Tour Operators for Seniors
A profile of the tour operators that court the senior market
In the world of travel, what do older Americans really want? That inquiry is the topic of the year among airlines and tour operators. As if, without warning, a new planet had swung into their sight, they've discovered that a startling percentage of all travel expenditures are made by people 55 and older. Not yuppies, not preppies, not even baby boomers, but rather senior citizens are today the "name of the game" in travel.
Young folks, it appears, go to the movies; older ones go on vacation.
"Our senior citizens," says one tour operator, "are feeling better about themselves, and that's why they're traveling more. They're healthier, living longer, more affluent. They have a new conviction that life is to be enjoyed for quite a while more, and this fairly recent attitude makes them the fastest-growing segment of the travel market."
Given that fact, it is surprising, as an initial note, to find so few companies serving the needs of the older American traveler. Apart from local motorcoach operators and purely ad hoc programs by regional firms, only four major U.S. companies deal exclusively with the marketing and operation of far-ranging tours for seniors, and three of these are headquartered in one city: Boston. They are: Saga Holidays, Grand Circle Travel, Inc., Elderhostel, and Your Man Tours ("YMT Vacations"). Having journeyed to Boston to view the first three, and spoken frequently with the fourth in California, I've been alternately impressed, startled, and educated by several uniform ways in which they do business. Traveling seniors may want to consider the following observations on the major "tour operators for older Americans":
Those that mainly sell "direct"
Not one of the "big four" deals with travel agents or sets aside a single percentage point of income for the latter. Each one heatedly insists that the processing of seniors' tours is a specialty requiring direct contact between them (the tour operators) and their clients (the actual senior travelers), usually via toll-free "800" numbers. Because the four firms adhere fiercely to their position, their brochures and catalogs are unavailable in travel agents' racks and can be obtained only by mail.
Nor, with the exception of YMT Vacations, do they advertise in the general media. If you are not already on their mailing lists, you must specifically request their brochures by writing to the addresses listed below. Once you do, you'll soon receive a heavy packet of attractive literature and application forms.
They cater to "older" Americans
Although people can theoretically use the services of the senior-citizen tour operators when they reach the tender ages of 50, 55, or 60, in practice they don't. The average age of Grand Circle's clients is 70, that of the others only slightly less. The apparent reason is that Americans no longer feel removed from younger age categories until they reach their early or mid-sixties.
Advances in health care and longevity, better diets, and attention to exercise keep most of us youthful and vigorous into our late fifties, and reluctant to cease socializing--or vacationing--with younger people. (I recall growing apoplectic with rage when, on my 50th birthday, the mail brought an invitation to join AARP). Who any longer even retires at the age of 65?
Their clients insist on the exclusion of younger passengers
But when those mid-sixties are in fact reached, the newly-elder turn with a vengeance to services of the specialists. After an initial reluctance to confine their travel companions to a single age group, today's 65-year-olds discover that they are of a different "mind set" from their younger co-citizens. Brought up during the Depression, sent to fight or work in World War II, denied the easy travel opportunities enjoyed by our blasé younger set, they better appreciate the joys of international travel, react with gratitude and awe to wonders of the world, enjoy the companionship of people who feel the same way.
They possess a historical perspective
Clearly, they share a wealth of experience and a common outlook; come from an education in the broad liberal arts as contrasted with the crudely materialistic, vocational outlook of so many of today's youth. And when they travel with younger people, they are often upset by the young folks' failure to share the same values or to be familiar with the events that so shaped their lives. What mature American can enjoy a trip through Europe or the South Pacific with people who are only dimly aware of Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, or Douglas MacArthur or Field Marshal Rommel, of the Normandy Invasion or the Holocaust? Accordingly, they respond with eagerness to tour programs limited to persons of their own age.