When it comes to catering to the mature travel market, it would seem axiomatic that travel planners be up to date on geriatrics, the study of medical problems of the aged, and gerontology, which covers the economic, psychological and social factors of the aged as well.
But Sue Hartenbaum, a Malibu doctoral student in educational gerontology at the University of Southern California, deep into a research project on senior travel, has a sobering analysis.
Although there is a great deal of information on the demographics and income of the older market as it applies to travel, Hartenbaum says there is little direct research on the older consumer by the travel industry.
The conclusion could be drawn that the travel industry is a lot more interested in how to get older travelers on tours and trips than how to cater to them once they've signed on for the tours.
Hartenbaum noted, however, that this is changing. The European Travel Commission recently released a report on American travelers' ideas on senior tours in Europe. And many of the major tour companies and associations catering to the mature travel market have done their own research in the senior travel field.
This includes the American Assn. of Retired Persons (and its travel arm, Olson TravelWorld), Insight International Tours, Grand Circle Travel, Passages Unlimited and others.
Other large companies, and many smaller ones without the resources for research, base their observations and tour planning on questionnaires from previous tour members, heavy personal observation and years of trial-and-error field experience.
The latter is great, as long as the mature traveler is not an early participant in the learning process but benefits from what has gone before.
In preparing for her doctorate and research on senior travel, Hartenbaum traveled extensively throughout Southern California, New York, Boston and Toronto to interview major travel companies that specialize in mature travel, in addition to doing in-depth research on what has been written on gerontology and the travel market.
A Look at Findings
Here are some of her impressions, insights and suggestions:
"The older traveler needs and should have complete and thorough information on the company, the detailed itinerary of the proposed trips and all other pertinent information well in advance of the tour date. The better companies catering to the mature traveler are on top of this with extra brochures on packing, tipping, climate, medicine, travel documents and other helpful information.
"Study tour brochures carefully. Note the pace of the tour, the number of one-night stops. Find out when each day's touring starts and when it ends; the older traveler prefers to leave a bit later in the morning and stop earlier to become familiar with the new location during daylight hours.
"It would be a good idea if tour companies catering to the senior traveler noted on each day's touring itinerary the level of exertion required, such as 'strenuous,' 'average' or 'leisurely.'
"Check carefully not just the quality of the hotel accommodations offered on the tour but the location as well. Are they located centrally to enable you to best use free time without spending money and time for transportation for shopping, meals or additional sightseeing?
"Will the tour provide refrigeration for medicines you may require? Are there restrooms on the tour buses? If not, how many rest stops are there during the day's drive?
Time to Socialize
"Social needs are also very important to the older traveler and they wish the time and opportunities to meet not just with others on the tour but also to socialize with people from the countries they may be visiting.
"Pre-tour activities to familiarize the traveler with his or her group and destination are a definite plus. Some travel agents now provide videotapes at least to help familiarize new travelers with the country or area they will be visiting.
"Check also the fine print of the tour brochures. In the first place, there shouldn't be any fine print. The size of the print indicates their attitude toward you as an older consumer. Printed material that is difficult to read is an indication that they are either unaware of the older traveler's needs or they don't want you to read it.
Helping Members Adapt
"There is a social/emotional need to help tour members adapt to living with a group of strangers for some period of time. In this, the tour guide is paramount. The older traveler wants to be treated as an individual and not as a stereotyped version of an aged person. There is a need for more understanding guides who are aware of this anti-stereotype attitude of the older traveler.
"Compare the brochures available from one company to another. The availability of information (and the quick, honest answers to any of your questions on the travel program or tour) is one of the more obvious differences between the companies that really cater to the older traveler and those that only say they do."