This is the first installment of a new bimonthly feature in The Group Travel Leader that will profile the many types of groups that are traveling throughout the United States and internationally.
You spot them in airports, hotels, convention halls, and restaurants; on cruise ships; and in a hundred other places. They’re proudly wearing their signature red hats and purple outfits, and although you may hate to admit it, they seem to be smiling, laughing and having more fun than you are.
They’re members of the Red Hat Society (RHS), an international society of women age 50 or older dedicated to reshaping the way women are viewed in today’s culture.
Founded in 1998, the society embraces five F’s: fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment and fitness.
The Red Hatters really know how to get out there. “It’s amazing, our women love to travel. I don’t think there’s a cruise out there that doesn’t have Red Hatters on it,” said Debra Granich, CEO of the RHS based in Fullerton, Calif.
RHS has 70,000-plus members in 20,000 local chapters. Marlene Matthews is a member of two chapters: Ramblin’ Roses of Orange County, Calif., and a travel group with a pirate theme called Wenches Gone Wild.
“It’s a fun chapter that only gets together at conventions,” said Matthews. “It started at one in Savannah, Ga., where they arranged dinner at a place called the Pirate House. Some of us modified our red hat attire and took on a pirate motif.
“Since then, we’ve had pirate wench luncheons and dinners in Washington, D.C.; San Diego; Detroit; Dallas; all over.”
Matthews has twice gone to the annual New Year’s Day Parade in London, at which hundreds of Red Hatters march or ride atop double-decker buses.
“It was quite a sight to see people line the streets and wave,” said Matthews. “After one parade, we got together with Red Hatters from England at a tea back at the hotel.”
Matthews expects to be in New Orleans this summer for the RHS international convention. Her husband doesn’t enjoy traveling, so she’s free to take off to meet up with Red Hat girlfriends.
“I joined the Red Hat Society to have lunch with local ladies in my city, but that’s taken a back seat. My main priority now is about where I can go with the Red Hat Society,” she said.
Granich is proud that whenever RHS holds a convention, it’s at a top-tier vacation site.
“Women come to see the city, get to know it, as well as meet and celebrate fun and friendship with their sisters,” she said.
The society offers travel packages and events for woman of all ages and economic backgrounds.
“It’s not about age or what you look like. It’s about what you feel within,” Granich said. “I’ve invited guests to our events, and they see what we do and the love and camaraderie that are shared.”
RHS marketing director Emily Yost chimes in that age isn’t an obstacle to travel. “The older they are the more they’re free to embrace getting out there and doing what they’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “Quite honestly, sometimes they wear us out and are up dancing the night away longer than we are.
“We make accommodations for anyone with special needs and make sure our events include time to sit, play and rest.”
Granich remembers her transition to full-fledged Red Hatter while on a cruise in Alaska.
“Two hundred fifty women celebrated me entering my 50th year. We took over a restaurant, and they ‘red-uated’ me, meaning I was transformed from wearing a pink hat and lavender clothing — reserved for women under 50 — to someone who could wear a red hat and purple clothing.
“The lesson — there was a whole life awaiting me after age 50.”
Mary Bahnmaier is with several local chapters including S.A.S.S., or South Awesome Sassy Sisters, based in Lawrence, Kan. She’s cruised with Red Hatters in the Caribbean, Alaska and Hawaii, and out of Houston.
“In many places, people want to take your picture, especially if they have relatives, mothers or grandmothers who are also Red Hatters,” she said.
Bahnmaier and her friends love to combine road trips with attending RHS conventions. A regional convention in Chicago included side trips to Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis; Mackinaw Island, Mich.; and Lincoln’s Springfield, Ill.
A national convention in Orlando, Fla., included visits to Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and St. Augustine, Fla. She’s also attended the London parade four of the past five years.
“It was great. We had a ball. Red Hatters always have fun,” she said.
To join the Red Hat Society or to form a chapter, visit www.redhatsociety.com or call 1-866-FUN-AT-50 (386-2850).
America’s Traveling Groups
A bimonthly GTL series
There are now more than 400 Red Hat travel organizers and members receiving The Group Travel Leader each month and attending GLAMER Chapter Meetings in their cities. Watch for our next feature in our series, America’s Traveling Groups, in May, when we profile alumni travel programs across America.