Going somewhere? Need to know where to stay that is queer woman-owned or –friendly? Want a drink at the local girl bar? Hungry and want to eat somewhere that is gay- or lesbian-owned? Simply open your Damron Women’s Traveller.
If you are of a certain age, Damron Women’s Traveller might have been packed in your bag whenever you took a trip to a new city or country. Today, the guide is still in book form, but it has morphed into an app Gurl Scout and a website.
Damron Women’s Traveller is celebrating its silver anniversary with the release of its 25th collectable anniversary edition. Its older brother, the original LGTB travel guide, Damron, is celebrating its golden anniversary with its 50th collectable anniversary edition.
For 25 and 50 years, respectively, the guide books have listed places to stay, restaurants, businesses, community centers, local publications alongside locals’ tips for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers.
More than 1.5 million guides overall have been sold in half a century. While Damron has shifted with the times, it still sells 10,000 of the women’s guides annually. At the height of the publishing and travel industry days in the 1990s, says Gina Gatta, publisher and owner of San Francisco-based Damron, printed 50,000 guides a year, she says.
Babs Daitch, owner and tour guide of Thanks Babs! The Day Tripper in San Francisco and Las Vegas, always made sure to have a copy of Damron with her, she says.
“Wherever I went I would always have a copy with me so I could show other people. It’s just a really great resource,” says Babs, who has worked with Gina for 24 years.
Richard Gray, managing director for the LGBT Market for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees.
“Damron has been my Travel Bible….my travel security blanket, if you like, for the last 32 years!” says Richard, a 56-year-old bisexual man who has been in the travel industry for 23 years.
“I still have the passion around it and that’s why I do it every day,” says Gina, a gay woman who also turns 50 this year, about queer women’s travel and providing a resource for LGBT travelers. “It’s a labor of love and it’s my passion.”
Passion is what she has hunting down lesbian bars in unknown places for 25 years.
“My most scariest travel experience of my life, I got lost in Berlin,” says Gina, who was in a remote neighborhood of the city searching for a lesbian bar in the middle of the night in the late 1990s. “I was freaking out.”
She finally found the bar. The owner was there all by herself. Gina stayed for a bit and talked to the owner who gave her directions to find a cab, but still she got lost again and returned to the bar, but it was empty.
“[I was] scared shitless,” says Gina who finally found a cab and made it back to her hotel around 4:30 a.m. “But you know I made it.”
Not all trips were filled with wandering around an unfamiliar city in the middle of the night. She has great memories of Iceland and Copenhagen, which are two trips that she recalls fondly to this day.
If it’s not the travel it’s her readers that keep her going. She receives calls and emails from customers daily thanking her for the guides.
“‘You saved my life,’” says Gina talking about women who used Damron’s Women’s Traveller to help them select where to go to college and where to live. Gay boys she’s met tell her stories about their younger years when they used Damron as a beacon and a guide to find others like themselves.
“It was one of the few avenues women had to find out what was going on,” says Babs.
“These are the earlier days before we were so accepted in the world,” adds Gina. “People needed my book that helped them find community.”
Community has been an important aspect of Damron and Gina’s life. For 25 years, she hasn’t only shown LGBT travels where to go and what to do, but she’s also served on the board of and given to some of San Francisco’s most notable organizations.
For 13 years she sat on the board of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, two of which she was co-chair. She not only raised nearly $100,000 for the organization, but worked to increase the organization’s endowment from $1 million to $2.5 million during her tenure. Since 2010, Gina has served on the Grass Roots Gay Rights Foundation, which produces Real Bad, and has raised more than $2 million in 25 years for San Francisco’s grassroots LGBT organizations. Damron has sponsored the event for more than 15 years, she says.
Damron’s legacy is that it didn’t only help people find each other, but it also helped build lesbiboods and gayborhoods, she says.
“Damron has really helped define gay and lesbian cities and neighborhoods. Before we had the internet and the opportunity to share the only way you could do it was with my book,” says Gina, about how gay and lesbian business owners would read the book and move to where other gay businesses were located in their city.
Because of this historical documentation, Damron’s archives have become a resource for LGBT historians mapping and studying the effects gentrification on gay and lesbian neighborhoods.
Damron was also instrumental in helping to build the LGBT travel industry.
“It has been very helpful to me,” says Babs. “I would get phone calls periodically, ‘We heard about you in the Damron guide.’ So, it was really important.”
Richard couldn’t agree more.
“Damron has unquestionably been the leader in the LGBT travel industry for the last 50 years,” he says. “They had the vision and courage to lead the way 50 years ago and became pioneers in the LGBT world and inspired so many people and companies.
“Thanks to the Damron Company the LGBT traveler was able to visit cities and find safe havens where they could meet locals and make new friends,” continues Richard.
Thomas “Tom” E. Roth, MBA, president of Community Marketing, Inc., an LGBT marketing company that publishes an annual survey on the LGBT travel market and who has been in the travel industry for 25 years, agrees.
“Damron is the original ‘facilitator’ of LGBT travel. For 50 years, starting long before any other resource, Damron has been a trusted safe haven for information that has gotten our community out and traveling,” says Tom, a 57-year-old gay man, pointing out that the guide is still the “most trusted resource to get the scoop on destinations, places to stay and things to do.”
The travel professionals all called Damron pioneering not once, but twice when it published the Women’s Traveller.
“The Women’s Traveller has been the voice for the lesbian traveler and is still to this day the voice and source for the lesbian traveler,” says Richard, stating that while the lesbian travel market is “hard to reach” it’s “important and significant.”
“Over the last 25 years the Women’s Traveller has greatly helped give the lesbian community their own voice and their identity in the travel arena,” continues Richard. “Damron, thanks to Gina Gatta has nurtured and cultivated that market in a very open and loving way.”
Babs agreed adding that when she worked with Olivia Travel [link to Olivia article] and later the now defunct [link to sweet article]Sweet Travel [link to sweet article], Gina and Damron were there supporting the lesbian travel companies all the way.
A traveling Man
The guides started in 1964 when Bob Damron, a gay man and the late founder of Damron, began recording the gay bars he found during his travels. By 1967, he turned his little black book of gay lodges, bars, and restaurants into photocopied pocket guides known as the Damron Address Book until the mid-1980s when Dan Delbex bought the business in 1987.
Gatta joined her friend Delbex in the business in 1989 and created the Damron Women’s Traveller, a complementary guide to the popular Men’s Traveler, and added the city guides, which were then known as the Damron Road Atlas.
In 1991, Delbex died of AIDS-related complications. Gatta and two other business partners, whom she declined to name, inherited the company. The company was in a quarter of million dollars debt, but it was also the fat years of publishing before the internet.
By the mid-1990s, Gatta and her business partners turned the company around. They paid off the debt and expanded the guides into Europe and South America.
By the end of the 1990s, Damron was out of the red and the company was getting back onto its feet. Damron, which was held in a trust for five years, was released and the partners reissued stocks in the private company to each other. In 1996, the partners also began the process of Gatta taking full ownership of Damron. Gatta became sole owner of Damron in 2008.
The late 90s and early 2000s brought dramatic changes to the travel industry. The internet hit the masses in the late 90s followed by 9/11 and the recession of the 2000s. Suddenly, the way people traveled changed dramatically.
New lesbian and gay travel businesses riding the wave of change came knocking on Gina’s door offering money for Damron, but the guides and its golden information for the now multibillion lesbian and gay travel market weren’t for sale. She doesn’t regret her decision.
“I could have sold back in the 90s when we had high value, when we had a lot of revenue, when we had a lot of staff and I didn’t. I chose to stay independent. It’s been a nice life,” says Gina, who caught her own wave taking Damron online.
The Traveling Times
The move allowed her to update her listings quickly and keep up with the rapidly changing LGBT community with two part-time staff and six freelancers who update the listings and provide content. She prides herself on offering Damron’s 15,000 paid subscribers accurate and high quality information.
To keep pace with technology she added Damron’s mobile apps Gurl Scout and Gay Scout.
Sure, there are many websites out there that provide similar listings, but they aren’t as well maintained as Damron’s, Gina argues.
“I pride myself that our content is the best,” says Gina, pointing out that anyone can look up lesbian bars and parties in a location and find several local websites, but “90 percent of them are going to be inaccurate. So, I really do pride myself by the fact that my website is updated weekly. I’m constantly updating the content.”
Through the years she’s scaled back publishing as printing costs increased and print readership decreased and powered up Damron’s website by adding listings only available online and through the associated apps.
That fresh content and updated listings lead to more people subscribing to Damron. Gina hasn’t given up on books though, there is still a generation of men and women and parts of the world that prefer books over tablets and smartphones. She still publishes a limited number of guides every 18 months rather than annually, she says.
“My task is to stay relevant after 50. That’s the stress I face every day,” says Gina, who doesn’t know what that future of LGBT travel will look like and especially for Damron.
She thought it might be in offering travel agency services and tours, but her attempts to open up Damron Travel haven’t flown yet. Plans in 2008 and this year fizzled after the deep recession took one business partner under and another ended up not being a perfect match. She hasn’t given up, she feels certain types of tours are a valuable next step for Damron and is still looking for that perfect travel buddy, she says.
Gina is also planning on continuing to provide quality original content and increasing it on Damron’s website, she says.
No matter what happens in the future of LGBT travel, Gatta’s got her eye on the next 50 years.
For more information, visit http://damron.com.
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