LGBT Capital interviews Juan Julia

Juan Julia, owner of the Axel Hotel Group, is interviewed by Stéphane
Abela from LGBT Capital.  The Axel Hotels are a successful brand of
HETEROFRIENDLY hotels, currently with a presence in Barcelona, Berlin
and Buenos Aires.

Juan, you chose to position your hotels as HETEROFRIENDLY, a variation on the term ‘straight-friendly’ frequently used, what made you decide to choose this brand adjective as opposed to GAYFRIENDLY or simply GAY?

“The Axel hotel chain started with our Barcelona hotel which used to be a gay-only
hotel.  Typically our guests come from the US and Spain for the major part, followed
by the UK and France, and with the remainder coming from the rest of Europe.
Depending on the time of the year, the hotel has got a varying percentage of gay
people.  In the summer – July, August and September – 90% of our customers are
gay.  However, if you come during the winter months, the period when Barcelona
hosts various international fairs, the clientele tends to be a lot more mixed.” […]

We want everybody to be welcome but we still want all
our potential customers to know that it is a hotel focusing on the gay community,
and if they are comfortable with it, that is excellent.  If they are not comfortable
being amongst gay people then they are not welcome here and should go to other
hotels. On average, throughout the year, the hotel is around 70% gay and lesbian
and 30% heterosexual.  We chose not to use the label ‘gay-friendly’ as we feel the
term has been overused. […]

“We also chose not to position ourselves as a gay hotel because sometimes gay-only hotels
can be a little ‘too gay’ and some of our customers prefer when we are mixed.  We
are not and do not want to be a gay ghetto, we want everybody to feel welcome but we still want all our potential customers to know that it is a hotel focusing on the gay community.  We are a hetero-friendly hotel.” […]

You initially used to be a gay hotel but then you decided to transition to heterofriendly, what did that entail?

“I believe that to position yourself as heterofriendly you have to open as a gay hotel
first and you have to be known and well-recognised in the gay community as a gay
brand or a gay product focusing on a gay clientele and then and only then you can
transition to heterofriendly product or brand.” […]

“The danger comes when you start
welcoming girls and straight friends of gay men to a place, be it a bar or a club, the
place then starts becoming popular with these girls and their girl-friends, the ratio
has become a shrinking 70% gays, the remaining being 30% of straight girls.  Then
all of the sudden heterosexual men chasing after the girls start transforming the
place and really unbalancing the ratio. After a few months, you are not a gay bar or
a gay disco anymore, gay men have stopped coming and you cannot even pretend
to be gay friendly anymore.” […]

Do you think that a HETEROFRIENDLY positioning will also appeal more to younger
gay people?

“The fact is that the older generations of gay men, those above 40, are typically more
used to the gay community and are not as open as the younger gays are now.  The
younger gay people like to mix when they go out, they like to be surrounded by
girls, boys, straights, gays, everyone together because they don’t care.  I guess the
fight for equal rights by the older gay generation has borne some fruits.  In the
same way as the young generation who seek such more mixed surroundings, we did
not want a hotel that would be catering for a ghettoised gay grown-up clientele, we
wanted to welcome everybody.  We realised that when our more grown-up guests
came to the hotel they liked to see younger people and that the younger people
wanted to see a mix of people.  The Sky Bar, the roof terrace bar of the Axel Barcelona is generally very mixed, except for the two specifically themed parties that we offer each week,  1 gay and 1 lesbian.  It is generally filled with 60% gay men and the 40% remaining is composed of straight men and women as well as lesbians.”

Was it difficult to get your family to support and invest in the hotel?

“The hardest part was not my family, it was the banks.  My background was not from
the hotel industry and nor was my family’s.  I have a marketing background and
studied economics and did an MBA.  However, I had been interested in the hotel
business ever since I was a child.  I eventually gained some experience working for
an international Spanish company, but always knew that I wanted to do something
for myself.  I was working on a Relais & Châteaux project for which I secured the
financing.  I realised then that there was a gap in the market with a niche for gay
hotels.  I researched and studied the opportunity and realised that the only gay
hotels in the world where usually in holiday destinations in the US or Europe, in
places like Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Provincetown, Sitges, Mykonos, etc.” […]

“I realised that the niche opportunity was
to focus on the gay community and offer them very nice establishments in the
centres of large cosmopolitan cities that are favoured destinations of gay tourists.
Of course, I had to buy the building and I put all my money into it, and while my
family also took part in the investment, I still had to find a bank that would become
the biggest stakeholder.  I had to visit several banks and convince at least one of
them of the validity of my project.  You can imagine how some of the meetings
would go – you would have at least 10 men, all dressed in black or navy suits,
looking sternly at you while you tell them that you are gay, that you have a project
of opening a hotel that will focus on the gay community and that it will cost around

Did your bank manager provide the necessary financial support due solely to him
seeing a good business opportunity or was the bank itself actively engaging in
attracting gay businesses?

“I did not knock on the door of a particular bank because of a specific program to
support the gay community.  I just went to several of the major banks, and selected
this particular one because I got the best feeling.  The project financing was entirely
driven by this specific bank manager who could see that the project was good.  He
had an important position in the bank, I am not sure if he was gay or not, it should
and does not really matter, the key was that he was smart and that after a few
conversations he could see the great potential that my project offered, he liked my
business plan and looked at the pros and cons.  I was buying the building in 2000,
before real estate prices climbed to the 2007 peak level and before the 2008 crash
and therefore, this looked like a good opportunity for them.” […]

“I do not think that today any bank in Spain – and I would venture even in Europe –
knows or has got any active successful program to capture the pink euro.  In 2000,
there definitely were none.  I know some Spanish banks have tried to do small
campaigns for supporting gay businesses but never with any real consistent
marketing strategy.  Generally, these are sporadic campaigns, very localised and
never part of a real strategy.  In some cases companies have tried to position
themselves as GAY- FRIENDLY, but frankly, in our day and age, in liberal societies
and in the environment in which I move, who is not gay-friendly?  You only need one
gay customer to be gay-friendly and you do not even have to treat them particularly
well – and the gay community has caught on to this.” […]

What is your view on some of these large international hotel and resort groups’
strategy to open gay hotels?

“Some of these companies have indeed stated that they are looking to open gay
hotels and if you, for example, look at Thomson holidays they too are looking to
brand some of their hotels as gay or gay-friendly. Are they looking to offer a special
package-holiday for people going on a gay holiday? How many gays will there be at
the destination? Is it even a gay destination? Who decides whether their hotel is gay
or not?  As you can imagine, I know a lot of the hotels of Barcelona, the Axel hotel is
in the official tourist guide together with some other hotels that are supposed to be
gay-friendly.  Let me tell you, their owners and their management are not gay, and
some of them are as unfriendly to gays as if they were the bishop of Rome!!!  I do
not know how they can have the audacity to claim to be gay-friendly.  In truth most
gay-friendly hotels are really simply trying to widen their revenue sources and as
such will target the gay market.  They will of course treat gay customers in the same
way as they do all their other customers, however they will not make any efforts to
attract gay guests nor attempt to engage or support the local gay community, their
only aim is get a share of the pink wallet.” […]

For the entire Interview click here

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