What it Means to Be a Gay-Friendly Business: On today’s episode, I speak with Jennifer Walsh, co-owner of Out & About Travel, GayTravelInformation.com, and WeAreGayFriendly.com. Jennifer co-owns these websites with her wife (the websites’ founder) Desiree Sousa. Out & About Travel specializes in gay & lesbian tours, cruises, adventure travel, luxury travel, ski trips, honeymoons and customized packages. GayTravelInformation.com is an online hub featuring reviews and information for LGBT travelers. WeAreGayFriendly.com is an online directory featuring businesses that are LGBT-friendly.
Because Desiree couldn’t join us for the live interview, she was kind enough to answer some of my questions below.
Can you tell me about your story starting this business? You told me what I’m pasting below via FB chat and I love how raw and honest what you wrote below is — so can you edit it to share what you feel comfortable sharing so I could read it for the show?
I started my first business, Out & About Travel, an online travel agency specializing in LGBT travel back in 1999 at the age of 23. I had worked for several travel agencies, including one in Boston called Urban Travel. I would make the hour commute (which sometimes turned out to be 2-3 hours each way) every day from Providence. The job at Urban Travel was my first time working with a company that specialized in gay travel. I was basically the owner’s secretary. I would run and grab him lunch, do filing work — make phone calls, but what I really wanted was to handle travel bookings for clients. Ed (my boss at Urban Travel), promised I would be able to do this, but never allowed me to. The turning point for me was when he and another co-worker started mocking me. I had asked how they could type these computer codes so fast (travel agent’s use a system called SABRE which is pretty much another language – lol). I wanted him to teach me SABRE so that I could book packages and not just sit there “sharpening pencils”. He called out to the guy in the other office and started LAUGHING saying, “Ken, SHE wants to learn SABRE so that she can START A BUSINESS someday ONLINE.” They both laughed at me. I quit the next day. That put the fire in me to make this dream a reality. I literally bought EVERY Frommer travel guide and STUDIED them. Every state. Every country. I highlighted and studied each destination. I then signed up for a 1-year Travel Agent course and learned the SABRE system. I also studied information on destinations that were known to be gay friendly. Back then (1999 / 2000) there weren’t many companies marketing to the gay clientele so knowing exactly which destinations/hotels etc. WERE welcoming was EXTREMELY important. The hottest destinations were Miami, Key West, West Hollywood, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Montreal, Amsterdam, Ibiza, London, Montreal, Vancouver, Sydney and Hawaii. Nowadays most places/destinations are gay friendly, but there are still very hostile places that I would never recommend to a client such as Jamaica, Fiji, Maldives and even places in the Caribbean like Grand Cayman Islands, but that’s a whole other story! 😉 ANYWAY — I started Out & About Travel in 1999. I was ready. I self taught myself how to create a web site and before I know it I was organically #1 on the search engines (Yahoo was big back then). I would come up #1 for search terms such as: Gay Travel Agency, Gay Travel Agent, Gay Tours, Gay Cruises —- this was huge, since I had almost ZERO dollars to invest in promoting myself. I don’t know what I would’ve done without my credit cards! 😉 I was getting calls and emails from clients all over the country. Back then everyone booked with a travel agent. Atlantis Events, RSVP Vacations (both geared toward gay men) and Olivia Travel (geared toward lesbians) were HUGE for me. Their tours/cruises were 100% charted for the LGBT community. Web sites back then didn’t allow online booking so many would say, “contact your favorite travel agent.” Boy how things have changed! lol! I was booking everything —- tours, cruises, flights, customized travel, gay exclusive, non-gay exclusive, honeymoons, ski trips — you name it. Business was BOOMING. Then 9/11 happened. I am extremely fortunate that the LGBT community was so resilient and started re-booking travel within months of the event. The same couldn’t be said for many of my competition. So may businesses, especially brick and mortar went out of business. The online agencies weren’t hit nearly as hard. Within a year of 9/11 I was booking more travel than ever! Business couldn’t have been better. I would say this was the fact until 2006 when all the big names started cashing in on the gay travel market. My little agency started taking hits when Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz got involved. Then, most travel sites started offering ONLINE BOOKING capabilities which made using a travel agent even less important. All that said, even today, Out & About Travel stands. We customize and offer such a great VALUE for our clients. We are there for them 24/7 – 7 days a week, You can’t get this type, personalized service from a MEGA company, trust me
I started Gay Travel Information in 2010 as a way for me to share my knowledge of the many LGBT friendly travel destinations I had been too. I wanted an outlet to promote TRULY gay friendly destinations, businesses, events, companies etc., The response was incredible. I had clout from being the owner of Out & About Travel (almost every business I had reached out to be featured on Gay Travel Information had heard of me). I started reviewing local New England hotels and restaurants and within a year I was spotlighting hotels, resorts, restaurants, events, products etc, from all over the world! Gay Travel Information is my biggest success story thus far and I owe so much of it to Out & About Travel. Being a travel agent won’t make you a millionaire by all means, but the clout of being the person behind a company that is highly recognizable is priceless. Out & About Travel opened up so many opportunities with Gay Travel Information that I am STILL amazed. Being able to be hosted, many times free of charge or at steeply discounted rates, at some of the top resorts and restaurants in the world, is mind-blowing and something I still pinch myself over. It is truly a great sense of pride and gratitude.
I didn’t stop there though – lol. I also started an online directory called We Are Gay Friendly in 2013. I felt this necessary because even in today‘s day and age people are being turned away or not treated equally just because of their sexuality. The LGBT community DESERVES to support businesses and events that are TRULY welcoming and those companies/events deserve our support as well. The response to We Are Gay Friendly has been overwhelming! We have had so many companies sign up within the the past 2-3 years and it just keeps growing. I see now end in site. The companies we reach out to are SO ENTHUSIASTIC and excited to be listed on our site.
My goal has been and will always be to provide travel information to the LGBT community. I simply want our readers and clients to know that they can feel safe and welcome at the places they visit. I want the businesses that support us – to be supported. I get so excited when I hear about a reader checking out a hotel, restaurant or event we recommended. Knowing they are happy — makes me happy, Truly.
I’ll tell you this too — none of this came easy. I have dealt with heath issues my entire life. That is primarily the reason I went the “on-line business route”. I had no choice. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in 1994. That pretty much means I get anxious about everything which in turn causes me to have health issues. Anxiety does a number to the body! But I have never and WILL NEVER let that hinder me from reaching my goals. I don’t believe in giving up — giving in — throwing in the towel. It actually challenges me to push harder.
Some of my biggest accomplishments, besides running three successful online businesses, was being featured in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure Magazine and writing for Connextions Magazine (which specializes in LGBT travel). Also being invited to OUT Magazine’s OUT100 party was pretty cool. They only invite people who are “important online influencers” —- heck, I’ll take it! 😉 It’s nice getting a pat on the back every now and then!
As someone who just turned 40, I am excited to what the future has in store! Not only for Out & About Travel, Gay Travel Information + We Are Gay Friendly but also the new businesses I have yet to start. I am an entrepreneur at heart. My mind is always working of thinking of cool web sites to create! 🙂
I am extremely proud of the businesses I have started. It all began in 1999 at the age of 23. I started from zero, had little travel experience, hardly any money in the bank and all this anxiety but my pure passion and love of the travel industry fueled me to make my dreams a reality. Due to health reasons I couldn’t hold down a typical 9-5 job, so starting my own business was definitely the way to go. I was one of the first online LGBT travel agencies and am considered a “pioneer” of the online gay travel industry. I created my web sites back in the 90’s and early 2000’s on Word Perfect. Looking at them now I laugh (and cringe – lol), but hey — I taught myself and was listed #1 ORGANICALLY for YEARS for search terms such as gay travel agency, gay travel agent, gay travel information. The internet was WAY different in the 90’s and early 2000’s though. Now I am super confused!
Anyway — over the years highlights included being interviewed (via email) for The New York Times and Travel & Leisure… being invited to OUT Magazine’s OUT100 party because I was such a strong online influencer.
What has been your number one biggest learning experience?
My biggest learning experience has been to not take anything for granted. When you think your business is doing REAL WELL is when you need to work EXTRA HARD because there is always something bigger and better out there brewing, ready to take your spot. You cannot get complacent with your work. You have to always reinvent yourself. Update web sites. Work on SEO. Spread the word about your companies. Promotion and marketing NEVER end. It is constant, consistent hard work. If you are self-employed and get lax and let things slip, even just a week or two, it can set you WAY BACK, sometimes even destroy your company. It is amazing to be self-employed but it is HARD WORK. I work all the time. Even on vacation, I am promoting myself on social media sites, answering emails and thinking of new ways to expand my business. You have to ALWAYS BE ON and available to your readers and clients, IF you want to be successful. Also, having money to invest in your business, especially in today‘s day and age is CRITICAL. You have to make sure you have money for marketing, web sites and overall expansion. The online competition is fierce and will never slow down. Buckle up!
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