Boomer itineraries mix culture, cash, time

July 25, 2015

Boston Globe

When it started up in 1971, Gregg Marston’s company was a scrappy kid, offering fast, challenging cycling trips with few frills through the unforgiving foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Now, like its customers, it’s easing through middle age.

For one thing, what is now called VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations added the “walking” part. For another, it has expanded to offer 50 trips worldwide — it prefers to call them “cultural immersion experiences” — from the Costa Rican rain forest to the food markets of Hanoi. Promotional photographs show 50- and 60-somethings sipping wine and eating brie amid sunlit vineyards in Italy.

Even the guides have changed. “Rather than 23-year-old hardbodies fresh out of college leading these bike tours, we prefer people who have had life experience,” said Marston, who has found particular success in hiring retired Air France flight attendants to run his European trips. “They can relate to the customers as friends,” he said.

It’s one of the many dramatic ways the travel industry is changing to win over its most lucrative market ever: baby boomers.

Much more physically fit and more experienced with travel than previous generations of retirees, the boomers — those 76.4 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — have the time to roam. They also have the money; the consulting firm Deloitte estimates that “affluent, time-rich, and travel-hungry” baby boomers control 60 percent of the nation’s wealth, and account for 40 percent of its spending.

Whatever the political ramifications of this, its effect on the travel industry is greater than anything other than the emergence of the middle class in developing countries such as India and China, Deloitte says.

‘For previous generations, travel was a novelty. For baby boomers, it’s a fact of life.’

And from weekday karaoke lunch cruises with the music of Frank Sinatra and Glen Miller aboard the Spirit of New York to Nicaragua’s Mukul Beach, Golf, and Spa Resort’s “BOOMERang” second-honeymoon package, travel worldwide is changing in response.

The boomers’ impact “is huge,” said David Corsun, director of the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver. “Those retiring with significant savings are driving a number of travel trends.”

In fact, travel is the top aspirational activity for boomers, according to a survey by AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, and they’ll take an average of four to five trips this year, spending a collective $120 billion. Not even threats of political unrest or pandemics can stop them; 82 percent say such things won’t affect their travel plans.

They also want more “experiential” trips and customized experiences, prefer exotic “bucket-list” destinations such as Africa or Asia over more conventional vacations to Mexico or Europe, demand greater personal attention and a slower pace, like to bring their children and grandchildren with them, and can travel at other than peak times, spreading out the travel seasons in some places.

“Rather than July and August, we’re seeing more and more trips moving into April and May” to traditional summer destinations, for example, said Cheryl Rosner, CEO of Stayful, a booking service that specializes in independent and boutique hotels.

Even the way those hotels are being laid out is changing in response to this trend, said Jackie McGee, principal and director of hospitality design at Boston-based CBT Architects. More social spaces are being incorporated in the lobbies, for example, she said, so “boomers can sit down with people they don’t know and relax and converse,” and room designs are getting more chic because “baby boomers relate better to younger images of themselves.”

Established hotels are discovering this too. The Wyndham Grand Jupiter at Harbourside Place in Florida, for instance, previously offered a grab-and-go breakfast, but switched to a sit-down option in response to demand from boomers.

The speedy meal idea “wasn’t working,” said executive chef Michael Molloy. He said the hotel found that baby boomers “want to sit and enjoy their food, and enjoy the experience. And they have time to spend.”

They also want to spend their time productively. When Bill Breckon and his wife, Lois, restored a 17th-century inn called the Watermill at Posara in Tuscany, they made it into more than just an overnight accommodation. They added weeklong “learning vacations” tailored to the boomer market, with painting, language, and even creative writing classes.

Boomers “want to experience the culture, they want to experience the cuisine, they want to experience the beauty and the history, but not just see the churches and museums,” said Leo Locke, president of Donna Franca Tours in Kenmore Square, which specializes in trips to Italy but has transformed its business from bus tours to customized vacations.

“Baby boomers aren’t going to buy a cookie-cutter package,” Locke said. “They want everything custom. They want it the way they want it. And they drive the market.”

This has resulted in another trend: a return to the travel agent in an age when younger consumers book their own vacations online. Thirty-five percent of baby boomers use travel agencies, a higher proportion than any other age group, according to the consulting firm Accenture; the Cruise Line International Association, or CLIA, says 70 percent of cruise passengers use travel agents.

Just as they have become accustomed to consulting professionals about their finances, health, and fitness, said Theresa Jackson of Alexandria, Va.-based Enlightened Journeys Travel, boomers “are turning to travel professionals for advice and planning.”

Of course, not all baby boomers want to go on bicycle vacations or take cooking classes in Tuscany. A lot of them like to go on cruises. So many that 23 million passengers — more than ever before — are expected to take cruises this year, according to CLIA. The industry spent a record $5.7 billion last year building new ships to accommodate them all.

“The cruise lines are at the vanguard of catering to the boomers,” said Umar Riaz, managing director of Accenture’s hospitality and travel services.

Cruises are also one kind of vacation on which boomers can travel with extended family, another big trend; nearly half of baby boomers say they will take a multigenerational family trip this year, AARP reports.

But boomers also gravitate to romantic trips and exotic destinations, said Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of smar-Tours, which runs guided tours to destinations in Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and, now, Cuba.

“We’re seeing an increased demand from new retirees for ‘bucket list’ destinations and experiences,” he said, “a big change for the US travel industry, which has historically focused heavily on Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe.”

Forty-five percent of boomers actually try to avoid the usual popular tourist attractions while traveling abroad, according to an April survey commissioned by Marriott Rewards Credit Card from Chase, and nearly half want to take a safari or go swimming with sharks.

That’s because “they’ve done Europe already,” Riaz said.

“For previous generations, travel was still a novelty. For baby boomers, it’s a fact of life,” he said. And the travel industry is scrambling to respond.

“It’s too big of a segment to ignore,” Riaz said, “and with too much disposable income.”