Last year, we reported that LGBT tourists spend more money on vacation than their straight counterparts. And in May, the New York Times (quoting LGBT market research firm Community Marketing Insights) estimated the economic impact of LGBT travelers in the US at $70 billion annually.
Few people know the LGBT travel industry as well as Carlos Melia. His website describes him as a "luxury travel curator," with sidelines as a travel agent, travel blogger, and concierge. He has more than twenty-five years of experience in crafting custom travel experiences for LGBT clients, so we thought: Who better to ask for tips on traveling in style?
dot429: Besides going to LGBT-friendly places, what makes LGBT travelers distinct from straight travelers?
Carlos Melia: I've found gay travelers to be well informed and more savvy about the destinations and experiences they're looking for. They move mainly by word-of-mouth, and they base their decisions on people like me, who report their own experiences free from any editorial bias or hidden interest.
My clients, who are in their 40's, have travelled the world openly gay meaning they look for gay districts, take part in circuit parties, go to clubs and find exclusive gay hot spots. Now they also look for true local experiences, using suppliers who really cater to the affluent gay and lesbian community.
dot429: How do you go about curating a travel experience for your clients? What kind of events, places, or activities do you prioritize?
CM: Well, I've traveled around the world since a very young age, and I have over twenty-five years of experience in the travel and hospitality industry. So I think I have a well rounded idea of what travel is, the options out there, and the empathy necessary to match my clients' needs and aspirations.
Being part of the leading network of global luxury travel consultants, I also have direct access to exclusive events worldwide. I get direct access to suppliers, with whom we work as a team to guarantee the best travel experience possible.
dot429: With the wealth of affordable and accessible travel resources online, why do LGBT clients need a travel curator?
CM: Luxury has so many interpretations. I believe it's most authentic when understood beyond the obvious. It comes down to one individual’s expectations and needs. My luxury, for example, is measured by rarity and sophistication—access to destinations, services, individuals, and experiences that go beyond the concept of self-indulgence. This is why people come to me. Not to mention that I have access to knowledge, contacts, suppliers, and amenities they will never be able to find online.
dot429: Do mainstream travel brands cater to the LGBT community more? And are they doing it well?
CM: They have for quite some time now. Some are doing an excellent job, and the key is being serious about their commitment to—and support of—the LGBT network. The brands must be informed and active, must get involved, and, most importantly, show that they care.
I usually get calls and emails from mainstream brands asking me to help them access the LGBT segment, but the first comment they make is, "Well, we really don't have the budget for this." That shows me that they're not serious about it.
dot429: What is some advice for LGBT travelers in general? Any tips on traveling safely or maximizing their experiences?
CM: Travel mainstream. The world has become very tolerant and friendly. For those destinations that aren't so open yet, visit them with the guidance of expert travel consultants who can link you to the right suppliers, products, and services.
dot429: What's your personal favorite travel destination?
CM: Thailand, Thailand, Thailand! My first time there was when I was seventeen, and I've been back many times since. It always feels like home. Each time I land in Bangkok, a huge smile comes across my face. This is where I said "I love you" to my partner for the first time. This is where I have great friends. This is where I have experienced some of my most memorable, life-changing experiences. You can read more about my love of the country here.
dot429: What's one event that LGBT travelers should try to attend at least once in their lives?
CM: I can think of so many, but I'll only mention a few so people can contact me about the others!
One of my favorites has been spending time in Varanasi, India. And the event was the Ganga Arti, which is just magical. I also always go back to my experiences with the elephants in Thailand, but I talk about this over and over. I don’t want people to get bored with it.
dot429: What do you always take with you when you travel?
CM: My camera and my phone or iPad. I'm obsessed with sharing travel experiences. I like to inspire people and allow them to see things that otherwise they'd never think about. I like to think that, in some way, I democratize travel.
dot429: What's an underrated travel destination?
CM: Most destinations in Central America. Not many people think about them as an option, and when offered immediately say no. Destinations like Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala have so much to offer, and over the last ten to fifteen years have grown their tourism infrastructure exponentially. They even have great luxury offers.
dot429: How can travelers on a budget still have unique experiences and travel in style?
CM: Research! And contact experienced travel consultants like me. We might seem like the most expensive option, but usually we're really not.
For more travel guidance, check out these Five Gay Travel Bloggers to Bookmark Before You Hit the Road