We met with entrepreneurs in Pink Iceland on a whisky Monday morning, in 101 Reykjavík to discuss the first locally gay travel and events company,Pink Iceland. Experts Eva María Þórarinsdóttir Lange, Birna Hrönn Björnsdóttir and Hannes Páll Pálsson, are a trio who work for and with the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. Their company specializes in day tours, weddings, events and festivals and specially organized trips with a gay flair. They poured us some nice coffee, while we asked them about the concept, the events and trips, and their future plans of making Iceland Pink for life.
When did Pink Iceland become a reality?
Eva María: We started out in March 2011; I had been carrying this idea around in my head for a long time prior, years even. I had been studying tourism at the University and had a full time job so; there wasn’t any time to go all in with the idea. Last year we decided to participate in the Golden Egg entrepreneurship competition held in Iceland and that gave us the boost to evolve the idea and the business plan even further.
We were chosen the third best project of around 150 that participated. We started out the two of us, me and Birna, but we had been taking this role to be hosts and guides for many years before we started running a professional company. I started to be full time this year, and Birna part time, alongside with her studies to become a nurse. Hannes joined the team last summer.
“we are all multitaskers and we work together as a whole”
Do you have specific roles and titles in Pink Iceland?
Birna Hrönn: Well, you could say that we are all multitaskers and we work together as a whole.
Eva María: In small companies like ours, we all work very closely on the tasks and as we are building the company up, we of course sometimes work around the clock. Our job is also our passion. But I am the one that has the overview over our operation as a whole, and I have experience in marketing as well. I am the CEO and the marketing director of Pink Iceland.
Hannes Páll: I am a graphic designer and an event planner beforehand, but yes as they said we are all working very closely together on all tasks. We rather place emphasis on our brand, than us three as individuals in Pink Iceland. Our vision is very well established on our website, this certain personality that we in want to present out there in the big world.
Birna Hrönn: I have to have a title as well; maybe mine is the Wedding planner? But yes the brand and the pink in Pink Iceland is very political because it is referring to the pink upside down triangle that was used in Hitler’s concentration camps to label gay people. The triangle has ever since been used as a sign for gay right campaigns. We decided to use this heritage for our marketing material, because gay people instantly connect to the meaning, because it it’s not the classical rainbow that is banned in some countries.
Eva María: Yes, and then we use the name Iceland as a location beneficiary, so hence our brand Pink Iceland. If we look at our expansion possibilities in the future we can brand our concept by using the location, for example if we start operating in Denmark we would call it Pink Denmark.
So pink is a clever choice?
Eva María: In the gay culture, there is a concept I have to mention that is often referred to as the Pink economy. Our people do not necessarily connect the concept to femininity, but rather to this historical reference and the currency of the “pink dollar”. This means that business is being made with stores or companies that are gay friendly, sometimes stores give discounts to those who mention that they are Pink in one way or another.
“when we are welcoming foreign guests, we are also inviting them into our lives in a way”
You are a very small company, how is that going?
Eva María: Me and Birna are a couple, and therefore we spend a lot of time together. People frequently ask us, isn’t it risky to work together in your own company? But we are not at all worried, because the events and the concept of this company mirror our lifestyle in general. So when we are welcoming foreign guests, we are also inviting them into our lives in a way. It is also because the gay scene here in Iceland is not that big, so sometimes we invite our guests to join us for parties that are held by our friends, families or acquaintances.
Hannes Páll: Yes, Pink Iceland is a service company, so that somehow goes hand in hand with representing the gay culture locally. The three of us are best friends, so we are happy to invite people in our world here in Iceland on a personal service level.
“couples are experiencing recognition of their human rights when they get married here”
So, I hear that you offer wedding services for gay people here in Iceland?
Hannes Páll: The couples that come here are so happy with visiting a society that is so free and welcoming towards them. For us each experience is so precious, and we get to be a part of joyful and heartfelt moments of these people’s lives. It’s not always about complications and the legal standpoint in our guest’s home countries towards gay marriage that causes couples to come here to Iceland to get married. It’s more about the acceptance and the feeling of acceptance that people experience here. These couples are experiencing recognition of their human rights when they get married here, that is an invaluable feeling for them and for us of course as well. In our opinion, this is a strong marketing standpoint for Pink Iceland and generally for Iceland as a country.
Birna Hrönn: Our clients are so thankful, sometimes they leave us something really nice, Indian teas, murals, Canadian seasoning, a toy Coala bear and this and that, as a token of their gratitude they show us after the adventure of planning these peoples weddings.
Aside from the weddings, what requests do you get?
Eva María: People who want to visit Iceland approach us and our service interface is pre- planned so we can assure all guest that the “gay friendly” attitude of our services is secured. Sometimes the little things can seem annoying to travellers, for example if you are checking yourself in to a hotel with a partner, you are always asked if you want to change your booking to separate beds.
Hannes Páll: Yes, in that kind of situations the person has the feeling that he/or she has to come out, constantly. So we have notified our collaboratives beforehand, so the travelling experience will somehow be smoother for our guests. So the business is “gay friendly” beforehand.
Is this business model you offer popular in Scandinavia?
Eva María: We don’t know of many businesses like ours in Scandinavia. Well, gay tourism is always very bound to where it is located. That is why it is very popular for gay people to go on cruises because you are just living freely, in a protected environment out on the open sea where guests can be sure they won’t be assaulted for kissing their spouses and that the vacation is predejuce – free. Iceland is somehow like these gay cruises, it’s a great environment and people can be just like they are here.
“we are very happy to produce gay advertisements, for they are not so common in the world”
Birna Hrönn: This is why we want to portray a very strong message with our marketing material, we hire photographers that take photos of two boys or two girls enjoying themselves on our known locations on offer, for example in the Blue lagoon. So we are very happy to produce gay advertisements, for they are not so common in the world.
So, how is it to operate in Reykjavík?
Eva María: Operating in Reykjavík is fantastic, we work with Samtökin ´78, the National Queer Organization and the Reykjavík Gay Pride to make Reykjavík city the most gay friendly destination it can be. The last time I went to a conference where all the gay prides in the world meet up, people were so surprised that the mayor of Reykjavík would be so openly supportive of the gay community. And I just thought, well yeah, he dresses up in drag on our Gay pride and wears costumes to support Pussy Riot and what not…! This also reminds us on how far we are on our way for equality, even though we have a long way to go. Thirty years ago we were so far behind, so the society has been evolving very quickly here in Iceland.
Hannes Páll: This is exactly the reason why we are not operating in a low profile context, we offer an integrational service, we are not hiding offering services that are presented in a low profile way. We are proud and open in Pink Iceland!
What event has been the highlight for Pink Iceland so far?
Birna: I think we can all agree that we could mention the IGLA 2012 championship, a international gay and lesbian swimming competition where over 500 gay swimmers came here to Iceland last spring. They competed in swimming, synchronised swimming, dives and water polo to name a few categories. This was the biggest international swimming contest ever held in Iceland and the Icelandic water polo team competed for the first time in 41 years as a result. The dive competition in Sundhöllin was divine; it was amazing to see the diving divas on a roll. Actually, the situation was kind of surreal, there were 500 fit men, the swimmers were mostly male, from all over world walking the streets of Reykjavík openly gay without complications. It was so beautiful. Then we hosted a party in the Blue Lagoon, where we were the DJ´s and yes it was a great experience that we will never forget.
You won an award the other day here in Iceland?
Eva María: Yes, Pink Iceland received the 2012 Innovation award from the Travel Industry Association. The award was presented to us by the President of Iceland, and I couldn’t agree more with president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson when mentioned in his speach that Icelanders tend to look at themselves from the inside and not always with the traveller’s eyes. But if we place ourselves in the shoes of gay people of the world, Iceland is a paradise on earth. We are used to be free here, but it is not at all the case in some other countries. We were so proud of our passion, which is to make Iceland a gay location in the tourist industry worldwide.
What has Pink Iceland to offer that you would like to mention?
Hannes Páll: We offer these Pink City walks, where we guide people around Reykjavík, telling stories about the gay history and the highpoints of Reykjavik city in general. We also host the International LGBT Winter festival, Rainbow Reykjavík, that will be held next in February. I recommend our website, you can “read all about it” there!
Eva María: We will also be running Pink December, another winter festival, for the first time. The concept is that it doesn’t matter when in December you will be travelling here, we will always provide a cultural experience for the guests. Especially when people travel alone, we are very open to plan things with little time in advance. We offer Eurovision concerts, Icelandic cuisine; daytrips and we introduce our guests to Icelandic cultural elements. We also want to play a little with humour so we offer two guides, well two old ladies in drag Dídí and Dúa, that are always trying to find spouses for their imaginary gay grandsons.
Birna Hrönn: I also want to mention our Pink parties that we plan on hosting several times each year, we hosted one around Iceland Airwaves and the next one will be held in relation to Rainbow Reykjavík. We want to strengthen the gay party scene in Reykjavík.
How is with your clients, do the often become your friends?
Birna Hrönn: Yes they quite often do, there is a special bond that we form with many of them. Our Pink guests are also making friends from within the group, for example through the Rainbow Reykjavík festival and we are very excited about the social aspect of our projects of course. We have been working very hard to market Iceland as a gay location; we are constantly looking up information online and sending emails to those who are listing up gay travel destinations to remind people that Iceland is a great option.
“the two Indian lesbians that held hands in Laugavegur, main street, cried when they realized that this was for the first time in 9 years that they could do that in public”
Eva María: Yes exactly we want to create this atmosphere, Pink Iceland is a character and we are small and professional and that is why we can be humorous in our services without being corporate. The little moments give us so much, for example our first clients, the two Indian lesbians that held hands in Laugavegur main street. They cried when they realized that this was for the first time in 9 years that they could do that in public. We are sincere in what we do, and we believe that Pink Iceland is here to stay.
We wish the dynamic trio in Pink Iceland all the best in the future of gay tourism, and we want to thank them for a great visit for us in team Snoop-Around in Eva María´s and Birna Hrönn´s apartment. We marked that as a sign on how personal they are, even though they run a professional company. Go Pink Iceland!
Interview: Ása Baldursdóttir
Photographs: Nanna Dís