How Are LGBTQ Travel Companies Planning for 2021?

With vaccination campaigns underway and a continued reduction in COVID-19 cases looking promising, many travelers are itching to hit the road again. Queer people have often been travel pioneers, so we asked a few LGBTQ travel companies how they are approaching this year.

Jeff Gundvaldson of Brand g Vacations said that they normally plan—and start selling—their trips 18 to 24 months ahead of time.

“We already had all of our 2021 programs in place when the pandemic hit,” he said. “We have already proactively postponed some 2021 programs, which we thought would be too early, and will do so with other 2021 programs, if necessary, to keep our guests safe.’

Similarly, Out Adventures has taken a very conservative approach to 2021, according to the company’s owner, Robert Sharp.

“The health and safety of our clients is our top priority, and therefore we’ve cancelled all tours through to July of 2021 at this point, and we are prepared to cancel more depending on how the vaccine rollout continues in Canada and the U.S. in the coming months,” Sharp said. “In addition, we need to consider the situation in the countries we operate in, many of which will be well behind us in terms of vaccinations. If it’s not safe, or we can’t operate a trip as we’ve marketed it, we won’t. We will also take every precaution possible on tour through our new health and safety promise.”

Meanwhile, Randle Roper, Co-founder & CEO of VACAYA, said that his company is gearing up for what he expected would be an exciting year of travel.

“We kick off 2021 in June with our Ptown Summer Jamboree and then we head overseas for the first circumnavigation of Iceland in LGBT+ history (in September). We finish up 2021 with two more trips — an all-inclusive resort vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico over Halloween and Day of the Dead and the first-ever U.S.-based LGBT+ river cruise sailing roundtrip from New Orleans up the Mississippi River (in November).

Roper said they really tried to stay closer to home in 2021 when looking at destinations.

“We know it’s going to take a while for people to get back into the swing of things travel-wise, so with Ptown, New Orleans, and even Mexico, they’re easy-to-get-to destinations. Iceland is a little more exotic, obviously, but Iceland has come through the pandemic strongly,” he said.

Sharp said they have tours planned in Cambodia, Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, Egypt, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Peru, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Thailand.

“Our tour calendar is largely unchanged from our original 2021 plan, and time will tell which countries it will be safe to operate in,” he said. “We decided not to pivot and offer destinations close to home because I am of the mind that when it’s safe to travel again, our clients will be more interested than ever in far flung corners of our planet, and our new and existing bookings back this up. If it’s not safe to travel internationally, it is unlikely it will be smart to run trips close to home either, mainly from a liability perspective.”

And Gundvaldson noted that most of Brand g’s focus in the near term is within Europe.

“Later in the year we plan to visit more far-flung locations such as Vietnam, Cambodia and South Africa. We feel that most European countries will recover from the pandemic more quickly and will have greater access to the vaccine. We also feel that our guests will be much more comfortable traveling to countries with better access to healthcare,” he said.

Brand g Vacations couple
LGBTQ couples will have to decide whether international travel is in the cards for them in 2021, or if they’ll stay closer to home. (photo courtesy of Brand g Vacations)

So what will register with LGBTQ travelers? What are they searching for in 2021? Sharp thinks most travelers will stay within driving distance of home until they are vaccinated — and until they are welcome abroad.

“There will always be those that defy government recommendations and travel internationally, but for the most part I don’t believe LGBT+ tour operators will hop on that bandwagon,” he said. “There will always be exceptions, and I expect some of the bigger all-inclusive providers to continue offering resort-style holidays, regardless of what the government recommends.”

Gundvaldson said he feels that the most popular types of trips for queer travelers this year will be those with fewer numbers of people — river cruises, small land tours or smaller resorts.

“They will likely feel safer in these smaller environments where there is greater opportunity for social distancing and more ability to control health and safety protocols,” he said.

Roper agreed on the smaller cruise ships.

“Big-ship cruises will be the last to come back fully,” he said. “Smaller, closer, and more manageable (in case we take any steps backward) trips will be the trend for much of the next year. But we’re ready for the return of big-ship cruising.”

VACAYA’s big Caribbean Cruise on the Celebrity Millennium is scheduled for right after the new year – Jan 10-17, 2022. By then, Roper thinks we “should be entirely back to normal.”

Celebrity, Millennium, ship
PHOTO: Celebrity Millennium. (photo via joel-t / iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus)

All three companies we spoke with have given travelers more flexibility than normal, due to the strange times we are in. VACAYA worked very closely with its guests, with trips that were postponed or canceled. Roper noted that each had its own set of circumstances, and the company regularly had face-to-face Zoom calls with guests (over multiple time zones on six different continents) to speak about the challenges, the options and the path forward.

Brand g Vacations has implemented more relaxed deposit and cancellation for all 2021 trips. The company’s “book with confidence” policy delays the final payment from the normal 120 days prior to departure to 90 days prior. Gundvaldson said it also allows guests to cancel up to 90 days prior with a nominal fee of $100 per person.

“Also, if we are forced to cancel a trip due to the pandemic, we’ll allow guests to transfer their deposits to a future departure, without penalty,” he said.

Out Adventures has focused on renegotiating supplier contracts and working with partners that honor its relaxed booking conditions, which allow clients to transfer deposits to other trips up until 30 days prior to departure with minimal, or no fees.

“Like other operators we have to protect ourselves by ensuring last minute cancellations cover any out-of-pocket expenses we’ve paid on their behalf, but for the vast majority of our tours we’ve eliminated those prepaid expenses,” he said. “In addition, we are regulated by the Travel Industry Council of Ontario and we hold all client deposits in trust until we’ve met our obligations to them and our suppliers. This means they are taking very little risk when booking with us.”

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