Tour Ops Adapt to a Changing Seniors Market

by Harvey Chipkin

This is the first of two stories on the seniors market

While seniors have long been key clients for travel agents, changes in the seniors market are making it an even more important one for travel agents.

Recent research on senior travel by Amadeus points to a growing market of seniors, defined by Amadeus as those aged 65 and over, who consider themselves young at heart, a promising development for agents selling travel to senior clients. (See sidebar)

“We have banned the word ‘seniors’ in our office,” said Dan Sullivan IV, vice president-sales for Collette. “Our traditional demographic has stayed the same as far as their age, but they have changed.

“Today’s 60-year-old is not yesterday’s 60-year-old.”

Same demographic—changing psychographic
Other tour operators agreed that both the perception of seniors and their travel preferences have changed.

“As a boomer myself I know that my contemporaries want to be out there doing things and being part of things,” said Terry Dale, CEO of the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA).

“This is an extraordinarily rich market for travel agents.”

The important thing for agents is not to categorize seniors, Dale added. “Do not put them into a bucket which we all have a tendency to do.”

A USTOA partnership with Cornell’s MBA school included a recent research project about millennial travel, noted Dale.
“They came back and said millennials want basically the same things as boomers – live like a local and have authentic and credible, real experiences,” he said.

“So again, it’s important to shed demographic stereotypes. Don’t look at a client like they’re 63 or 23; think more about the psychographics.”

More innovative offerings
Changes in the tour product to accommodate psychographic changes, resulted in double digit growth for USTOA members two years ago and an almost 10% increase in 2014, according to Dale.

“Product offerings are now more innovative, more adaptable with elements of adventure integrated into them,” he said. “We recognized the changes in our core market and have adapted product offerings to reflect client desires.”

Many tour operators have seen a shift in seniors’ tastes to encompass the growing trends in experiential and multi-generational travel as well as the popularity of river cruises.

“People have spent their lives acquiring assets and now want to acquire experiences,” said Dave Herbert, chief experiential officer for Great Safaris. “They can’t remember what they got for their birthday but they do remember trips.”

Maria Grimardi, vice president marketing for Uniworld, the river cruise operators, recently took her father on a river cruise in Italy for his 80th birthday.

“When I started here ten years ago, river cruising was completely different,” Grimardi said. “Now as older people change and more younger people take river cruises you can be as active or as inactive as you want.

Something for everyone
Grimardi noted the appeal of multi-generational travel that, of course, includes senior clients.

“We have to listen to what people want,” Grimardi said. “And one thing they want is to travel together in groups, especially multi-generational groups. We have tripled our family packages to respond to the explosion of demand in this segment.”

As a result of the explosion in multi-generational travel, tours have to offer something for passengers of every age.

“This is not a Disney cruise,” said Grimardi, “but we can offer culturally enlightening experiences of interest to everyone.”

Sullivan agreed. “People in their 60’s now think more like people in their 40s. As a result the age range on our trips is much greater so the challenge is to come up with products that work for everybody,” he said.

“We make everything more flexible and experiential. For instance, on walking tours we use Whisper (Bluetooth) headsets so travelers don’t have to stick so closely to the tour leader.”

Exotic destinations
Uniworld has also added more exotic destinations, with new excursions to India in 2016 and a return to Egypt.

“The trips are more adventurous and off-the-beaten track,” said Grimardi. “In India we go to places you simply can’t access any other way. In Vietnam and Cambodia, sometimes we have to build a dock because there aren’t any.”

Even safaris, which might have been considered off-limits to senior clients in the past, are being marketed in earnest targeted to this  market in earnest.

“In reality it is not a challenging trip,” Herbert noted. “You are met at the airport and taken to your hotel. You travel to the game parks in comfortable vehicles. In the end it’s more like a river cruise.”

There are, however, some features of safaris that may cause concern and Herbert recommends travel insurance.

“There are minimal health requirements in most of Africa and no visas,” he said. “We do recommend anti-malaria pills and two countries require yellow fever vaccinations.

“Otherwise, it’s quite sophisticated in many ways. You can drink the water in most countries although we do supply bottled water at all times.”

Herbert also recommends that agents break up the long trip to more distant parts of Africa with a stop in Europe. “And we take it easy the first few days after arrival to let people get acclimated.”

Ready for anything
USTOA’s Dale believes that because assumptions about seniors can mean lost business, it’s best for agents to be ready for anything.

“I’ve long been an advocate for a successful agent having a diversified portfolio,” he said. “You shouldn’t assume your customer will always do X so you need to expand their horizons.

“It might be that a regular cruiser will be ready to take a tour; or most of our members have pre- and post-packages for many cruises.

“You can create a richer experience for customers when you know what’s out there.”

Next time: Travel agents’ take on serving the seniors market

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