Posted on 01 October 2009
By Mark Miller
Memo to anyone trying to sell something to baby boomers: Keep the word “elder” out of your brand name. Most boomers are in a state of profound denial of aging, so the E word is a definite turnoff–even if you’ve got one of the most respected names in your industry.
That was the problem confronting Elderhostel, Inc., the country’s biggest name in educational travel for older adults. Started in 1975, it was the country’s first non-profit educational travel organization and today it is the largest in the world, with more than 8,000 programs in 90 countries.
The average Elderhostel customer is 73 years old, but future growth will come from younger baby boomers–a huge potential market that now ranges in age from mid-40s to early 60s. That opportunity prompted Elderhostel to announce a new name for its travel programs this month that it hopes will appeal better to boomers: Exploritas.
“Our name was a psychological barrier to participation for boomers,” said Peter Spiers, Elderhostel’s senior vice president of strategic outreach. “We’ve been drawing a substantial number of younger travelers, but in focus groups they express misgivings about us. Some of them admitted that they were embarrassed to even tell their friends where they’d been.”
The “hostel” in Elderhostel also had outlived its time, Spiers says. The name Elderhostel traces its roots to Marty Knowlton, a world-traveling, free-spirited social activist and former educator who spent four years back in the ’70s on a walking tour of Europe, carrying a backpack and staying in youth hostels. That inspired the approach to Elderhostel, which started up with similar lodgings on a handful of American university campuses. These days, Elderhostel programs are offered in a much wider array of settings.
Knowlton was impressed by the European approach to youth hostels, with their safe, inexpensive lodgings and opportunities to meet fellow travelers. He was also taken with institutions in Scandinavia, called folk schools, where he saw older adults handing down traditions of folk art, music and dance to younger generations. He came home wondering why there wasn’t a similar learning opportunity for older Americans after retirement.
Back in the states, Knowlton teamed up with David Bianco, a university administrator, and Elderhostel was born in the summer of 1975. They started on five college campuses with just over 200 participants; by 1980, the program had spread to all 50 states and had more than 20,000 people participating. International expansion came a year later, and the rest is history.
Adult learning of all types has been growing quickly in recent years, including self-directed programs, Lifelong Learning Institutes, continuing education programs and educational travel. And Elderhostel’s success has inspired an entire industry of learning abroad opportunities, ranging from language immersion to volunteer programs. The adult learning field’s growth is expected to accelerate further as the huge boomer generation retires.
Along with its new name, Elderhostel is making a couple of other moves to appeal to boomer travelers, including shorter international programs for people with limited time availability or travel budgets. And a new domestic program centered in major cities will combine structured lectures and activities with time for participants to explore their own interest at their own pace. There will also be more emphasis on outdoor and active programs like whitewater rafting and hiking.
“We’re seeing people doing things at age 65 that you wouldn’t have seen them doing 35 years ago,” said Jim Moses, Elderhostel’s president.
The changes come at a risky moment. The deep recession has hurt all segments of the travel industry, and Elderhostel is no exception. “This year, the bottom fell out for everyone, and travel has been the hardest-hit of any industry,” said Moses.
The name change runs the risk of alienating Elderhostel’s core market of seniors at a time when the industry is depressed. But Spiers is confident about the new directions. “Boomers have fueled a lot of the fitness trends in the country, and they will be seeking out activities that can keep their brains health and stimulated. That trend is only going to grow.”