By Merryn Johns
Since its founding in 2018 with a boatload of optimism, originality, and inclusivity, VACAYA has raised the bar and broadened horizons for what LGBTQ+ travel should be in terms of who’s invited at cruises and resorts in some of the most unique and beautiful destinations around the globe.
VACAYA is possibly the best way to fall in love with the world again after what has been a forced abstinence from savoring its many pleasures. And to entice us back into full adventure mode, VACAYA is now offering the LGBTQ+ community the very first full-ship charter cruise to Antarctica December 6-17, 2022. The most remote, pristine, and least-habituated continent on Earth just might be the perfect way to bounce bak from the pandemic. VACAYA will sail one of the world’s most luxurious expedition ships – Le Boreal from Ponant — for 10 adventure-filled days and nights exploring Antarctica. Included is a pre-cruise night in Buenos Aires and roundtrip flights from BA to Ushuaia (where the cruise begins and ends) to create an 11-night expedition, the first of its kind, with highlights such as multiple daily landings on the continent via Zodiac®, hiking, kayaking, and encounters with penguins.
But there is a lot more in store for this year and beyond. To find out we talked to CEOs and co-founders Randle Roper and Patrick Gunn.
Venturing out after this pandemic is certainly a challenge but has there been an upside to this hiatus as travel entrepreneurs?
Patrick: If anything, it’s strengthened our resolve to keep opening those doors of inclusivity ever wider. The beauty of our LGBTQIAPK community is that there are millions of stories among us. And VACAYA has the honor of being the vehicle that brings those individual tales of life and survival and joy together in an incredible melting pot of diversity. The #GreatPause of 2020/2021 has allowed us to connect with our guests in all-new ways. We’ve had countless conversations with our guests on the phone, over Zoom, and at online events that have given us such a strong perspective of what our community members are looking for. And as we return to service this summer, all of that great feedback will spring to life!
How has travel and what people want out of it has changed?
Randle: VACAYA has always been about bringing people together. Meaningful connections are at the heart of the VACAYA experience. Humankind has been struggling more mentally than physically during this #GreatPause because most of us are social by nature. We’re tactile. We hug. We connect. So to have those basic necessities stripped away has built up a hunger to burst free from this cage that’s confined us. We are seeing an extraordinary increase in bookings ever since the US presidential election and the release of the vaccines. People are ready to get back to their social lives and travel again, there’s no question about that.
And we don’t have to wait until 2022. You have four itineraries to see out 2021. Some people are still a little travel shy. What protocols and guidance have you observed to guarantee customer safety?
Patrick: Well, let’s be clear… there are absolutely no guarantees of safety, not in travel, not in going to a restaurant, not in going to the grocery store. We’ve seen that over and over again through the pandemic. What VACAYA can do and has done, though, is mitigate the risks. For our Iceland Cruise, all guests are required to be vaccinated. So that instantaneously raises the bar in regard to safety. On top of that, we’ll follow both the masking and social distancing guidelines in effect at the time of sailing. In addition, Ponant (our Iceland Cruise Line) has implemented a series of safety measures onboard that will come into play if anyone happens to come down with Covid-19 despite being vaccinated. Those measures will not only provide those who might become ill with world-class care, but there are plans in place that will prevent any kind of widespread outbreak, as well.
Randle: We are part of weekly meetings with myriad entities about health and safety — learning the latest details regarding the vaccine rollout, protocols, and the future. Being based in Washington DC and having direct lines to so many leaders within the various governmental departments has kept VACAYA on the front lines of great information without the sometimes-maddening cacophony of often-conflicting media reports.
Which itinerary are you each most excited about and why?
Randle: That is the Sophie’s Choice of questions! Each of these trips is our baby. How could we pick just one? So I’ll give you two answers – one for 2021 and one for 2022. This year, I’m most looking forward to our fall New Orleans Cruise Nov 14-22. New Orleans is my hometown and I love it more than any other city on earth. So I’m excited to share it with our guests. Add to that this is the first ever LGBTQ+ US-based river cruise and it will be a celebration for the ages! For 2022, I’d have to say our Antarctica Cruise. In nearly 50 years of LGBTQ+ travel, no company has taken their guests on a full-ship charter to the 7th continent. VACAYA is truly making history with this one. I had the good fortune of traveling to Antarctica in 2015 and I can say this with all sincerity and without an ounce of hyperbole: Antarctica is a place that changes your world view forever. No one who goes to Antarctica comes back the same.
You have touted VACAYA as truly inclusive as a brand. What are some of the initiatives you've been working on to ensure that women, BIPOC, GNC folks — the full rainbow of our community — can book a trip and feel welcome?
Patrick: We’ve certainly made big moves, but it’s the collective power of all the small initiatives that has really moved the needle. Together they paint a picture of inclusivity unlike any other travel company out there. From our Wonder Board (which is our women’s Advisory Board) and our Black Voices initiatives, to our educational Alphabet Soup page, you’d be surprised how many people have no clue what all the letters after LGBT stand for) and our creation/use of new hashtags to build community (for example, #TransTravel), we are redefining what’s possible in this market.
Randle: We believe strongly that our collective voices can make a huge difference in building acceptance in some of the less welcoming places we visit. We encourage our guests to give a little sweat equity by volunteering during their vacations and we provide them with a safe environment in which to do so. By the end of some of these activities, our guests from all walks of life, sexual orientation, color, creed, etc. are bonded to each other and uplifted by their shared experience of giving back.
Patrick: Our solo traveler program is one of the most popular among our guests and helps create a wider diversity on our vacations by providing reasonably priced access. By matching solo travelers up with roommates on certain vacations, we enable more of the LGBT+ audience to travel with us because they’re only financially responsible for a portion of the cruise stateroom or resort room that they share.
Randle: And finally, (and I say that more out of an effort to keep this list a reasonable length rather than suggesting that this is all we do to promote inclusivity), we work closely with all of our cruise line and resort partners to create a welcoming environment for all travelers, including those with special needs.
Final thoughts before I dust off my passport?
Patrick: 2020 was the toughest year in the history of travel. The fact that not only did VACAYA survive, but is now thriving is a testament to the hard work of the men and women behind VACAYA and our guests who have embraced us so tightly. We wouldn’t be here without them. So we’ll leave you with one thought that really defines who we are at our core: we are grateful. Grateful for the privilege to do what we do and serve the community we serve.
Randle: We invite everyone who believes “love is love” to join us on a VACAYA vacation and see for themselves why we are the leader in the LGBT+ cruise charters and resort buyouts. Your readers can learn more and book online 24/7.
Visit myvacaya.com and follow on social media @myVACAYA