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Will boomer business boom?

Photo courtesy Branson CVB

The boomers are coming and bringing with them a tide of new interests, energy and travel styles that could permanently change group tourism.

As the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age in force, many destinations and tour operators are seeing greater numbers of boomers traveling in groups. But unlike the World War II generation that came before them, boomers are eschewing the highly structured sightseeing programs of traditional tours and seeking group travel experiences that provide adventure, independence and customization.

Around the country, destinations and attractions have begun optimizing their travel products for baby boomers, creating new packages and itineraries to better meet the demands of the boomer generation.

Here’s a look at what representatives from six different destinations see developing in the boomer market and how they’re adapting to fit.

Visit Tallahassee

In Florida’s capital city, the team at Visit Tallahassee, the town’s convention and visitors bureau, has been working with tour operators to identify the interests of this new generation of group traveler.

Courtesy Mission San Luis

“The market is changing,” said Kerri Post, senior marketing director for Visit Tallahassee. “It’s not the traditional senior market anymore. Boomers want to be a lot more independent. They don’t want a regimented schedule. A colleague of mine calls it ‘mass customization,’ because so many boomers want so much travel independence.”

Post said that when boomer groups come to Tallahassee, they are interested in outdoor and adventure activities. As a result, her organization helps tour operators arrange kayaking, hiking or birdwatching expeditions for groups in addition to stops at more traditional attractions.

One of Tallahassee’s most popular tour stops, Mission San Luis, uses immersion and interactivity to appeal to the hands-on attitude prevalent among baby boomers. Interpretive re-enactors at the re-created 17th-century Spanish settlement prepare food, put on festivals and hold church services in which visitors can participate.

“Boomers like history and heritage, but don’t give them just a house museum,” Post said. “A lot of them want to walk around and be immersed in it. They don’t want to just sit there and look at it; they want to really get involved.”

Some tour operators have also rearranged their traditional tour schedules to give boomer groups more choices in their dining.

“Boomers want to dine on their own,” Post said. “We’re working with our restaurants to provide some discounts. And some tour operators are providing a preloaded debit card so that boomer couples can go out for dinner and have some alone time.”

Post also said that Visit Tallahassee is trying to help tour operators “bridge the gap” between traditional and boomer tours by developing more themed itineraries that explore niches of interest to boomers and by helping local attractions develop more experiential activities that will appeal to that generation.

Philadelphia CVB
The staff at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau has responded to the changing demographics in group travel by creating more experiential and voluntourism options for groups.

“We saw two or three years ago that the boomer market would be the next generation of traveler and that it would be very appealing to tour operators,” said tourism sales manager Ryan O’Connor. “Baby boomers are looking for a more exclusive, behind-the-scenes, immersive experience. They’re also looking for a more a la carte approach to a destination.”

Among favorite interactive experiences for boomers is a behind-the-scenes tour of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The program also features historical re-enactments, allowing visitors to participate in the debate over independence.

The CVB has included other experiential attractions in a number of special-interest itineraries for groups. On a culinary tour of the city, participants might visit a fish market in Chinatown or tour one of the area’s breweries. Other tours cater specifically to the interests of history buffs, gardening enthusiasts and art lovers.

Another program, “Phil Your Bags,” has been specially designed for baby boomer groups who want to stay together in a hotel but enjoy the town on their own. Each tour participant gets a coupon book with shopping discounts, free restaurant appetizers, offers for museum and attraction admissions and other perks.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in tour operators that are offering this product,” O’Connor said. “It saves them a lot of time, and it seems like it’s very appealing to baby boomers, who want to break off in groups of twos and fours.”

Experience Colorado Springs
Attractions such as Pikes Peak and other natural areas make Colorado Springs, Colo., a good fit for boomer groups looking for outdoor adventures.

“It seems that boomers are looking a little bit more for that adventurous travel,” said Chelsy Murphy, public relations manager for Experience Colorado Springs. “So within an hour of our area, you can find white-water rafting or the Garden of the Gods park. People can do hiking, biking or go climbing on the rocks.”

Murphy said that the visitors bureau has seen an increased mixture of baby boomers and seniors on group tours. As a result, bureaus are reaching out to tour operators to help them develop diverse itineraries that will appeal to both sets of interests.

Itinerary options include meeting athletes at the Olympic Training Center and meeting cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, as well as riding recently expanded cycling trails and a host of outdoor adventure-sports activities. Many boomers seem to enjoy the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad and other train rides in the area, as well as agritourism and sustainability attractions.

“Boomers tend to be more adventurous — it’s not always about sitting back and relaxing,” Murphy said. “They want to be involved. Some of them are more active than their younger counterparts.”

Bike and Roll NYC
It’s no secret that New York City is one of the most visited destinations in the country, popular with visitors of all ages. But at Bike and Roll NYC, a company that operates bicycle tours around the city, marketing director Scott Cavanaugh says more groups of boomers are opting to see the sites on bicycles instead of on a bus.

“We work with a lot of people who are coming to New York and looking for a different experience that gets them out of the tour bus,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re looking to experience New York in a new and interesting way and looking for things that are more environmentally friendly and more active.”

Bike and Roll offers bicycle rentals and guided tours from six locations around the city. Two of the most popular tours take groups on rides through Central Park and over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Cavanaugh said that baby boomers make up about 20 percent of the company’s customers. And while many of them come in pairs or small groups, some larger boomer groups choose to tour New York on the bicycles as well.

“We had a private group of retired people from Colorado that called themselves the Retired Old Guys, and they wanted to experience New York City by bike,” he said. “They were the kind of biking enthusiasts that want to be out all day, so they went out with one of our guides for seven hours.”

Bicycle tours take visitors to some places that buses can’t reach, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, and provide a level of activity that is ideal for many boomers.

“Baby boomers have always been looking for new and different ways to do things; you find an adventurous spirit in that generation,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re a little bit older, but biking is active and exciting, and it’s something that they really can do.”

Greenbrier County CVB
The sleepy West Virginia town of Lewisburg and surrounding Greenbrier County appeal to visitors looking for a quiet getaway, quaint downtowns and a strong arts and crafts tradition. Recent studies done by the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau show that baby boomers are the largest demographic traveling to that destination.

Courtesy Greenbrier County CVB

“We find that a little more than 57 percent of our tourists are between the ages of 45 and 65,” said director of marketing Rachael Stebbins. “The study shows that people are interested in relaxing and strolling our downtown. We have a lot of local artisans and stores that cater to people who would be into the arts.”

Greenbrier County is also home to the famous Greenbrier Resort, a luxurious historic property. Boomers have shown a willingness to pay more than their parents’ generation for hotel accommodations if they perceive a value in the quality of accommodations they receive. And a secret government bunker underneath the resort that is now open to tourists is also a popular attraction for boomers, who grew up during the height of the Cold War.

Stebbins said that the concentration of boomers traveling with groups to her region changes along with the interest affinities of the groups.

“It really depends on what group is coming to our area,” she said. “Last year, we had the Christian Motorcycle Association, which was a lot of boomers.”

Branson Area CVB
For years, Branson, Mo., has profited handsomely from its image as America’s ultimate senior-citizens destination. But a crop of new shows and other new attractions is helping Branson gain traction among baby boomers as well.

“Although country music is our heritage, that’s only 40 percent of our entertainment anymore,” said Lynn Berry, director of public relations for the Branson Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “So we’re seeing things like the Liverpool Legends, which is a Beatles experience. For those of us in our 50s, that’s a wonderful place to be.”

In addition to the Beatles show, Branson has recently welcomed other boomer favorites, such as Bill Medley of the Righteous Bros. and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Acrobatic shows like Cirque Montage and Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu are designed to appeal to a younger demographic as well.

Berry said she sees more boomers traveling on grandparent-grandchild tours, introducing their grandchildren to some of the cultural icons that they grew up with, such as the Sons of the Pioneers.

Boomers traveling to Branson are also more likely to look for activities outside of the theaters, taking advantage of the area’s natural surroundings and recent retail, dining and nightlife openings.

“The baby boomers are more ready to encounter things like taking a hike, doing some shopping down at Branson Landing, or staying out until 11:30 and taking a quick trip to the piano bar,” Berry said. “I was there the other night at 10 o’clock, and there were 17 coaches in the parking lot.”

The emphasis on more boomer-friendly attractions in town seems to have paid off. Local tourism statistics show that the average visitor age in Branson dropped from 58 in 2008 to 56 in 2009. And first-time visitors made up 32 percent of Branson’s tourists last year.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.