By Kim Ross
Like a pig in a python, 78 million baby boomers are an enormous bulge in the U.S. population. Born between 1946 and 1964, they changed American business at each stage of their development. Diaper services, Barbie dolls, Rolling Stone magazine, relaxed-fit jeans and SUVs - all were created in response to boomers' needs. Now it's the travel industry's turn to be affected.
Baby boomers today are between 35 and 53 years of age. They are in their peak earning years, and the oldest of them have reached the prime age for travel. Boomers, however, are significantly different travel consumers than their parents, and experts expect them to maintain those differences as they age. Travel industry organizations that fail to identify and heed the boomers' unique qualities could soon find themselves in serious trouble.
Group travel seems especially vulnerable. Although Robert Whitley, president of the U. S. Tour Operators Association, said, "The escorted tour market is alive and well," National Tour Association research among boomers indicated potential problems. According to the NTA, "The overwhelming perception of tour packages by NTA's focus group participants was negative."
To help marketers more effectively target boomers today and in the future, Travel Marketing Decisions interviewed a series of experts to gather insight into this enormous and potentially lucrative segment. Below are 13 truths about baby boomers and their marketing implications for the industry.
1. Boomers consider travel a necessity, not a luxury. This is good news for the industry on two counts. First, the sheer number of boomers traveling will cause business to grow. Second, since travel is a necessity, boomers engage in it no matter how scarce their time or money. Their travel behavior, therefore, is less dependent on life stage or the economy.
2. Boomers have traveled more than their predecessors. While their parents first visited Europe when they retired, boomers criss-crossed the Continent as students. Adele Malott, editor of The Mature Traveler newsletter, noted, "When we began we had to educate our readers because they hadn't traveled much. Now we've eliminated much of the primer stuff."
As experienced travelers, boomers seek out more exotic destinations or more in-depth ways of experiencing familiar places. "You're not likely to see them on bus tours of the U.S. because they already did that on their bikes or with backpacks," said Courtney Day, senior vice of the Senior Network, a New Jersey research and marketing firm that specializes in the older consumer.
Been-there-done-that is one reason adventure travel appeals to them, Day said. She defined adventure travel as either physically-challenging outdoor activity or an off-the-beaten-path destination. Because boomers are interested in bettering themselves, intellectually stimulating travel also holds appeal.
3. Boomers see themselves as forever young. "Adult teenagers" is the way Phil Goodman, co-author of the Boomer Marketing Revolution, described boomers. A consultant to the NTA on its boomer market assessment plan, Goodman noted, "Boomers will always try to act much younger than their chronological age." As a result, boomers still want to fulfill the dreams they had at 25 - even if their bodies aren't always willing or able.
This cult of youth also affects boomers' choice of travel suppliers and companions. They don't identify with people older than they are, after all, their credo was "Don't trust anybody over 30." Now well past 30 themselves, boomers still don't want to be like their parents. That means mixing the two generations in the same tour group probably won't work. Early bird specials and senior discounts hold no appeal for boomers because, according to Day, because they won't think of themselves as seniors until they are in their seventies.
She said some companies may have to reinvent their images because boomers don't want anything that smacks of being stuffy or stodgy. More youthful models should be selected because boomers relate better to younger images. The word maturity should be replaced with experience and education.
4. Boomers want to have fun. It's not surprising that adult teenagers put a premium on having a good time. Although fun, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, Day said companionship, stimulation and the cultural/social experience make travel fun for boomers. She added, "Part of the enjoyment of the experience is knowing it's unique -that's part of the rush."
Day said tour operators and destinations can increase the fun factor by encouraging boomers to bring friends with them. A group isn't a negative when it's a group of their own friends, she said.
Day also pointed out, "Fun that is too difficult to obtain isn't fun at all." This again underscores the importance of making the travel purchase quick, easy and convenient.
Finally, boomers desire to have fun and make money is driving some career changers into the travel industry. According to Marc Mancini, president of Marc Mancini Seminars and Consulting, these entrepreneurs are carving out niches that will have a major impact on the business.
5. Boomers demand immediate gratification. Unlike their Depression-era parents, boomers grew up in times of plenty. Easy gratification bred a desire for still more and quicker rewards. As a result, boomers don't wait to take the trips they want. If they don't have the money, they just use plastic.
These free-spending ways, however, could spell trouble for the travel industry, if boomers must work longer because they didn't save for retirement. The hot stock market of recent years may have changed the outlook for many, but Mancini thinks a major market correction could keep boomers from enjoying their paper profits.
Boomers' instant-gratification lifestyle means they don't book travel as far in advance as their predecessors. But when they are ready to book, they want to do it NOW.
Finally, it's important to remember boomers invented the question, "Are we there yet?" They have little patience for long, uninterrupted stretches of road time. Tour operators should plan shorter hauls or more frequent stops or provide entertainment such as personal video screens or Internet access.
6. Boomers are not passive. They want a measure of control in designing their travel experience, and, once on the road, they want to choose their activities. "If you tell them they're going to do A, B and C, they might want to do E or F," noted editor Malott. The challenge for travel marketers is to make it clear their product offers plenty of options.
Boomers also want more interactivity in the travel experience. According to John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours, "They don't want to hear about panning for gold, they want to do it." Stachnik called it sightdoing vs. sightseeing.
Malott said boomers also crave the "local human touch." That means activities such as "meet the people" dinners or playing golf with locals will be highly attractive tour elements.
7. Boomers think they are special. Always been a force to be reckoned with, they are very demanding consumers. "Whether they go budget or luxury, boomers tend to want the best," said Day.
Boomers like things that reinforce their feelings of specialness, so they are attracted to credit cards that offer preferred theater seats or tours that give them after-hours access to a museum. They also want products designed to fit their individual needs, so customization, or the illusion of it, is important.
What boomers definitely do not want is herding. To many boomers, group travel has the faint aroma of a cattle drive. This has prompted some operators to drop tours from their names. Others have pared down group size, either by forming smaller groups or breaking larger groups into subsets which engage in different activities simultaneously.
Day suggested tour operators offer products that provide group transportation and accommodations, but impose a less rigid structure on travelers' daily movements. "I can see a much more à la carte approach that allows more independence," she said. The experts also recommended promotional materials down play the group aspect of tours and emphasize the benefits to individuals.
8. Boomers like creature comforts. This fact, according to Malott, actually keeps boomers from booking the exotic locales they profess to like. Day puts a slightly different spin on the issue. "A tent is OK," she said, "but it better have a great view and great food. Even if you're in the wilderness, luxury is being served a delicious meal without having to lift a finger."
Accommodations should "reflect the experience of a place without being down and dirty," she said. Boomers don't want a generic-style hotel, but they demand the amenities they are accustomed to.
9. Boomers are time deprived. To get relief from their stressful schedules, boomers vacation at spas where they can do absolutely nothing but be pampered. Or they may go to the opposite extreme, choosing adventures that are physically or mentally challenging - or both.
"Group travel is turnkey travel," noted the Senior Network's Day, so the boomers' time deprivation can be a boon for tour operators. Letting somebody else deal with all the details is very appealing, she said, but the hang-up for boomers is trust. They wonder whether they can rely on somebody else to plan their kind of trip.
When booking travel, boomers also need time-saving devices. They like 800 numbers, the Internet, videos and virtual reality because they offer convenience and interactivity. Their predilection for technology can reduce travel suppliers' costs for agents' commissions and printing and mailing brochures. However, it also means call centers must be staffed to meet whenever boomers call.
Internet use is so common among Mature Traveler readers, editor Malott automatically lists website addresses along with phone numbers. Day pointed out that boomers use the Internet more for information gathering than booking. "It's human nature to want to feel connected to what you're about to sign up for," she said. However, she added, boomers also like the freedom of not involving other people when they are exploring a subject. Their attitude is, "When I've decided, I'll initiate the next move."
10. Boomers will pay for luxury, expertise and convenience. ATM fees, nannies and bottled water prove boomers are willing to pay for what they want. Mancini noted, "Boomers are willing to do things for themselves, if it's a hobby or if they think it won't require too much effort, but they really like to hire others to do it for them because it implies status."
Day added, "When boomers travel, they want to do it right. They still look for a bargain, but a bargain to them means getting a good price on something of great value."
Organized group travel becomes valuable to boomers when it's a physically or mentally challenging adventure, but they don't have the skill level to do it themselves. Or when safety and cost make traveling with a group more practical. "You get to an impasse where you need the experts to facilitate the experience," noted Day.
To attract boomers, tour operators must emphasize their expertise. They must add value boomers can't get on their own. Guides must become like personal trainers and demonstrate the skill and knowledge boomers will respect and pay for.
11. Boomers are skeptical of institutions and individuals. With Viet Nam and Watergate as touchstones, who can blame this generation for lacking trust? As a function of their distrust, boomers are not joiners. They are less involved with alumni groups, civic organizations and museum societies than their predecessors, so these traditional sources of group business may be less viable in the future.
Because they are skeptical, boomers actively research their travel options, so suppliers must expect a lot of information gathering before the buy decision. Public relations efforts that impart third-party or expert endorsement help break through boomers' skepticism. NTA focus groups in 1997 and 1998 said ads in local newspapers and word of mouth were the best sources of information and persuasion for travel products.
In marketing materials, patting oneself on the back too vigorously is sure to raise boomers' suspicions and hackles. Companies hoping to build long-term relationships must not promise more than they can deliver because failure to perform undermines boomers' trust.
12. Boomers like to associate with people like themselves. As noted earlier, boomers do not identify with people older than themselves. According to Day, one of the questions uppermost in their minds when they purchase travel is, "Who is going to be on this trip? Is it going to be people like me or a bunch of stodgy, gray-haired people?"
Day said boomers look for outfitters or operators who "share my values,"so they are very selective about who they'll use. She added, "They want an interactive feeling with the outfitter . . . where there's equality between boomers and the leader."
The industry can respond to these needs by not mixing age groups in the same tour and using younger images and words in their marketing materials. They should stress the flexibility and participative nature of the experience as well as hype the expertise of their staff and guides. Environmental and social awareness will strike a responsive note in some boomers, so they should be highlighted.
13. Boomers are not homogenous. While boomers identify themselves as boomers, they are not a single group. In terms of life stages, boomers may be the least homogenous generation to date. There are childless-by-choice boomers, others with new babies, others with grandchildren and some with both. Fifty year olds who are retiring and others starting new careers or returning to college. Empty nesters downsizing their lives, parents who can't get their Gen Xers out of the house and others raising their grandchildren. These variations affect spending habits, the amount of time available for vacations and with whom boomers travel.
There is also a dichotomy between older and younger boomers. For those born between 1946 and 1955, Viet Nam was the defining event of their lives. For those who came later, it was Watergate. When older boomers finished college, jobs were plentiful and interest rates low. Younger boomers faced recession and 21% interest. The older group, the first to benefit from women's movement, tends to be more career-oriented. The younger ones experienced the down side of women's lib - the higher divorce rate. They also felt they never got as much attention as their older siblings, so they are more family-oriented. According to Mancini, older boomers, including himself, "thought our parents stuff was corny and stupid." Younger boomers, who watched Donna Reed and Ozzie and Harriet reruns on TV, he said, "unleashed this whole wave of nostalgia." All these factors too impact travel behavior.
If they keep these 13 truths about boomers in mind, marketers will be more successful in pursuing this large, but complex market segment.
SIDEBAR: TROLLING FOR BOOMER BUSINESS
Charles Kuralt is one of Jeff Krida's heroes, and giving travelers a Kuralt-like view of the real America is the idea behind his company, River Barge Excursions. To provide travelers with an up-close-and-personal look at life along America's great rivers, Krida built a luxury hotel atop two permanently connected river-barge hulls and set them afloat in New Orleans. The first sailing was in September 1998 and now the company offers cruises on the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Cumberland and Atchafalaya rivers and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
If this concept sounds somewhat familiar, that's not surprising. Krida was formerly president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. Noting that Delta Queen has "the reputation for being blue-hair heaven," Krida said, "We tried to understand what this new generation wants and put it together in a product that doesn't alienate the older generation."
Krida's average customer is 55 years old, "but we get septuagenarians and 40 year olds both," he said. "Basically they are people interested in soft adventure and a light educational experience to go along with a vacation in a rather peaceful relaxing environment. . . . They're interested in learning more about their country's history and culture, and in having good food and comfortable accommodations along the way."
The 99-cabin R/B River Explorer "looks like a modern European hotel" rather than a Victorian riverboat with "lots of frou-frou and no TV," Krida said. He noted, the fact that you couldn't get a stock report on the Delta Queen used to drive even 75 year olds crazy. "We have VCRs and satellite TV in every room."
He added, "Our prices are about 35% lower, on average, so that helps attract a slightly younger audience. Also, we're promoting a regional cultural experience, and they're generally promoting a 1940s music environment . . ."
Regional story tellers and musicians board the River Explorer to entertain and lecture or passengers go ashore to meet them. "If you're in Cajun country, you're going to eat roast Cajun pig and listen to a Cajun music. If you're traveling the Missouri River, you're going to hear an oom-pah band in one of the German towns," Krida said.
"We believe that giving people the real experience is better than trying to reenact it on board. It would not be in keeping with our experience to dress our waiters up like Cajuns, cook up some jambalaya and rush passengers back to the dining room on board when they can stay in Breaux Bridge and go to a real cuchon-de-la and fais do do with the Cajun people."
Krida noted his cruises permit a level of intimacy and involvement unavailable to passengers of larger vessels. "When you go to a radio station in Helena, Arkansas, that puts on a live blues show and you do that with 30 people, you get to talk to the guitar player about his childhood in the Mississippi Delta. That's a very different experience than being in an audience of 400 where he performs and then it's over. I felt the boomers would want that interactive experience."
Since boomers also like flexibility, local concierges come aboard the River Explorer in the beginning and end city on each cruise to assist passengers who want to explore the town on their own. Krida noted, "If you had a whole boatload of 75 year olds, they'd be perfectly happy to follow your lead and do the program. When you get 50 year olds on board, they won't do that. They want the pricing to reflect the group deal, but they want you to show them there are three or four options they can take to go their own way."
Besides designing a product to appeal to boomers, Krida also has tried to help travel agents more effectively target this audience. He said, "Leading edge boomers today have psychographic patterns that are different from seniors. As boomers become 60 and 70 year olds, those things about them aren't going to change."
River Barge Excursions joined with Mayflower Tours to sponsor research and conduct seminars for travel agents. The goal was to teach agents two things: 1) to match appropriate product offerings to boomers' psychographics and 2) to describe those products in their marketing and sales literature in a way that appeals to baby boomers. He explained, "If we could help them learn how to market our products to leading edge baby boomers, we'd get more business out of it and so would they."
The seminars were created for them by Marc Mancini Seminars & Consulting, a major provider of training for the travel industry. They were presented at major agents' conferences and at breakfasts in selected locales in late 1998. Krida hopes to repeat the seminars in the future.
Also in the future, Krida plans to tweak his product to provide an option geared to for multi-generational family groups. Although it won't be a huge part of his business, he said, "We want to deliver an experience families can share." In addition, he will build a new, smaller 160-guest vessel. "We believe smaller is better," he said.