“Social media” has been a natural and necessary component of gay travel since before the phrase was much used. As discussed in an earlier column, organized gay group travel began in earnest in the early 1970s with gay travel pioneer Hanns Ebensten’s gay tours. It evolved slowly over the years, but in 1985 with the launch of RSVP Vacations (which, incidentally celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with a cruise around Hawaii), it grew to its next level.
The next major burst of activity didn’t occur till the early 1990s with an explosion of developments, including the founding of Community Marketing, Inc, a team of gay travel marketing and research experts, Atlantis Events, the undisputed leader in gay and lesbian tours and cruises (which now owns RSVP), and OUT&ABOUT, the pre-eminent trip-planning newsletter for gay and lesbian travelers, as well as the establishment of the Royal Palms in Ft. Lauderdale, which became the standard by which all other gay accommodations were measured for over 15 years.
A major factor in this sudden efflorescence was the advent of the Internet and, specifically, the pre-Web sharing of information via electronic bulletin boards, email, and early versions of online communities, like CompuServ and, eventually AOL.
Gay people and in particular gay travelers were using chat boards and the earliest pre-Web Internet communities to meet each other from the safety and security of their own homes or offices. These sophisticated online pioneers might have been associated with universities, which is where the Internet took hold or technology geeks — programmers and support people in the software and hardware industries — or just early adaptors, as gay people have always been.
It wasn’t a big leap from emailing and chatting with people over the Internet to actually traveling to meet them. Also for the companies mentioned above, it turned out that it was in many ways easier to find and market to gay and lesbian people in the virtual world than it was in the real one.
AOL, partnering with PlanetOut in the 1990, began to offer content to users, including gay travel content, allowing for travel journalists to spread the word far and wide about new discoveries like the Royal Palms and for advertisers like the gay tour and cruise operators to advertise to people interested in such content.
Along the way, Gay.net and Gay.com merged and began to offer a huge online community of gays and lesbians who could read content (including travel editorial) but also meet up, date, swap suggestions and recommendations for hotels and bars, find out about the latest circuit party, discover a Pride they never heard about and much more — again all from the safety of their own home or office.
By the time MySpace, Twitter, and of course, the daddy of all social media Facebook appeared, gays and lesbians with online access were already very comfortable in online communities and till this day represent a disproportionate share of users for many social media sites. These sites have proven to be excellent ways to announce one’s travels, find information about destinations, and upload and share images taken during trips.