Exclusive interview for GayPV with
Randle Roper and Patrick Gunn,
co-founders of VACAYA.
by Daniel Portela for GayPV
GAYPV: GAYPV Magazine is very excited and honored to have Patrick Gunn and Randle Roper co-founders of MyVACAYA.com. How are you?
Patrick Gunn: Excellent. I’m Patrick.
Randle Roper: I’m Randle, and I’m doing great. We’re happy to chat with you.
Patrick Gunn and Randle Roper
GPV: Thank you! You both are the founders of VACAYA, right?
RR: Correct. So there were four of us, and Patrick and I are the two co-founders that are working on the day-to-day operations, producing all of our full ship and full resort charter programs around the world. So got a team of five that work below us, and they’re a super great team, pulling all of us together.
GPV: And how long have you been with the company, with VACAYA?
RR: Both Patrick and I, since the day one. So the very first day, as two of the founders, and we’ve obviously been through a crazy last couple of years with the pandemic and dealing with all of that, that has thrown the travel industry into just a maelstrom of chaos. There’s no other way to describe it. But VACAYA has done really, really well throughout that. We managed to do one program in 2020, which most travel companies weren’t able to do any. We managed to do one safely and really, really well for our community. We had four programs in 2021, and then we’re already starting with our lineup of trips in 2022. We just wrapped our big 2,000-passenger Caribbean cruise last week, and it went off really, really well.
GPV: Awesome. How the company has been responded to this new normal situation?
PG: We have a policy at VACAYA of being very transparent with our guests. And so, from the very beginning, we have shared with them the background of how our industry works, how travel will work in this time period. And we even came up with a hashtag, #AdaptToLive. And what we found is that not only our guests but ourselves, we are willing to live with protocols in order to live our lives. And so it’s just been really exciting to see the vast majority of our guests really wrap their arms around that hashtag and really prove that it can happen. Because I know that there are some naysayers out there who wonder why we travel during this time period, but travel is at the core of our essence. It’s something that we need in order to live our lives. And so, we’re thrilled that our guests are wrapping their arms around it and traveling with us.
RR: And a lot of people, Daniel, outside of the LGBT community, they sometimes forget that this isn’t our first pandemic as a community. We obviously dealt with the HIV/AIDS crisis for decades and we understand protocols. So we know that if we just make small adjustments to our behaviors, following the science that the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control have put out there, we can live. Because the alternative is just locking ourselves behind closed doors and never having any contact with anyone from the outside world. That’s just not sustainable. We did that for a while. But once those months turned into years, it’s just not possible anymore. So the LGBT community, with VACAYA and also the other companies that are in the marketplace, have really been leading the way in getting the travel community back to normal. It’s a slow and steady march forward, but we’re doing it.
GPV: That’s great. Can you tell us why you had the decision to choose Puerto Vallarta as a location? I mean, versus other gay destinations. Why Puerto Vallarta?
PG: Yeah. Sure. So, let’s start with the local culture. Even though Puerto Vallarta has grown over the years, it’s retained this local culture that is very compelling to our LGBT-plus audience. In addition to that, we could probably speak further on it later as we talk about the resort, but the timeframe that we’re coming in Halloween and the additional Mexican holiday of Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) just offers an amazing opportunity for us to share that local culture with our guests. And they love that about how we travel with them.
And obviously the food. Let’s talk about the food. That you’re on the sea, and you’ve got fresh foods and fresh products and the seafood there. It just makes for a delicious experience. Additionally, just nature. The hotel that we’re at is just nestled right among the forest and the ocean. And you’ve got the city life just so close. So it’s an extremely compelling destination.
We also have, at VACAYA, a mission around philanthropic opportunities. We often give our guests the opportunity to give back either through sweat equity or donation. And with our partners in Mexico, we’ve found such rich opportunities for us to have our guests either volunteer in the market. And that allows us to share our LGBT stories with locals and impart on them that we are good people and that we have good things to share. And we just get rave reviews about those opportunities.
And then really value. With our Mexico resort partners, we’re able to offer such high quality food and beverages and entertainment and the local hospitality and all of that for such a reasonable price that our guests really react favorably to, and actually want more from us along those lines. So we’re excited to investigate even more opportunities in the future.
GPV: Puerto Vallarta is a unique place in the world, that’s true. We are very excited about VACAYA in Mexico resort vacation to be held on October 29 to November 5th, is that correct? It’s going to be in the Hilton Vallarta Riviera, right?
PG: Yes, that’s correct. The Hilton provides us with a perfect blend of all the things I just spoke about, location, culture, hospitality, the quality that our customers expect, and overall that value. One of the unique things that it has is every single room is facing the ocean. There are no rooms that face the side and no rooms that face the back. That’s a rare quality in a resort. And so everyone will be able to experience the beauty of this ocean.
And I’ve never been to a resort where I’ve seen more people out in the ocean. This particular resort has this kind of protected bay. And when I was there last, every single day near sunset, people would grab their cocktails. And I was at the time where it was regular guests, so they didn’t even know each other. And they would combine in this community, out in the water with their cocktails, and be chatting as the sun set. Never before have I seen something of community like that. So if people that didn’t even know each other can build that kind of community, our guests who are now starting to return to us multiple times and the new people that we’ll bring in, I can’t even imagine the beauty of community that we’ll be able to build there.
So, adding to that all of the local hospitality of the Hilton employees, their energy is just boundless. And they’re so excited to share not only their culture, but their fun with our guests. And I can’t wait for our guests to experience the Hilton Vallarta Riviera.
RR: We’ll tell you a secret, Daniel. The resort programs are our favorite programs. Patrick will kill me for saying that, but we actually love the resort programs, and especially the ones in Mexico, because they’re so relaxing and so easy from every aspect. It really, really is a treat every single time we go.
GPV: Wow, that’s great. So it’s a wonderful combination with VACAYA and Hilton, that’s fabulous. It’s going to be a really nice experience! Could you tell us why or how you consider is VACAYA different from other companies, like Atlantis for example? Or what do you want to be different in?
RR: Sure. Well, there’s one thing that separates us from every other company in the marketplace, and that is the fact that we’re welcoming to all. We are the first and only large-scale adults-only full ship and full resort charter company in the world that caters to the entire LGBTQIAPK community. The other companies, some are all focused on only gay men or only lesbian women. We welcome everyone.
So that’s the first and largest portion of the differences, but we’re also striving always to bring our guests to new destinations, like Iceland or Antarctica or Norway, places that no other LGBT+ travel company has ever brought their guests. So far, our guests are responding really, really well to that.
I’ll give an example. When we launched Antarctica, which starts in Buenos Aires and then we sail for 10 nights from Ushuaia, Argentina. It is a starting price, a very expensive starting price because Antarctica is the most expensive destination on Earth to travel to. The starting price was around $25,000 a room, and we sold that trip out in less than 10 days. So it shows you the hunger and the thirst for new destinations, so that’s a big part of what we do. It’s not just Caribbean cruise over and over and over again. It’s really taking our guests to new and exciting places.
And then another portion, Patrick already mentioned the giving back, so I’ll skip to the fact that we really strive for balance in the experience. We love our parties. Listen, and we have some of the best parties that you could ever attend, but it’s not all about the parties. For us, it’s about balance. We want people to leave their vacation with us feeling like they’ve had a vacation. That’s really important.
So we really put a focus on entertainment, and our entertainment has just been getting rave reviews through the press and through media, which has been really, really great. And we want people to embrace even the quiet times where it’s not packed with activities. We want people to be able to just have a moment, a quiet moment even, occasionally on their vacation. And so we really strive for balance. And I would say those four things are really what sets us apart, the welcoming to all, the unique and new destinations, our giving back initiatives, and also the balance.
GPV: Okay. That’s very important. And do you find in your experience some preference on the guests to stay in the resort or go to explore the city?
RR: We love when our guests go and explore outside of the resort. It’s been a little weird throughout the pandemic. We’ve tried to create bubbles around the experience to keep people more safe and just limiting their exposure outside of that. But as we come out of the pandemic, and I think we’re now on the fast track to the finish line here, I think that will increase the desire to experience the locals in a much more profound way than it has in the past. And the fact that we’re only 10 miles from the Romantic Zone, which is obviously the big gay district, I think our guests are going to spend multiple nights out. As Patrick mentioned, with the great food that’s available there in the Romantic Zone, the clubs and the bars, I think it’s going to be a treat for everyone. And I think we’ve all been cooped up and have been limiting our social interactions so much that I think it’s just going to explode. And I’m guessing by the time we get to October, we’re going to be there.
PG: What we’ll do with our scheduling is we’ll give a little nod to certain evenings that, “Hey, you want to stick around the resort, because this is going to be off the hook,” or we’ll either program specifically off property or we’ll give suggestions on, “Hey, this is a night where we think everybody will go off property.” So there’ll be enough signals along the way that people will understand where they should be on any given night.
GPV: And talking about the entertainment, how did you find the right entertainment for this? Or what do you look when you choose your entertainment options? Do you have right now the complete line-up that’s going to be on October?
RR: We do not, but it’s something that we’re constantly working on. And it’s a great question because a lot of people think, “Oh, you just hire an entertainer. They do a show and that’s the end of it.” But the reality is, a seven-night experience with VACAYA is like a seven-night show. There is an ebb and a flow and a rhythm that we develop. And it’s done through the talent that we hire, whether they’re singers or comedians or drag queens or variety acts. And we try to create this rhythm of just ebb and flow that builds over the course of the week to climax, if you will, toward the end.
So we’re always looking for great acts who can be a part of that rhythm. And like I mentioned before, we’ve gotten really great notices so far for all of the entertainers we’ve brought on. And we’re excited even to welcome Mama Tits, who I know is a big PV drag star. She’s worked with us on a couple of trips now and she’ll be back with us in PV. I’m most certain of that. And we’re really excited to welcome her back, but she’s just one of likely 10 to 12 different performers that we’ll ultimately bring in for the experience.
GPV: Yes, we love Mama Tits, she’s so loved in Puerto Vallarta.
RR: How could you not? She’s crazy. She’s outrageous. She’s funny. She can sing. She literally does it all.
GPV: Yes! And she’s one of the entertainers that works also with The Palm Cabaret and Bar, that is one of the main theaters in Puerto Vallarta. So it’s wonderful that you have her also as part of your entertainment options.
PG: Yes. And Hilton actually offers some local entertainers aswell, as part of their normal day-to-day operations. So we’ll be leveraging that as well. And we’re excited to share that because some of it is culturally-based. Some of it is dance-based. Some of it is music-based. And all of those elements that come together really help our guests to immerse themselves in the culture. And in this case, without even leaving the hotel.
RR: It’s such a great note, Patrick, about how we really authentically try to embrace the local cultures. And one of the reasons why we continue to choose the date over Halloween and Day of the Dead in Mexico is because of that significant cultural day. In fact, typically the hotel will set up a beautiful ofrenda for the several days of Day of the Dead, and we invite all of our guests to bring a framed photo of a loved one that they’ve lost. And we put it on the ofrenda and it’s a really beautiful connection between our guests and the country of Mexico and the beautiful holidays that you guys celebrate.
GPV: Yes, you’re right. In Mexico, we have these unique tradition about the Day of the Dead. For sure the guests should experience that tradition, because it’s unique. It’s something that you need to see with your eyes, it’s fabulous. We’re really excited to have this event. So before finish, do you want to say something else to our readers about VACAYA resort, about cruise experience, about you?
PG: Sure. So what I would like to say is that we are thrilled to be coming to Puerto Vallarta for the first time. We’re constantly looking around the globe for destinations that our guests will enjoy, and PV was top on our list. We worked so tirelessly to find a resort that would bring all of the elements together that our guests demand. And we think that we have an amazing, amazing partner in Hilton Vallarta Riviera.
RR: That’s great. And I’ll just throw in there, Daniel, and I’m glad we have the chance to welcome you, but I would like to see more LGBT+ Mexicans on all of our trips. We offer so many great adventures, whether they’re in South America or the United States, or even in Mexico. I would love to start to see more Mexicans come on our trips, because you all are such a beautiful people. And the experiences only grow richer when the diversity continues to grow. So I’ll leave it at that.