How gay-friendly hotels build safe spaces for LGBTQ guests

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As a drag superstar whose work requires her to travel the world, Trixie Mattel has not always felt safe in hotels. “Traveling alone with my guitar and my autoharp and a bunch of wigs, it was a struggle,” she said. “And, I mean, taking the elevator down to the lobby in drag is scary.”

Mattel said hotels have often made her feel like they are designed for cisgender men, with space to hang a suit but no vanity or beauty lighting. So when she was creating her own motel in Palm Springs, Calif., she wanted to learn from her experiences. At Trixie Motel, which doubles as the name of a new renovation show on Discovery Plus, she ripped out walk-in closets to create what she calls a “glam room.”

“I can’t have a drag-queen-owned motel where people don’t have a good mirror to get ready,” she said. “That’s just sacrilegious.”

While LGBTQ travelers often have to take additional comfort and safety considerations into account when planning a trip, Mattel is among the hospitality business owners and operators that are making an effort to foster inclusive lodging. That applies to not only aesthetics, but also events, sponsorships and employee training.

For Trixie Mattel, drag is an art form. It’s also her empire.

For Laura Zequeira, general manager of Alexander’s Guesthouse in Key West, Fla., that starts before guests even arrive at the property. “It does begin first with stating it on the front page of the website,” she said.

The gay-owned-and-operated property’s homepage states that “all humans are welcome, of course, but we also hold an especially safe space for members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans & Queer groups.”

Zequeira also implements rules for staff aimed at fostering a positive, welcoming environment. Employees are not allowed to talk about politics, which can be polarizing, or to “gossip,” and they have a mandate to “be loving and kind and tolerant to all.”

“We have to lead by example, which then creates the energy in the space,” she said. “Then that translates to the guests.”

The hotel has communal events such as happy hours. With about 40 guests at a time, Zequeira said, Alexander’s is able to create a nurturing experience for visitors in a way a larger hotel might not. She said the personal approach helps staff build relationships with patrons, and that pays off with repeat business.

During high season, Zequeira said, 70 percent of bookings are returning guests, with many coming every year.

Hotels have gone to the robots

Scott Wismont, president and senior travel adviser at LGBTQ travel concierge service Rainbow Getaways, said equitable service is a major factor in creating an inclusive hotel experience. He said that means “treating everyone with the same welcome, giving everyone the same level of service regardless of who they are, who they’re with … that goes a long way for LGBTQ travelers.”

Wismont said diversity and sensitivity training for employees can help minimize microaggressions and generally make staff more mindful of how they interact with guests. That might include steps such as keeping gender pronouns neutral until you know a guest’s preference.

John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA), said hospitality businesses should also work to ensure the company culture is inclusive.

“If LGBTQ+ people wouldn’t feel comfortable working for you or your front desk doesn’t know how [to make] an LGBTQ+ guest feel welcomed, you can’t really say you’re prepared to do outreach to queer travelers,” he said in an email.

Halcyon, a hotel in Denver’s high-end shopping district of Cherry Creek, educates its workforce to that end. The hotel’s parent company, Makeready, requires all employees to take diversity and inclusion training annually, with a focus on goals in 2022 such as improving diversity in leadership, said Candace Duran, a spokesperson for Halcyon.

The hotel also works to cultivate inclusivity in other ways, such as by including LGBTQ-friendly events on weekly “what not to miss” lists that are distributed to guests. Concierges are also familiar with the local LGBTQ scene.

Pride is back — and more expensive than ever

In past years, Duran said, a hotel might just run a promotion during the month of June for Pride. “And really, our celebration now is every day,” she said. “It’s what we’re doing every month of every year to be able to highlight and make sure that they feel the love and the appreciation and the respect.”

Tanzella said there has been an uptick in hotels placing an emphasis on LGBTQ inclusivity over the past five years — and “even more so in the past three, despite the pandemic.” However, there is room for improvement.

“We’d love to see more staff training, more community engagement, more diversity of LGBTQ-plus people integrated into overall marketing, and more gender-neutral bathrooms, for a start,” he said.

Wismont said that while some hotels may temporarily add a rainbow flag or change their logo during Pride season, others are “really dedicated to being an active member of Pride,” whether offering employees time off to march in parades alongside the brand or financially backing Pride events. He noted that brands such as Marriott and Hilton often have a presence at local Pride parades, while some hotels also host events themselves.

“That’s a good way to figure out who the good ones are,” Wismont said. He also recommended looking into which hotels are supporting local LGBTQ charities, using an LGBTQ travel agent and reading reviews from other LGBTQ travelers on sites such as Tripadvisor or Yelp. In addition to his business’s site and IGLTA, he recommended and

IGLTA also maintains a roster of member businesses, and Tanzella said it will implement a new accreditation program for hotels later this year.

“We want to get to the point where everyone’s welcomed regardless, and you don’t have to worry about things,” Wismont said.