When the first wave of COVID-19 began, it didn’t take long to see that travel would be one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s recent report, the travel industry suffered a loss of nearly $5 trillion in 2020 or more than a 50% decline in revenue. Cruise ship companies like Carnival and Norwegian, often chartered for group travel, experienced dips of 70-90% from 2019-2021. In addition to lost revenue for businesses, an estimated 66 million people lost their jobs in the travel and hospitality sector.
For LGBTQ+ travel companies, the pandemic came swiftly and without much warning, forcing anywhere from a few to dozens of trips to be rescheduled or canceled outright. For Patrick Gunn, Co-founder and chief operating officer at VACAYA, an LGBTQ+ travel company, being a newer company with fewer trips on the roster turned out to be a blessing.
“Although it had been a strategic business decision, it ended up being among the luckiest breaks a young company like ours could have had. When the pandemic hit, we canceled one trip but through that process we learned that most of our guests preferred that we reschedule instead.”
VACAYA was indeed able to reschedule many of its guests with the help of its resort and charter partners. Gunn described a move by the cruise industry to “lift & shift” scheduled charters from 2020 to dates in 2021. Along with cooperation from their travel partners, many guests were willing to work with VACAYA and their rescheduled trips.
“Those gracious moves by our guests who stuck with us, the cruise industry who offered ‘lift and shift’ and the Mexican government who kept travel flowing, all contributed to the survival of VACAYA through the pandemic,” said Gunn.
Olivia, know as the travel company for LGBTQ+ women, found themselves in a similar position to VACAYA, only with far more trips on the roster. Olivia was initially founded as a women’s record label nearly 50 years ago and shifted to lesbian and queer women’s travel in the 90s.
Olivia’s president and founder Judy Dlugacz and her team were faced with canceling multiple trips from large resort events to more intimate river cruises, all at the same time. Over the next two years, Olivia would have to cancel and reschedule over 30 trips.
“Obviously, in travel, everything kind of stopped, but we didn’t know how long it would stop for,” Dlugacz said. “And that was true throughout that several years. You never knew what was going to happen and we had to be very nimble in the process. So, when it first hit, we had to cancel that first trip or transfer that first trip.”
The lesbian-owned company was able to stay afloat thanks to PPP loans, but even then, Dlugacz and her team had to make some difficult decisions.
“There was a constant reinvestment into the company, which was to, you know, try to keep people as long as possible. And then we did have to lay off a fair number of staff people.” (Editors note: The author herself was one of the staff members laid off from Olivia during the pandemic.)
So, what’s a travel company to do when you can’t travel? For both VAYCAYA and Olivia, the answer lies in keeping the connection with their guests very much alive with virtual concerts.
“We did this really amazing thing called ‘At Home with Olivia.’ We were thinking well, what can we do to help people during this time where there’s so much uncertainty?” Dlugacz said.
“We need to do what Olivia does and just help keep the community going and we did these concerts online… every week we would have another concert with a different musician or a different comedian and we kept that going for a very long time. To enable people to come to that and feel connected, it was amazing.”
Like Olivia, VACAYA saw the need to be there for both their guests and performers facing career uncertainties.
Gunn said, “We paid each performer a small fee, but it was our guests who really stepped up to the plate to lend a hand by giving incredibly generous tips. Collectively, over $20,000 was raised. Our ‘Saturday Night Spotlight’ shows were a great forum to bring everyone together and to help our stable of talent survive those earliest days. We were among the very first organizations out there with these types of live events and we ran them successfully for nine straight weeks.” VACAYA’s final virtual performance starred out country star Ty Herndon and proceeds went to support Herndon’s Foundation for Love and Acceptance.
As the pandemic ebbed and flowed through 2021 and 2022, VACAYA and Olivia had trips, like VACAYA’s Ptown Summer Jamboree in summer 2021 and Olivia’s Turks and Caicos resort trip in fall 2021. For Gunn, this return to travel allowed VACAYA to step up and set a new standard for what this changing world of travel could look like.
“We had the ability to show our community and the world that we could adapt. And in doing so, we continued to enjoy much of what life has to offer. Sure… it looked different than it did before, but everything does. Once we executed our Ptown Summer Jamboree successfully, we never looked back and have executed multiple cruise and resort vacations almost COVID-free.”
For Olivia, the fall of 2021 provided a respite, but when Omicron hit, the company again found itself having to make adjustments. However, the travel industry began to see some normalcy return in subsequent months.
“It just hit and no one knew what that meant,” said Dlugacz. “We had to cancel three trips into 2022, then (Omicron) began to fall again. So, then we were able to start putting our chips in place. But we will always, we always sided on careful. We’re not going to do this trip in February 2022 if there’s still these issues happening, or they couldn’t get the ship there.”
For LGBTQ+ guests and those who longed to return to their vacation safe spaces, just stepping back onto a sandy beach or deck of a ship brought back feelings of community and connection.
“It was like, coming back to the first time,” Dlugacz said. “People were so thrilled to go on trips and so thrilled to see each other, you know, it was one of those incredible moments.”
Sara Stone, a volunteer staff member for Olivia, shared Dlugacz’s sentiments about getting back to travel.
“To be traveling again was nothing short of jubilant. The enthusiasm onboard was palpable with an atmosphere of gratitude. I, like others, left renewed and energized! Additionally, I felt safe, seen, celebrated. There was even a feeling for me of being fully engaged with others.”
Stone, who spoke with News is Out from the airport while getting ready to join an Olivia trip in Berlin, also shared how important she thinks LGBTQ+ travel is for the community.
“I believe that queer travel is important because it blends queer adventurers in the most special way. Queer travel allows us to build strong connections in a short period of time and allows us to see that the human experience is similar for all. I witnessed compassion, empathy, joy and camaraderie. I saw wonder and an appreciation for learning. “
In February 2023, Olivia plans to celebrate a milestone of 50 years in business with two separate Caribbean cruises. VACAYA also has reason to celebrate; its five year anniversary kicks off in February as well with a year filled with special events.