At the inaugural convention of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) in 1983, there were about 25 attendees, as the organization featured a group of gay guest house owners and travel agents who were helping each other with their clients, booking gay travel, and more.
Flash-forward 30 years. The IGLTA's annual Global Convention comes to Chicago for the first time ever, as the world's premier educational and networking event for the LGBT tourism industry is May 2-4, celebrating the history of LGBT travel and paving the path for LGBT travel, truly, around the world. More than 2,000 attendees are expected, representing more than 80 countries, including high-profile, mainstream representatives from airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tour operators, tourism boards, convention & visitors bureaus, restaurants, bars and more.
Once a small group gathering in South America, now IGLTA truly has gone global.
"We continue to grow and are on the cusp on greatness," said IGLTA President John Tanzella. "I think LGBT tourism is really becoming accepted more and more around the world, and there really is a lot of interest in the market around the world. We're doing more and more outreach to consumers to promote our business members, and think that will be pivotal to help our members grow their revenue and reach more consumers.
"The 30th convention, this is huge, especially for an LGBT organization. We're really excited for the convention, and really excited to have it in Chicago, a city that is fairly easy to get to for our [conference] attendees, with a great gay community and just so much to do."
The three-day conference will be held at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago, featuring prominent speakers from the travel industry, panel discussions, breakout sessions and more. One of the convention's highlights is the Evening Consumer Trade Show, on Friday at the Center on Halsted in Lakeview, starting at 6:30 p.m., produced by Steven Levenberg Productions of New York. The four-hour event, open to the public, will feature 150 exhibitors with some amazing give-aways, including once-in-a-lifetime trips, hotel stays, and more.
"It will be a really fun event," Tanzella said of the Friday affair.
The Evening Consumer Trade Show will include trip give-aways to Spain, Mexico and South Africa, among other exotic locations. IGLTA is offering the South Africa trip, complete with airfare and accommodations at a five-star hotel.
The event also will feature a sampling of Barefoot Wines.
The convention includes a keynote speech from David Scowsill, the president/CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council. There will be breakout sessions about a variety of travel-related topics, such as social media, Asia, lesbians, luxury travel, media, and more.
"If your business is gay and lesbian travel, the annual IGLTA convention is the place to be," said Russell Lord, marketing and tourism consultant for Kenes Tours, based in Tel Aviv. "[The convention] is always a great opportunity to renew acquaintances and meet new people in the tourism world. Despite the long [trip] from Israel, IGLTA conventions have proven their value over and over again. I really am looking forward to a great conference in Chicago."
One of the most popular sessions should be Saturday morning, titled, Gay Travel/Gay Rights: A 30 Year History/A Bright Future. Billy Kolber of ManAboutWorld will host, looking back at 30 years of gay travel, including how the industry has contributed to the advancement of LGBTQIA rights and its implication for the worldwide advancement of those rights.
The Fort-Lauderdale-based Stonewall National Museum & Archives will offer a 30-year historical perspective for attendees, which will be on display at the Hyatt. Tanzella said the exhibit will be "fun and informative."
Another convention highlight, which is open to the public, promises to be the first-ever IGLTA Foundation Volunteer Event. Convention attendees will join local residents to support three worthwhile causes: Nettelhorst School, the Chicago Parks District, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository. At Nettelhorst, volunteers will help the school's community group transform an outdoor space for educational use. The aide for the parks will clean up playgrounds and more. Other volunteers, meanwhile, will repackage and sort food for distribution at the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
"Volunteering is a great way for the LGBT community to show its support for diverse communities worldwide. We hope that our hard work on May 4 will help as many Chicago residents as possible," Charlie Rounds, IGLTA Foundation Board Chair and Managing Director for Brand g Vacations, said in a statement.
Jody Cole, the owner/guide for California-based Wild Rainbow African Safaris, posted on Facebook in mid-April that she will be volunteering at the Greater Chicago Good Depository during IGLTA.
"I do something very similar to this at Christmas time, and it is so much fun; I just love doing it and knowing that it's helping the needy," said Cole, who lives in Ukiah, Calif., and will be coming to Chicago with her partner, Katharine Appleton Cole.
Tanzella, 48, is in his seventh year as IGLTA president, came to the organization from the airline industry, moving to South Florida from Washington D.C. "I had been to a few of their conventions and thought there was a lot of potential for the organization to grow. The past seven years have been interesting. Working with our members, potential members, the media, governments, and more … it's been quite an interesting position; that's for sure."
During his run, Tanzella has watched the organization grow, even during a troubling economic period. He particularly praised the growth of gay travel from the mainstream market, such as United Airlines and Hyatt Hotels, companies that now are reaching out to gay travelers and wanting to work with IGLTA, Tanzella said. "Fifteen years ago, you'd never have seen major corporations reaching out [for] gay travelers," he said.
"I think the interest from mainstream corporations comes from the fact that they have LGBT affinity groups for their employee. So they're looking to show that they support their employees, and reach out to LGBT travelers at the same time."
Tanzella said he thinks, and hopes, IGLTA will continue to grow in the coming years, even to places that now are not accepting of the LGBT community, both domestically and internationally.
He tagged Latin America as one of the key markets nowadays as it is "booming in all sectors, particularly LGBT travel." That includes Brazil, Argentina, Mexico City and Peru.
A long-shot area for growth within the LGBT market is Asia, he said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see China more rapidly than other parts of the world accept gay travelers," said Tanzella, who added Nepal and Thailand, too. "I think those places are really becoming open-minded to capitalize on potential markets, such as the LGBT market."
Cole has attended IGLTA Convention four times and will be a speaker this year presenting a Thursday session, titled, Marking your territory in the LGBT travel industry. Cole and David Ryan of Rhino Africa will, using imagery and personal stories, share lessons learned about business from life and wildlife in the African bush.
"I really enjoy IGLTA, especially getting to re-unite with friends who I sometimes only see at the convention," she said. "Plus, I make great new contacts and I learn at lot from the various workshops.
"I think everyone's energy and excitement is peaked for this year's convention; I really think this event will be a lot of fun, a lot of learning and a lot of great connections."
Another convention milestone this year will be the first-ever appearance by representatives of the U.S. Department of State. "It's pretty awesome," to have them appear, Tanzella said. "This is a big deal for us.
"They know that LGBT travelers do, typically, travel more frequently and more internationally, and often to more adventurous destinations, than the average American.
It's incredible that they're [appearing at the IGLTA convention]; it really is huge [for the organization]. We've never had the United States government supporting LGBT travelers and IGLTA. This is a huge step in the right direction. This is very exciting for us."