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Authentic experiences attract boomer travelers


Scene from Belize, courtesy Go Ahead Tours
Sociologists and scholars have spent decades trying to pin down the social and cultural attributes of baby boomers, the post-World War II generation born between 1946 and 1964.

Maybe the scholars should talk to group tour operators because they seem to have a pretty good handle on what makes baby boomers tick, at least when it comes to travel. Boomers want flexibility and free time. They want choices and customization. But above all, they choose substance over sightseeing and eschew traditional tourism in favor of adventure and authentic experiences.

‘You want to surprise them’
Collette Vacations’ main focus has always been the 65-and-over market, but in the past decade, the company has adjusted to attract and accommodate baby boomers, said Tony Etienne, vice president of affinity market sales and partnership marketing.

Boomers want smaller groups that allow them to have more “authentic” experiences, Etienne said. So about four years ago, Rhode Island-based Collette launched a new line of small-group tours called Explorations that usually have about 18 to 24 people per tour.

Boomers seek out less-mainstream destinations and tours that allow them to more fully experience the area’s culture. They’re also looking to tackle “bucket list” destinations, such as the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu in Peru, while they’re still young, he said.

“They want a little bit more exotic, a little bit more remote or a very culturally intensive destination,” Etienne said.

South American tours, especially trips to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Panama, are hot among boomers, he said. India, Cambodia and Vietnam are also popular, and Eastern Europe is starting to attract more boomers, Etienne said.

But no matter where they go, boomers want authentic experiences.

“When you look at the baby boomers, it’s the experiences while they’re on the tour that they want,” Etienne said. “They want off-the-beaten-path. They want genuine dining experiences. They want to get out of the cities and learn about the people and the economy.”

Iceland is another boomer favorite because it’s an active destination. Travelers can go hiking, horseback riding and swimming in the thermal pools. Boomers also love Costa Rica because they can go zip lining and river rafting, take dance classes or learn about traditional pottery and leatherwork at art galleries.

“That generation really wants to be hands-on: see it, feel it, smell it, touch it, taste it,” Etienne said.

In addition to the new Exploration tours, Collette has adjusted its mainstream tours to include more of those “small adventures” boomers crave, he said.

“Everything used to be a sightseeing tour,” he said. “Now, sightseeing is the bare minimum you do on a tour. Now it’s stopping, doing a class, having an evening out with dinner, then going dancing.”

Collette also works harder to challenge boomers and keep them interested, because they’ve already done extensive reading and research before they get to their destinations, he said.

“That’s the boomers; they already know so much when they get there [that] guides have to challenge them,” Etienne said. “You want to surprise them when they get there.”

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.