From new hotel websites to shorter cruises and smaller tours, the travel industry is redoubling its efforts to win the hearts and wallets of people between the ages of 49 and 67.
It’s a generation that, given its size (about 26 percent of the U.S. population) and its collective wealth (it controls the lion’s share of the country’s disposable income), has been shaping the nation’s travel choices for decades.
Yet when the economy tanked in 2008, boomers began snapping their wallets shut and stowing their luggage in their closets instead of airplane bins, helping to send the travel industry into a tailspin. Now, five years later, with the economy recovering and the first wave of boomers retiring, many travel companies are again going after the boomers.
Whether it’s a yen for Wi-Fi in the Serengeti or a disdain for bus tours, boomers’ latest needs, whims and aspirations are determining large and small vacation trends. Some are new. Others have been around but will become more prevalent.
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Having studied the predilections of people born between 1946 and 1964 as if they were a tribe recently discovered by anthropologists, travel companies are rolling out services designed to woo and recapture a generation of travelers.
Boomer or not, here’s what all of us will be seeing more of — and why.
Bon voyage lengthy cruises and tours. Boomers are the most likely of all age groups to say that they have lost money on investments and that their household finances have worsened since the recession, according to Pew Research. Among boomers ages 50 to 61, 6 in 10 said they might have to postpone retirement. That has tour companies — which for decades have offered lengthy trips for retirees with time on their hands — making sweeping changes.
“Speaking from a boomer who feels like I’m going to be working until I’m 70,” said JoAnn Bell, vice president of programming for Road Scholar, a nonprofit organization that leads educational tours around the world, “We’re very conscious of the fact that so many more people are still working.”
To cater to boomers postponing retirement, Road Scholar (formerly called Elderhostel) has shortened the length of some tours. While the organization has international trips that can be 21 days or longer, “we have more and more programs that are seven to 10 days,” Bell said.
Cruise lines are also adjusting their schedules. Crystal Cruises, known for its cruises of 10 days or longer, has increased the number of shorter itineraries it is offering in 2013, making almost half of its cruises 10 days or less.
Last year, only three of Crystal’s European cruises were shorter than 10 days. In 2013, 22 of its cruises in Europe are 10 days or less. Its Crystal Getaways, five- to 11-day itineraries that it set up last year have been so successful among time-strapped working boomers that this year the company is introducing 26 new segments for Europe.
EXOTIC LOCATIONS, MODERN AMENITIES
Boomers continue to be intrepid explorers, even as many express a desire for creature comforts.
The research company Euromonitor International predicts that boomers will “lead the way” to places that were not always possible to visit, including Myanmar and Cuba. And American Express Travel Insiders said boomers are heading off to destinations like Machu Picchu and Patagonia before they reach an age when they can’t handle the physical demands that may come with visiting such places.
Yet researchers also note that boomers do not want to rough it once they arrive. In a study of the impact of the economy on vacation travel among boomers, the market-research company Mintel posited that boomers are “ideal candidates” for upscale camping, referred to as “glamping.”
While many vacationers strive to get away from email and smartphones, tour operators say boomers are telling them they no longer want to be out of touch with their offices and families.
“The core of our business used to be the get-away-from-it-all and have no contact,” said Pamela Lassers, a spokeswoman for Abercrombie & Kent, which caters to more affluent travelers.
“Safari lodges in Africa now are installing Internet connections,” she said. “They’re in the middle of the Serengeti,” she said of boomers, “and they want to update their Facebook page.”
Marketing studies have long purported that boomers, the “me generation,” have a fascination with themselves. And the travel industry is finding that this fascination extends to their families, fueling a surge in multigenerational travel. As boomers join the ranks of grandparents, many are financing vacations for their children and grandchildren. An example: Through Road Scholar, families are chartering entire 16-person boats in the Galapagos that the company uses for its natural- and cultural-history group tours.
If travel companies had to write a boomer-operating manual, they would include this warning: Do not herd them.
Travel companies are making their tours more intimate, which boomers say they prefer because there are fewer stragglers to slow them down and it’s easier to develop a relationship with the guide or lecturer.
“Most of our boomers are not really buying motor-coach programs,” Bell of Road Scholar said.
In Aspen, a ski program called Bumps for Boomers is thriving because it’s teaching skiers of a certain age how to escape crowded, groomed trails and ski moguls and off-piste terrain without exhaustion or knee pain. The program’s founder, Joe Nevin, does this by emphasizing balance and control instead of speed, fast reflexes and brute strength.
One take-away from his surveys of boomer travelers: They don’t want to wear hats that say “Bumps for Boomers.” The company’s tag line — “ski for life”— on the other hand, goes over like a beautiful coat of snow. Nevin said that’s because “ski for life” sounds fun and broadcasts longevity, “as opposed to stereotyping me as an older boomer circling the drain.”
Plenty of travel professionals are invoking the word “boomer,” though. Last year, Denver’s convention and visitors bureau issued a news release titled “Boomers do more in Denver,” while the Bermuda department of tourism heralded a spring-break-for-grown-ups promotion with the words, “Calling all boomers!”