For most of my life I have been traveling and on almost every type of transportation device you can imagine. I remember that the first time I rode in a car, it was black and noisy, and had a running board! I traveled between the ages of 10 and 13 on a Greyhound Bus three times from Los Angeles to New York. And I have flown on everything from a DC-3 to a Boeing 777—all over the world. I have also ridden on a horse, elephant, camel, and in a canoe, on a cruise ship, ferry…you get the idea.
My traveling heritage comes from my father, who was a jazz musician with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I would examine my father’s suitcase, covered with colorful stickers, and dream about the exotic places I too wanted to visit.
It was no surprise that I ended up working for an international airline. After 31 years I retired and reinvented my self as the cohost of a TV travel show that has been on the public broadcasting system for the past six years.
One of the most common questions I get from friends and fans is, “How do you manage to travel so much at your age?” I love to answer that by saying, “I’m only 70…why wouldn’t I?”
Many older adults that I encounter during my international travels tell me, over and over again, that they have no intention of standing still and letting life pass them by. In the United States alone there are currently more than 77 million baby boomers, almost 65 percent of whom have expressed a desire to visit far-away places (1). Travel helps extend their mental and physical life. Many seek opportunities to customize travel experiences based on their interests, instead of purchasing off-the-shelf, all-inclusive packages typically designed for younger travelers.
Marketing properly to this new breed of older traveler offers great business gains, and those who recognize the benefits and pitfalls can be the travel company baby boomers prefer.
When we travel abroad to film our international travel television series Grannies on Safari, we make it a point to visit a community that has local arts and crafts made by women whose efforts support the local economies. In South Africa, we visited Tegala Ferry, where we spent time with the women who make Zulu dolls and sell them as souvenirs in the open market. We visited the Oodi weavers in Gaborone, Botswana, who learned how to weave beautiful rugs from the Dutch nuns. We sat next to women from diverse backgrounds in Dubrovnik, Croatia, who have continued the dying craft of embroidery to make handicrafts supplying the tourist shops. Each group has a history of tradition behind what they are doing, but the main reason these women work so hard is to maintain an economic center that provides income to their families.
Many of the thousands of older people I meet tell me they are more apt to purchase a travel experience with a company that allows some sort of “leave-behind”…something that is useful to those they visit, such as much-needed bath soap, clothes, or educational materials for children. Another way to integrate the traveler with the local communities is leave a “legacy” with them. Travelers can help build homes or schools or even dig water wells. When the travelers leave, they know not only that they helped to create a needed service but that their efforts were for an entire community, and the friendships they made will remain well after they return home. The ability to interact and volunteer while on tour is a strong draw for older travelers, and if marketed correctly, expands the customer base among this group.
A strategic travel organization will develop tours that allow older tourists to have person-to-person interactions. Our trip to Cuba did just that. Friendly Planet has developed tours where you visit the homes of the Cuban people and are able to hold open conversations with them. I sat with a Cuban grandmother who created beautiful crocheted pieces using techniques handed down through generations. I asked her whether young people were interested in this art form, and she said she and her husband had created a school in the community where she teaches youngsters the craft. After our conversation, we hugged and I felt that the two of us, as grandmothers, had touched each other’s universal heart. As an older person, I understood her and in a small way the Cuban people. That was my special “integrated” takeaway.
There are several travel companies that do a good job of recognizing this aspirational need, Elderhostel, a company that has been creating educational and interactive travel programs catering to older adults for decades, has a great track record. In 2007 Elderhostel published a white paper, Mental Stimulation and Lifelong Learning Activities in the 55+ Population.(2) This study looked at how older people need to have defined mental and physical activity to aid in aging successfully. The paper pointed out that activities such as interactive travel could create an “ultimately more satisfying path to successful aging” and possibly to long-term brain health. I can attest to the Elderhostel experience with my own personal story: My stepmother, who is now 100 and bedridden, still has a quick mind. When she traveled with Elderhostel in the 1980s, she came back from her trips bubbling over with enthusiasm about the things she learned and the friends she met.
Other travel companies that cater to older audiences also focus on the educational and experiential parts of touring. Some leaders in the industry such as Overseas Adventure Travel offer trips to all corners of the world and work to have the experience customized and personalized. Abercrombie and Kent “integrates” travel and work through its foundation as a part of the travel itineraries it develops.
The most important partners for these travel companies are the tourism agencies, ministries, and ground operators they work with in-country. In producing our travel series, it is critical for us to work with industry experts who understand the older traveler. The Great Wall of China is an example of a smart-thinking attraction. For those who don’t want to climb the stairs to the wall, the Chinese have provided a gondola at one of the gates. In general, most countries are doing fine, but in some cases, activities and services such as elevators, handrails, and ramps are lacking.
Tourism organizations that evaluate key attractions for accessibility are way ahead of the game. I have been to some countries where tour organizers do not take into account that many older travelers cannot walk great distances, or that cobblestone streets may be a hazard. Some people need to use a wheelchair or lift at a site. Companies that evaluate the accessibility of their attractions and come up with a plan to accommodate older people are the ones that succeed, and they strengthen the visitors’ perception that they care. My neighbor’s wife had been in a wheelchair for years, but that did not prevent the two of them from traveling all over the world. From Mexico to South America they carefully checked out the accessibility for wheelchairs before they selected a destination…and off they went each year!
Food plays an important part for older tourists, too. I was in Croatia recently and was very pleased to see that many hotels and restaurants offered a variety of fresh vegetables, meats, fruits, and grains—in all, a varied menu that would meet anyone’s dietary requirements.
Census reports in many countries speak to the growing older populations. Most of these twenty-first century older adults are healthier than previous generations, have more disposable income and time, and want to see the world. This huge economic base is good news for any country that wants to increase its tourism income. The key to any marketing plan is to know your audience. I suggest that countries that are still on the fence about this market should take the time to plan now and think about how to provide supportive services and activities to this group, which is not afraid to travel.
Older people represent one of the largest traveling segments. They are looking for agencies, ministries, and travel providers to recognize their needs and realize that they are seeking opportunities to give back, reinvent themselves, and enjoy unconventional adventures.
Regina Fraser is currently cohost of the Emmy® award-winning international television travel series sponsored by AARP, Grannies on Safari. Before she became one of the “Grannies,” she worked at United Airlines for 31 years in a variety of management positions. An energetic traveler, she has visited more than 60 countries…and counting!