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Male Ally of the Month: Uwern Jong, Experientialist®-in-Chief, OutThere

Uwern Jong co-founded the luxury travel magazine OutThere in 2010 to reach the affluent LGBTQ+ market, which he felt was being overlooked and underserved. Soon he discovered the gap in the market was much wider than he initially thought, encompassing marginalized travelers of many backgrounds – from solo female travelers, single-parents and people of color to neurodiverse and disabled travelers. 

Fourteen years later, Uwern has transformed OutThere into a leading voice in luxury travel, advocating for more inclusive tourism. The brand features a vibrant website attracting over 250,000 unique visitors monthly, a quarterly magazine with a circulation exceeding 40,000 copies, and sold-out events like the inaugural Icons of Inclusion conference, which I recently attended. These gatherings offer insights into broadening market appeal in travel, underlining Uwern's belief that "inclusivity doesn't create exclusivity." An advocate for all, please meet our Mr. April, Uwern Jong!

Uwern Jong

Uwern, could you share your journey toward becoming an advocate for inclusivity in luxury travel? What personal experiences inspired you to start OutThere?

Identifying as a proudly gay man of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, I've always been acutely aware of my interactions with others. Growing up in both the UK and Malaysia, I learned to navigate my dual identities amid unconscious biases and microaggressions. The challenges of not fully belonging in either country, compounded by the historical context of one country colonizing the other, have been significant. Don’t get me wrong, I think I am so lucky to be multi-cultural… it is really a blessing and a true privilege, and I wholly embrace and adore my brilliantly diverse backgrounds. I saw and felt racism throughout my life, but nothing like the aggressive and all-out racism which my parents experienced. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see, hear, feel and experience the undercurrent of it and worse, the institutional kind; and I’ve become so aware of how people can be so disrespectful or dismissive of each other, oftentimes without even realizing that they’re doing it. 

Then lo and behold, I ended up coming out as gay! And suddenly I became particularly sensitive and exposed to prejudice. Safety became paramount…and there I was before worried about commanding respect, which seemed so trivial compared to the idea that someone in the other 90% of the population could be violent towards me just because of who I am. And lots of people experience this kind of fear: because of their gender, or the gender they were wrongly assigned at birth, because of the color of their skin, their background, their religion, where they come from, their age, their social status… it’s horrendous. So, I guess I’m just naturally hardwired seeing prejudice when it happens.

Being an LGBTQ+ person who loves to travel, I don’t travel this world easily. There are 69 countries in the world that still criminalises being gay, some by the death penalty. And many of those countries are big travel destinations, or ones that are investing a lot of money to become big travel destinations. Yet I want to be able to see and experience people and places just like everyone else. But I want to do so safely, and moreso I don’t want to have to hide who I am, or act like someone else when I travel. And then on top of that, it’s an abhorrent idea to have LGBTQ+ people in the places you visit as a tourist, fearing for their lives and not being able to live freely. But beyond all the socio-political stuff, I’m spending money when I travel, so why am I not able to do so freely and authentically like everyone else? Why are the people taking my money not celebrating me for who I am?

But beyond all the socio-political stuff, I’m spending money when I travel, so why am I not able to do so freely and authentically like everyone else? Why are the people taking my money not celebrating me for who I am?

That’s kind of the motivation behind why my business partner Martin and I started OutThere. Martin was a career Creative Director who had been at the helm of some of the world’s best magazine titles and saw how the bar was set so low in mainstream media and publishing when it came to celebrating the lifestyles and telling the stories of LGBTQ+ people. And meanwhile, queer media were so intent on telling us that there was a prescriptive way of living life as a gay person. Yes, I adore queer culture: pop divas, drag queens and holidays in Mykonos as much as the next gay guy, but my sexuality doesn’t and shouldn’t define me.

So, we started OutThere as something different for LGBTQ+ people: a magazine that championed LGBTQ+ diversity and intersectionality in a mainstream context. And over time, we built an incredible community and grew to become a title that is now the world’s leading in luxury travel for LGBTQ+ people and one of the nation’s foremost travel magazines, period. I’m very proud of how OutThere has grown and evolved.

OutThere has taken me to the far corners of the world, experiencing amazing places, hotels and experiences. And it’s because of these experiences, that I’ve become aware of how the luxury travel industry (what has become my industry), reacts around me as I travel.

I became acutely aware of the unconscious bias that exists in how I’m treated on my journeys. At first they were one offs which I shrugged away, but then I started to notice it happening time and time again… people asking me where my wife was, or hotel managers welcoming Mr. and Mrs. Jong on their handwritten notes.

While you started OutThere to serve the LGBTQ+ market, about five years on you realized your readership was much broader, how did this shift your editorial focus?

I started my career in marketing and communications, so I’m a bit of a data nerd. You can imagine my shock when 5 years in, our audience research was telling us that some 40% of our readers were not from the LGBTQ+ community. At first I thought, “what did we do wrong?” But as we delved deeper into the data, we were pleasantly surprised. 

A big proportion of that 40% were solo female travelers. They told us that they travelled in identical ways to LGBTQ+ people. They wanted to travel safely, but they also wanted to be celebrated for who they were… they didn’t need a man, nor partner to travel. And because there was nothing in the market that spoke to travellers the way we did, and showcased diverse perspectives, they were coming to us for content and inspiration. Because we were doing same-gender parent content, single parents were coming to us for the same reasons.

Then there were a great number of people of colour, elderly and disabled people who were looking for travel inspiration that was more open-minded. We were also being read by mainstream travellers, who have family members or friends who are diverse. They wanted to be better allies. If we advocated for a destination or hotel as LGBTQ+ welcoming it was more than likely that they would be inclusive of the specific needs of other diverse communities.

It was somewhat of a turning point for us, to realise that we had a much bigger piece of mindshare than we had originally thought. We weren’t in fact that ‘niche title’ that people often called us, we accounted for a very large number of luxury travellers, with money to spend who still feel under-represented and uncatered to when they travel. 

We didn’t change our editorial thrust too much, but refined what we did. Instead of just commissioning LGBTQ+ writers, we started to commission people from different backgrounds for different perspectives. And they brought amazing stories back to us from the world, not just of their own lived experiences and personal journeys, but also of others. These were the stories of ‘minorities’ who were operating in the travel space and creating unique adventures and experiences that bring to life the history and richness of the communities they are part of.

We became a magazine that is all about the values of diversity, discovery and discernment. We continue to tell our stories with an inclusive and intersectional lens, but now from the perspective of passionate and diverse storytellers who represent travellers and travel providers that seek and offer a heightened level of personalisation and belonging when they head out into the world: simply because of who they are, how they identify, who they’re travelling with and who they love. Magic stuff!

Full house at the OutThere Icons of Inclusion event in London
Full house at the OutThere Icons of Inclusion event in London

At the Icons of Inclusion event, you shared some powerful statistics.  What key data do you feel hoteliers should be aware of to be able to understand these overlooked markets and opportunities?

Based on research from our readers, key statistics hoteliers should be aware of include:

  • 73% of luxury travelers from diverse backgrounds feel the industry does not include them in marketing. Luxury travel marketing and communications are not representative of today’s luxury traveller. We do not see ourselves in your marketing and that sucks. 

  • 62% believe staff are not adequately trained to handle diverse guests.This is a big deal, there is not enough personal (and personnel) development happening in our industry.

  • 57% think travel providers lack transparency in their diversity policies when it comes to non-discrimination or a diverse and socially-conscious supply chain. And this is in an industry where trust is everything.

And diversity is something that is not just outside, 62% of employees in hospitality and tourism feel that there is far more that needs to be done when it comes to levelling the playing field in their companies. There is a lack of diverse representation, particularly at senior levels in tourism. Employees from diverse backgrounds do not feel that there are equal opportunities for career progression. And that’s terrifying. We will never become a more equitable society if we do not have a more diverse workforce, especially at C-Suite level. 

I always say to hoteliers that diversity is good for both brand and business. And that it’s really not a science, but an art. Diversity and inclusion is delivered through better personalisation, moving away from a one-size-fits-all model.

I always say to hoteliers that diversity is good for both brand and business. And that it’s really not a science, but an art. Diversity and inclusion is delivered through better personalisation, moving away from a one-size-fits-all model. Personalising the brand, sales and marketing, and product experience for diverse travellers leads to an increase in engagement, loyalty, word-of-mouth and profitability.

And today everyone is far more cognisant of equity in travel. Travellers are proactively looking for destinations and travel brands that can outwardly demonstrate inclusivity in their outlook, good social responsibility and ones that value diversity and difference. Like sustainability, DEAI has become an important factor in the travel decision making process. Hence it should be a key performance indicator in travel businesses.

In your view, what does true inclusivity look like in the luxury travel industry? How does it go beyond mere marketing and into genuine, impactful actions? 

Actions speak louder than words. We do a lot of chinwagging about inclusivity in our industry, but it’s time we get up and do it. It’s not actually as difficult as people think, but there has to be a desire to create a culture of inclusivity. That desire and drive won’t exist unless you have a diverse team, so crucial to creating this culture is purpose-driven recruitment. Then when you’ve built your team, you have to be ready to listen and take action on what they’re telling you. On a wider level, training is also key. A diverse workforce means diverse perspectives, but people don’t necessarily see or are aware of each other’s. So, training on how to deal with each other as well as diverse guests is important to maintaining that culture of inclusivity. 

But you’ve also got to look at your product and service offering… Is what you’re offering inclusive beyond the regulatory must-haves? Are you personalizing every single experience? Do you treat each and every one of your guests as individuals and take the time to understand and meet their needs? Are you creating or designing a hospitality experience flexible enough so that everyone, no matter what their background can experience the same, exquisite level of service, hospitality and comfort that you say you provide? Are you uplifting the experience for guests who challenge you, or are you constantly making excuses? These and more are the sort of questions you need to look at to achieve true inclusivity. This is redefining luxury in its purest form.

When you’re confident you’ve got this nailed… are you then marketing what you do in a way that represents people of all backgrounds, throughout any campaign cycle? Are you actively targeting communities that you don’t usually see in your hotel? But also, are you being part of that community, rather than seeing them as cash cows? Because today, tokenism is a thing. Rainbow-washing is a thing. And diverse communities can sniff that out from a mile way.  

So, to answer your question, true inclusivity will only come when we are ready to accept that the status quo as we know it does not truly apply. This mindset will allow us to innovate beyond diversity and create a sense of true belonging. 

Do you worry about the DEI backlash which has taken hold in the US this year, seeping into the luxury travel industry? 

In a word, yes. DEAI cannot and must not exist in a bubble or echo chamber. We must involve the entire industry. Activism is important, but so is allyship. I’m all about bringing everyone to the fold. I believe cancel culture is a terrible thing, as people never get to learn from mistakes if they fear being cancelled for saying or doing the wrong thing. We won’t also understand each other’s perspectives… and as difficult as they may be to hear, we must hear them.

DEAI must not be a witch-hunt, this is about growth and development. Someone told me once that we mustn’t demonise those who are privileged, just because they are privileged. It is generally through no fault of their own, but because of challenging structures that still exist in society. Inclusion has to be inclusive, especially of those who are in the position to make the greatest change.

For hoteliers that need inspiration, which hotel brands do you feel are doing a great job and why?

Every step forward for diversity is a step forward, no matter how small. And every brand is individual and at a different part of their diversity life cycle. I’m all about championing brands who are doing well, because it serves as inspiration for others and as per your point above, creates a culture that progresses positively.

Belmond has made great strides, particularly in the LGBTQ+ sector. For 8 years now, they have had an LGBTQ+ advisory board that helps to guide their principles and policies. They have leant into the community, become part of the community and are a household name among the luxury LGBTQ+ travel community. They’ve doubled down on combatting anti-LGBTQ+ hate when they get push-back on it from their more conservative customers. As such, they are building an inclusive, luxury brand of the future and it's paying off. And beyond LGBTQ, look at the output of their marketing, it’s far more diverse and beautiful than ever before, and people are taking notice. 

Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, Dorchester Collection … particularly in their UK properties are really doing some sterling work, with some of the most inclusive policies for staff and guests in the London luxury hotel scene, despite still not shaking the challenges of their boycott. They have an openly gay CEO, they sponsor inclusive initiatives and are truly invested in diversity and inclusion. Meanwhile many other luxury London hotels who aren’t doing as much (or anything at all) are assumed to be inclusive. I’m all about supporting brands willing to put in the leg work to become inclusive, even if they might have a chequered past on the subject. This is an example of how activism and allyship can work hand in hand to deliver change.

One of the speakers at Icons of Inclusion, Richard Thompson from Inclu Travel has been working with the Amilla brand in the Maldives to drive accessible travel and it has been transformative, both for the brand and business, not to mention for people with disabilities that never thought they could travel to the country.

And outside hotels, Scott Dunn, the tour operator has also made a huge step change in the way they present themselves and reaping rewards from it. Another tour operator Ocean Florida, who has created a range of accessible holidays, made £5 million in revenue from this new product alone in just a year.

Virgin Atlantic is also carving a name for themselves in diversity. They’ve combined staff and guest inclusivity into a campaign, turning their drive towards more liberal staffing policies (in a surprisingly conservative aviation industry) into a consumer campaign to set themselves apart. From gender-neutral uniforms, to removing a ban on tattoos, to positively inclusive marketing, they are making a firm statement that all are welcome, in the cabin and in the galley. Virgin Voyages meanwhile are turning the reputation that cruising is the pursuit of older, white, straight couples on its head, attracting a truly diverse audience portfolio on their state of the art ships. 

What do you say to hoteliers that are afraid of “getting it wrong”? 

There is no such thing as wrong. Like I said before, every step forward is a step forward. But seek guidance from those in the know and you’ll not get it wrong. Take the advice of a world of DEAI consultants who can help guide you in the right direction and be an important sounding board in your diversity journey. Involve diverse people in the process, that’s the key to a successful DEAI strategy.

You're great at spotting trends, what do you see coming up next in luxury travel?

Personalization. True personalisation will become key, not just to diverse customers but to everyone. True personalisation is not just about making a tweak to accommodate a special request from a guest, but it’s about taking the time and effort to create a dialogue to understand and engage with specific wants and needs, hopes and fears and be part of their every day life.

Value-driven travel. In addition to luxury travellers wanting to work with travel providers that match our values, we are going to be less tolerant of those who don’t understand us. There is a self-awareness now of the purchasing power of all these underserved markets.

Sustainability is core. While it continues to be an industry buzzword and driver, what we are seeing from our luxury travellers is lean more towards social sustainability and concerns lying more with people and community than it does with the environment. They care about ownership, they care about staffing and wages, they care about how travel brands are giving back to the local communities in which they are part of, or going further to alleviate human suffering at a time of great concern and political polarization.

Our travellers want to know that you are a brand made up of real people, rather than AI bots and hollow corporate jargon. Showcasing how you are a human brand and part of the communities you exist in can reap great benefits.

Accessible travel is already big but going to get bigger. Bloomberg recently reported that the global market for accessible travel is booming at £50 Billion worldwide. We are an ageing population, some of us ageing into disability. Most people know someone in their family or friendship group that has a physical or neuro-disability. But it shouldn’t stop us from travelling the world.

The boomer market is booming for luxury travel, and will continue to grow. There are far more older people than ever before; and in luxury travel, it’s generally this market that has the means and time to travel and travel big. So we need to be more aware that ageism is one of the industry’s biggest unconscious biases and change the way we work and speak to be more inclusive and celebrating of older travellers. 

OutThere travel website for gay people
OutThere home page

Any final thoughts?

DEAI is not about words, but about action. It is not just about acknowledging the importance of representation—it's about actively ensuring that every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or background, feels valued, respected, and welcomed in the travel industry. 

It's not enough to simply showcase diversity in our brochures or on our websites. We must actively seek out and amplify diverse voices, perspectives, and experiences. We must prioritize partnerships with marginalized communities and support initiatives that promote equitable access to travel opportunities for all. Moreover, we must recognize that diversity and inclusion are not just moral imperatives—they are also key drivers of innovation, creativity, and more importantly profitability. 

Achieving true diversity and inclusion requires more than just lip service. It requires intentional action, accountability, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. It requires us to confront our biases, to sometimes feel uncomfortable, to dismantle systemic barriers, and create environments where everyone can thrive and succeed. 

Quickfire with Uwern!

How many countries have you visited?

I have an app for that. It’s called ‘been’. 69 countries in total so far, which only accounts for 35% of the world, believe it or not.

How many days are you on the road each year (average)?

I’m away from home a third of the year. I’m trying to do less, but my sense of adventure tends to get the better of me.

What is your top travel hack?

Getting into a state of mind where you can travel everywhere you go hand-luggage-only (with excellent luggage). The time and stress it saves you is priceless. 

Best hotel amenity you ever received?

A Barbour jacket from Gleneagles in Scotland, or my Mandarin Oriental Aquazzura slippers (his and his as well), both limited edition.

Favorite part about staying in a hotel?

Sumptuous breakfasts cooked lovingly by somebody else.  Most important meal of the day!

What trip or experience do you have coming up that you are really excited about?

Ticking a bucket-list country off my list, Bhutan!

Any books, music, podcasts or TV/movies you are into right now?

Just watched Ripley on Netflix, which has me dreaming of set-jetting to Italy.


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