As growing numbers of states legalize same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian destination weddings have clear growth potential for travel agents.
Just this month three more states – Minnesota, Rhode Island and Delaware – legalized same-sex marriage, bringing the total to 12 states plus the District of Columbia.
Savvy agents, especially those who already sell destination weddings, can tap into this growth market, but they should take the time to learn about its nuances and challenges.
“When I started off I didn’t know the proper lingo, but I learned. You have to educate yourself,” said Terri Nash, owner of PROtravel and Cruise Connections/Weddings and Honeymoons in Seattle.
Fortunately, there’s help for agents who are interested in developing this market.
After same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2003, Bernadette Coveney Smith created 14 Stories, a wedding planning company for same-sex couples. She later founded the Gay Wedding Institute to train others to handle this market.
Smith has put together a six-hour face-to-face session that she conducts for groups; she also offers a three-week webinar series.
In her workshops she discusses the financial impact of the gay and lesbian wedding market, policies and laws, appropriate language to use, the difference between gay and straight weddings and how to market to same-sex couples.
Those who complete her course become “Gay Wedding Institute Certified.” About 300 people, including 70 travel agents, have been certified so far. Others include wedding planners, people who work at wedding venues, photographers and DJs.
Gay destination weddings website
Earlier this year the Destination Weddings Travel Group, a network of about 200 home-based travel agents who sell destination weddings, launched Gay Destination Weddings, a website geared toward this market.
Training is essential, said Quentin Carmichael III, The Destination Weddings Travel Group’s director of product and commercial.
“You need to understand the different segments, the different traditions,” he said. “For example, with a lesbian couple, there will be two different aisles for them to walk down and meet in the center.”
There is a significant difference between gay friendly and gay wedding friendly, Carmichael said. “Gay weddings can bring people’s religious nature into it, and because of that some suppliers might be uncomfortable.
“We’re looking for resorts and destinations that aren’t just accepting the idea but embracing it.”
Eve Magoon, owner of Endless Destinations in Ellington, Conn., whose business is about 60% destination weddings, including those for same-sex couples, was surprised at the response she received from some resorts.
“When I first started doing gay weddings, I was shocked. I’d write to hotels that wouldn’t even write back,” she said.
“We’ve got a list of hotels (from destinationweddings.com) we know are gay friendly, but if I have somebody who wants a different destination, I contact the hotels directly,” she said.
Destination Weddings represents about 75 properties for the gay and lesbian destination wedding market.
Vetting hotels & vendors
“We’ve done a fair amount of secret shopping and vetting and making sure that our guests will be treated like any couple who is coming to get married,” said Sean Horrigan, brand manager for the Destination Weddings Travel Group.
“If they [a resort] tried to get us to do it off the beach or they wanted to hide them [the gay or lesbian couple], we weren’t interested.”
Agents also need to make sure that vendors such as photographers, caterers, DJs and musicians are comfortable with gay weddings.
“It’s not only the hotels, but we have to make sure the vendors we use are open to gay couples, so they don’t feel uncomfortable,” said Ellen Paderson, owner of Smiles and Miles Travel in South Easton, Mass.
Recommend destinations carefully
Agents need to consider the destinations they recommend.
“The French destinations – places like St. Marten and Tahiti – are great. So is Mexico and Hawaii,” said Carmichael.
Terri Nash of PROtravel and Cruise Connections has found huge differences in the way destinations respond to this market.
“Some places are way more inviting than others. Puerto Vallarta is way ahead. It has a very large gay community. Baja has a lot of resorts that would be great. I was down here on a recent tour and was asking them about their policies and was surprised that they didn’t mind,” she said.
Not all are welcoming
And then there are places to avoid. According to Carmichael, Jamaica is the biggest one. And the Bahamas are not far behind. Dominican Republic is only so-so.
“The Caribbean tends to be behind what we’re doing and what’s happening globally, and it will take several years for them to come around,” he said. “Some of the islands tend to be very religious. As soon as you bring a wedding into the picture that brings a lot more emotion into it.”
In the end attitude may be the most important factor of all when working in this nascent market.
“Gay and lesbian weddings are not something to just look at as being profitable,” Carmichael said. “You have to embrace it. If you support it, you will be successful,”