As the former North American marketing manager for the Kenya Tourist Board, Jacob Marek spent a lot of time traveling in the very conservative country.
"I couldn't help but think how fantastic it would be to take an unforgettable safari with my partner, holding hands in the safari vehicle, and sleeping in a tent under the stars, comfortably knowing I had a gay-friendly guide," Marek said. "The reality, sadly, is that many destinations remain homophobic and travel can be dangerous to certain parts of the world. But I refuse to be limited to the current options for gay travelers: cruises, circuit parties, and clothing-optional guest houses. There is very little choice for the curious, well-traveled, off-the-beaten-path LGBT traveler."
So Marek has paved the path himself. Earlier this year, Marek launched Wilde Travels, geared for the LGBT traveler who, as he says, wants to expand his or her travels beyond the standard options.
"To pigeonhole a demographic as varied as ours into those three categories is extremely limiting," Marek said. "We focus on unique experiences to off-the-beaten path destinations, and all of our trips are individual, [meaning,] no group travel for now.
"Some [travel] companies out there are simply 'rainbow washing.' Sure, they say they are gay-friendly, but unless they actually walk in our shoes, they don't really know what concerns LGBT travelers have. Your travel agent might be perfectly accepting, but does he or she know the safari guides are equally as open? Or that the hotel you check-in to won't assign you to two queen beds instead of a king, because you're the same gender? We do the homework so our guests know they are getting a truly welcoming environment in which they are comfortable to be themselves."
Marek, 28, who lives in Miami, started working in the travel industry at Minneapolis-based Carlson Companies, followed by Travel Leaders. "Our division was in charge of representing foreign tourist boards and tour companies here in North America," he said. "I managed the marketing efforts for the Kenya Tourist Board and PromPeru, the Peruvian Tourist Board, in North America. Additionally, I was in charge of sales and marketing for tour companies in Patagonia (South America) and Southeast Asia, so a large portion of my time was arranging tours and interacting with my clients and customers."
He then founded his own travel representation company, representing foreign hotels and tour operators abroad here in North America to the travel trade industry, introducing them to North American wholesalers and travel agents.
Wilde Travels carries a simple, yet profound, tagline: pride, experience, luxury.
"The tagline came to me out of necessity," Marek said. "I was sifting through literally hundreds of hotels and websites, trying to find the right boutique hotels to add to my portfolio. Many of them were [only] mediocre, so I decided I needed to set standards for myself, in terms of which experiences and [what the] hotels [have] to offer.
"I made a list of words I used to describe my suppliers, my clients, and the company itself. The words pride, experience and luxury were a recurring theme among the different categories. The tagline wrote itself.
"Above all, our hotel partners and tour guides must instill a sense of pride in what they do, and create an environment for our guests to be proud to be themselves. All of our itineraries, tours, and accommodations must offer a unique experiencesomething special that you won't find anywhere else. Finally, we find the best accommodations that fit the previous two criteria."
Marek launched Wilde Travels slowly in April, and it is now full steam ahead.
"The reaction from my industry colleagues has been overwhelmingly positive," Marek said. "My first marketing effort was to attend the Twin Cities Pride Festival in Minneapolis, so the launch in April was heavily focused on getting ready for that."
Wilde Travels offers the exotic and the not-too-common, including China, India and elsewhere.
"I think LGBT travelers aren't really all that different from anyone else," Marek said. "The fact that there aren't many options for us to these far-flung destinations is surprising. But I think LGBT travelers want to see these destinations with such rich cultures and ancient histories, but may have second thoughts about going because of the destinations' views on homosexuality. With Wilde Travels, we ease their hesitation and let them see these places in a safe, authentic way."
That means Wilde Travels aligns with LGBT or LGBT-friendly partners/supplies.
"We've really done the research to find the partners and suppliers that truly are LGBT-friendly, or LGBT themselves," Marek said. "We reach out to the management at hotels to ensure that they aren't simply 'rainbow washing,' that they truly embrace the LGBT community. I think the most important aspect of the experience is that we ensure our guides are all gay-friendly, preferably gay themselves. I can't think of a worse scenario than to be on your honeymoon, only to be stuck with a homophobic guide for two weeks. That won't happen with Wilde Travels."
Marek said guides who he uses will be available to make recommendations and/or reservations at gay bars/nightclubs and any other significant LGBT sites/monuments in the destination.
"In the short-term, I am considering offering very small, group departures, say, six to eight people. The overall idea is to offer individual, customized trips; however, we've had several inquiries about group trips, too," Marek said.
"We're also looking to develop itineraries to places a little closer to home, but no less off-the-beaten-path, for people who can't get away for these long two- or three-week exotic journeys."
Long-term, Marek said he wants to build Wilde Travels into "the most trusted travel experts for high-end, off-the-beaten-path journeys.
"I like to describe our itineraries as pieces of clothing off the rack, which you would then take to the tailor so it fits you perfectly. Hotels can be switched; we can include or exclude certain tours; we can tailor a journey so that it is more culturally-focused, or culinary-focused."
The Wilde Travels website is www.wilde-travels.com .