Full speed ahead

Older people remain loyal to the same brand for life; when they travel, they shuffle about and cluster together on tour groups; they dislike venturing off the beaten path; they fear and loathe technology; they like slow-paced activities; and they’re all retired.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. All myths, says Claude Péloquin of UQÀM’s tourism department in a study published this year.

“The 50-year-old (and up) senior (traveller) is much more likely to be highly educated, completely independent, experiencing a sort of personal awakening, living a fast-paced lifestyle, able to enjoy life on their own terms, eager to make choices (and) excited to learn.”

For travel agents, hotels, tour operators, airlines, cruise lines, passenger train operators, even aircraft makers, the army of spry boomers expected to flood the travel and tourism industry in the next decade(s), it all means a huge opportunity, but also a challenge.

An obvious opportunity for all the revenue that tide will generate. But a problem because many of the new “seniors” – who loathe that term – will want to do things differently than previous generations. The cliché about 60 being the new 50 – or 40, or whatever – has truth to it. This is, after all, the generation that proudly coined the phrase “this ain’t your grandfather’s (fill in the blank),” denoting just how special and unique they are.

Michel Archambault, holder of the Transat chair of tourism at UQà M’s school of management, said that various factors do indeed distinguish the current generations from previous ones.

“For one thing, (many) boomers have already travelled a lot in their lives,” Archambault said. “They are in better health. And they’re pretty comfortable with technology – they know how to compare prices and services online, for instance.

“So they want new travel experiences, but they also want comfort and shun what hurts their sensorial being – things like bad odour, blocked landscapes, lack of cleanliness.”

So what are travel and tourism players doing to cater to that segment?

You name it, Archambault said. It can be cyclo-tourism in Quebec, a wine-touring trip in California – or Ontario – a whale-watching cruise in the Saguenay, a château or cheese-tasting tour in France, an “urban staycation” exploring your own backyard,

Donavon Gaudette of the Association of Canadian Travel Agents, said that issues like reduced mobility have long been addressed by players in the trade. Wheelchair access is taken for granted on planes, trains, ships. But boomer pride is strong, Gaudette said, and even if they are in better health and more affluent than their parents, they still want to be pampered.

“They might not want to go bungee jumping, but they will go up to the top of (ski-hill) Grouse Mountain (in B.C.) in summer – in the gondola.”

Catering to the aging population can be as prosaic as operators ensuring more frequent rest and bathroom stops. Or WestJet Airlines’s practice of making sure all of its communications are in bigger letters – including signs at the airport. But spokesperson Richard Bartrem said that WestJet also has “guest ambassadors” at check-in counters to help things along with older people. “Part of their mandate is to hone in on them because they might be a little more tired or harried than younger people,” Bartrem said.