This interview on diversity and inclusion (D&I) was conducted by email with Bob Witeck and Charlie Rounds to discuss some critical issues impacting the tourism, travel and meetings segments of hospitality as a result of laws on same-sex marriage in Bermuda and Costa Rica. Because we’ve seen the impact on tourism, travel, meetings and hospitality of anti-LGBT laws in the U.S., this deserves the industry’s full attention.

The views expressed are those of the interviewees and may not reflect those of Meetings Today or its publisher.

Those interviewed:

Bob Witeck: Bob Witeck, president and founder of Witeck Communications Inc. (formerly Witeck-Combs Communications Inc.), has more than 40 years of professional communications experience in the private sector and in public service.

Bob serves as senior counselor and strategist as well as a specialist in crisis communications for his clients.

Before co-founding Witeck-Combs Communications in 1993, he was senior vice president for Hill & Knowlton Public Affairs, a global public relations and public affairs firm.

On Capitol Hill for over a decade, Witeck also served as communications director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and as a Senate press secretary and legislative assistant.

He is a graduate with distinction of the University of Virginia as an Echols Scholar.

In 2006 Bob Witeck co-authored Business Inside Out (Kaplan Publishing), considered the first-ever book on marketing insights, practical tips and strategies targeting the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender market.

More details about Bob and the company, including a list of clients, can be found here. Bob can be reached at info@witeck.com or followed on Twitter @Bob_Witeck.

Disclosure: Joan Eisenstodt and Bob Witeck became friends shortly after Joan moved to D.C. in 1978 and she and Bob worked together on a project for one of Joan’s first clients.

Joan’s admiration for Bob’s knowledge and advocacy for and in the LGBTQ community and his work with companies like American Airlines and Marriott has strengthened their friendship and working relationship.

Charlie Rounds, Program Director, Mossier

Charlie Rounds: Charlie Rounds is currently the Program Director at Mossier, a nonprofit that works with LGBT entrepreneurs globally. Charlie has a more than 30-years background in the travel Industry, including as president of RSVP Vacations, managing a $30 million corporate travel agency, and developing product for a major U.S.-based travel wholesaler.

Charlie co-founded both Alturi and Give OUT Day, efforts to raise funds and awareness for the U.S. and global LGBT communities.

Charlie wrote: “Starting in my junior year of high school a group of students started calling me ‘fag,’ and it was a visit to the University of Minnesota in 1971 that helped me know that If I could survive my last two years of school that I would be okay. During that visit to the University of Minnesota, I was astounded to see re-election posters of U of M student body President Jack Baker in pearls and high heels.

"It showed me that in Minnesota I could not just survive as an openly gay man but thrive. Kevin Mossier, an out gay business person, civic leader and philanthropist, proved this even further.

Due to Kevin’s generosity, I could be involved in the national fight for national LGBT rights. Now we look forward to taking a model Kevin established to the global stage by continuously working with the University of Minnesota, Minnesota’s corporate community and Minnesota-based global development and aid nonprofits to improve the well-being of our community worldwide.”

You can reach Charlie by email at charlie@mossier.org

Some comments may have been edited for length and clarity.

If any of the edits has changed the intent, the editors and I apologize.

Q1: In your expert observation, in the U.S., what is the economic impact today of LGBT travel and hospitality?

Bob: In the U.S. alone, I’ve seen conservative estimates that LGBT travel accounts for more than $75 billion in annual spending. Gay travelers, generally put, are not more affluent than others, but they do show a strong preference for travel and hospitality.

Given the rising tide of acceptance and many more LGBT families, it’s not surprising that virtually all major travel and hotel brands are invested, welcoming and marketing to LGBT communities.

Just one year after same-sex marriage was adopted in the U.S., gay couples spent over $1.5 billion on their wedding plans and added over $100 million in tax revenues to the communities where they were wed, according to economists at UCLA.

Charlie: I always calculate the LGBT spend at 7.5 percent to 8 percent of the total travel and hospitality spend. That is based on a population of 4.5 percent to 5 percent that has a much larger percentage of families that do not have children. Not having children creates more discretionary income that can be used on travel.

An important caveat here is that this figure does not include the families and friends of LGBT people. This is important because if a destination is not LGBT-welcoming, they lose not only the LGBT business but also the business of our friends and families.

For example, if a couple celebrates their 50th wedding anniversary and they have three children and 14 grandchildren, that party of 20-plus people will not travel to a destination that is not LGBT-friendly.

Q2: What are the trends shaping LGBT travel and hospitality beyond the U.S.?

Bob: Few people seem aware today that more than a billion people--a number surpassed in 2015--in the world live in societies where same-sex couples may marry. The numbers are swiftly increasing. LGBT people and families are everywhere and voting with their dollars and needs to visit most of the world.

LGBT decision-makers in companies are also making prudent investments in destinations and markets where all travelers feel welcomed and safe.

Charlie: “Safe and welcoming.” End of story. No one goes on a vacation to worry!

In fact, a major reason people go on vacation is to leave our worries behind. Delta Vacations/MLT used to be trademarked as “Worry Free Vacations.” No matter where an LGBT traveler comes from, the last thing they need when they travel is to be looking over their shoulder while trying to relax.

Kevin Mossier started RSVP Vacations after being gay-bashed in what at the time was supposed to be an LGBT “friendly” destination. His decision was therefore to go to sea, where onboard he could guarantee a welcoming, and above all, safe destination.

A lot has changed for the better in the 33 years since RSVP was founded, however all LGBT cruises remain hugely popular because we all need and want to be truly safe in our lives and when we travel.

Q3: Same-sex marriage now has arrived on most continents around the world. Has this influenced destinations in new ways about their business climate?

Bob: No question. Most, if not all, nations must compete hard for every tourist, visitor and investment dollar. It is recognized that the culture and climate must be matched by welcoming policies.

Eight years ago I was present in Buenos Aires at the Casa Rosada when the Argentine president signed her country’s marriage equality law. This helped me realize how crucial this step has been for Argentina to amplify its hospitality and economic welcome.

It was not surprising to see other leaders in the Americas follow suit, worrying about being left behind.

Charlie: Yes, it has changed the climate. Same-sex marriage is an easy way for LGBT vacation travelers to quickly understand if a destination is welcoming or not. It is not the only indicator; it is a vital one. We need to look at how it has influenced hospitality companies that have strongly come out to support marriage equality. This is another easy sign for LGBT travelers to decide with whom they want to spend their money.

Q4: There are news reports of travel boycott threats recently against Bermuda since the recent decision to repeal its marriage equality law. What impact will this have on Bermuda tourism, on the cruise industry, and how is the industry responding?

Bob: As a general rule, I do not advocate boycotts and think most are ineffective. Significantly, local Bermudian LGBT leaders are worried, too, and do not welcome bans or boycotts. 

Nonetheless, this is a concern Bermuda, and other nations, must take seriously.

Some LGBT activists however are stirring talk of shunning the island hospitality economy, one that last year hosted nearly 700,000 tourists who spent a total of $431 million. Cruise ships depend on that revenue and are understandably growing very worried. They should know Bermuda’s leaders have put their future at risk.

Charlie: Boycotts can vary greatly. There are too many options now for LGBT travelers and friends and families to travel to. What is also never clearly “visible” is that the decision to deny equal rights to the LGBT citizens of Bermuda is that there are tens of thousands of travel and meeting planners who care deeply about LGBT equality. This can and will negatively affect their impression of Bermuda.

Q5: Marriage for same-sex couples also seems to be on the threshold across all of the Americas. Some nations like Argentina have been trailblazers, while Costa Rica recently seems to have made the issue a lightning rod. What are the implications for travel and for the industry in these regions?

Bob: Economies like Costa Rica’s deserve a wake-up call now. It is dangerous and short-sighted to be a market outlier, and to send the risky signal across all the Americas that some couples and families are plainly unwelcome. Costa Rica in recent years has been considered a favorable LGBT destination as well as one that is popular with Millennial and other eco-travelers who oppose discrimination and prefer to visit, spend their dollars, and travel and move to communities where everyone has equal respect. The competition for these hemispheric travelers is felt by all industry leaders and will damage trends for destinations like Costa Rica.

Charlie: Countries have to be very aware that Millennials and those who are younger have grown up with LGBT equality. To them a destination that moves backwards on LGBT rights is most likely one that they will not visit.

Why would a country that has so strongly marketed itself as “eco- friendly” now market itself as “LGBT unfriendly”? Someone who believes in eco-friendly travel and spends their money on that type of travel is more likely LGBT friendly.

Costa Rica is risking 30 years of branding with this move backwards on LGBT rights. On the opposite side, Argentina has taken full advantage of being one of the world’s best countries for the LGBT community. When the Brazilian economy tanked, Argentina used a focus on LGBT travel to help fill that gap, and it is working.

Q6: What can our readers do?

Bob: We hope to help shape the knowledge of those in the hospitality, tourism and travel industry to realize the economic risks from anti-gay actions and the critical nature of LGBT equality as a portion of their D&I policies and practices. We don’t see these as civil rights arguments per se, but a change of view from those who invest/operate hospitality and tourism initiatives in both Bermuda and Costa Rica.

This is a wake-up call that the nations that are progressive, inclusive and accepting benefit from the short-sighted and discriminatory actions by regressive nations. We believe [as does your author] that the broad hospitality industry can wield opinion to influence outcomes of laws.

Related Reading From the March 2018 Edition of Friday With Joan

Click here to view additional content in the 03.02.18 Friday With Joan newsletter.​