Playing All Day: Gina Gatta of Damron Dishes About A Girl Guide’s Work
It must be hard traveling the world to let people know where the best queer places are to go and what to see, but for Gina Gatta, president and editor-in-chief of Damron, the oldest LGBT travel guide company based in San Francisco, it’s all in a days work.
For the more than 20 years, Gina, 46, an openly gay woman, has traveled the world and navigated Damron through internal and external crises with her business and life partner Erika O’Conner, at her side.
The Damron love match was a side product of the company. Erika worked for Damron for five years before the two fell in love and started their nearly 11 year union.
“I still enjoy what I do. I’m very lucky to have this and I’m not ever going to take it for granted,” says Gina, who during the past 20 years of running the oldest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender travel guide company has witnessed a growing competitive filed and major transformations in both publishing and the travel industries.
Damron was founded by Bob Damron in 1967. An openly gay man, Damron turned his little black book of gay lodges, bars, and restaurants into photocopied guides until the mid-1980s when Dan Delbacks bought the business in 1987.
Gina joined Damron in 1989, two years after her friend, Delbacks, bought the travel guide company. That same year Gina started the Damron Women’s Traveller, a complimentary guide to the popular Men’s Traveler, that lists LGBT-owned and operated and gay-friendly lodges, entertainment, and other information for queer travelers. Later Gina added Damron’s city guides and expanded beyond North America to Europe and South America.
In 2009, Damron’s Men’s Traveler celebrated its 45th edition and the Women’s Traveller celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Four short years later the company went into a tailspin when Delbacks died of AIDS and left the company in a quart of a million dollar debt. Gina inherited the company and brought on two business partners at the time, she said.
Gina and her partners pulled the travel guide company out of the debt over a five year period. By 1996, Damron was back in the black and getting on its feet unaware of the Internet age and other events that would dramatically change the way people travel and companies that cater to the wanderlust was right around the corner.
Gina chose not to disclose the names of the partners who are no longer a part of the business. She bought them out of Damron soon after the company stabilized.
In spite of Damron’s internal issues, Gina describes the late 1990s as the “fat days” of travel publishing, “when we were all really rich. We were making a lot of money in the late 90s,” Gatta says.
It was a Gilded Age, the economy was booming, the U.S. was in a financial surplus, advertising was king, and the Internet was teasing the consciousness of the world. Then with a magical snap of a finger, the Internet age emerged forever changing consumerism to publishing, 9/11 struck the U.S. permanently creating a fault line in the world’s imagination, and two economic crisis in a single decade crippled the global spirit.
“That changed travel forever and nothing will ever come back from that,” says Gina.
Gina couldn’t imagine Damron’s next chapter where she would navigate the travel guide company through the rise of the Internet, which rushed in new competitors, such as Out & About launched in 1999 and more recently with San Francisco-based GayCities.com and Canada-based GirlPorts.com. Then there are the numerous queer print travel guides and magazines wooing the LGBTQ traveler.
Applauding the new guides that have entered the market, especially GirlPorts.com, Gina is quick to point out that many of the competing queer travel online and print guides “wouldn’t know where to start” if it wasn’t for the foundation Damron built.
“It keeps me on my toes and I applaud them,” says Gina, admitting that sometimes “it’s tough when everybody wants to play in your sandbox,” but the competition forces her to stay current on technology and other trends.
Sharing the sandbox and all of the changes of running a small travel publishing business within the past decade, Gina feels lucky to still be traveling and providing gay and lesbian travelers quality information for their vacations. Under her leadership Damron has maintained is position as one of the top queer travel guides in the travel industry and continues to be competitive testing new ideas and trends, yet Gina doesn’t discount the value of print guides.
“I love printing books,” says Gina, who still gets calls from advertisers who continue to receive business from guides published years ago. “People hold on to them for five to 10 years.”
If Internet and publishing competition wasn’t enough, the travel industry itself experienced major changes that were impacted by global economic crises and terrorist attacks in the U.S. a decade ago provided unprecedented challenges, not only for Damron but the entire travel industry and beyond.
The turbulent vicissitudes during the past decade hasn’t fazed Gina.
“It takes a lot to get me to blow my skirt up,” says Gina letting out a deep guttural chuckle. I’ve seen it all.”
In 2008, Gina launched DamronVacations.com, a travel agency and vacation package arm of the company, but a year later she closed the venture to leverage translating the company’s strengths as a travel resource to the mobile age. In 2010, she launched Damron’s iPhone applications Gurl Scout and Gay Scout.
“I feel very fortunate that we are succeeding,” says Gina, who was originally from Rhode Island, but claimed San Francisco as her home nearly 30 years ago. “On a bad day, I just have a mantra saying this is my hobby, this is not my job.”
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