 40 percent of his readers at OutThere, Jong says, do not identify as LGBTQ+. Take solo female travelers, who are often equally conscious of safety and security, or single parents whose issues are often comparable to a same-sex couple traveling with their kids. “They’re looking for instances when hotels get it right—they don’t want little Tommy being asked ‘Where’s mommy or daddy?’ because he hasn’t got one.’”

Meeting LGBTQ+ travelers’ needs now, Jong notes, is a must-have for the hotel business rather than an optional extra. “If a property hasn’t figured out how to change the slippers, you’re in a lot of trouble, and 90 percent of hotels still don’t do that,” he says. “It’s a mindset change in the developed world where we’re post-gay, so to speak. We’re not looking for equality. We’re looking to be celebrated.”

British-born, New York–based Mark Ellwood has lived out of a suitcase for most of his life. He is editor-at-large for luxury bible Robb Report and columnist for Bloomberg Luxury. Recent stories have led him to hang out with China’s trendsetters in Chengdu and learn fireside raps from cowboy poets in Wyoming.
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