Getting Older, Thinking Younger

Never call them old. Don't treat them as old in your marketing, traditional and otherwise. Don't underestimate their hunger for health and fitness, for adventure, for variety. And never, ever approach them as a single group, even though Baby Boomers are the biggest one in history. If you treat them as if they're all alike, they won't stay at your hotel, but will instead patronize one that respects their individuality and taste for change.

Born between 1946 and 1964, the 76 million Baby Boomers make up nearly a third of the population of the United States. Largely affluent and wildly diverse, as they approach retirement age (another moving target), their needs will escalate and alter. For now, however, they're the biggest apple of the hospitality eye, spending an estimated $1.7 trillion to $2 trillion on goods and services each year.

What they like to lavish their travel money on is experience, say hospitality experts. Like their Gen X and Gen Y descendants, Boomers enjoy high technology and value personality in their lodging. Unlike their younger successors, however, they are more brand-loyal and still more comfortable with traditional purchasing than with online. Anticipating and adapting to their needs and desires occupy consultancies that subdivide them into sub-segments like urban, single mothers, business travelers, and more.

One thing consultants and hotel marketing executives have in common: disdain for hotels that don't respect Boomers.

“On my way back to my room in one of the major hotels I was speaking at, I encountered two women sitting on the floor in the hallway,” recalls Lalia Rach, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Travel Administration at New York University. “I stopped and said, Can I help you? They laughed and said no, they were just at a stage in their lives where they needed a rest before they got to their room because it was so far away from the convention center.

“Both women were physically fit,” adds Rach, a Boomer herself. “In fact, they laughed and said, Oh, you're a youngster.”

Large convention hotels and grand old hotels alike must make escalators and elevators easily accessible and offer packages that appeal to the Boomer's sense of adventure, says industry analyst Rach.

All hotels must prepare for the aging of the population, she says. At the same time, “the Boomer generation does not want to be confronted by its aging, they do not want to get marginalized by their aging.

“They only get better, they never get older,” Rach quips.

Building rooms without threshold showers, equipping them with good, glare-free lighting, producing menus and telephone instructions with a font size large enough to read and installing “people movers” to carry Boomers, and Matures born before 1945. are key, she says. And if a hotel can't install such movers, which are common in airports, it should consider building “relaxation stations,” so people can “take a moment.”

In addition, hotels must review their websites to make “certain that the models represent all types of people, not just 20-somethings or 30-somethings,” she says. And in loyalty programs, steadfast customers should be rewarded with discounts that speak to their lifestyle rather than their age.

“Retirement is a 20th-century concept,” Rach says. “Boomers have always been about choices, and what's fundamental is Boomers are not going to allow any business to ignore them.”


“What's blurring is the lifestyle and the mindset,” says Tom O'Toole, senior vice president of strategy and systems, Global Hyatt Corp. Research that led to Hyatt Place, Hyatt's new lifestyle brand, suggests the expectations and needs of Boomers and Gen X are merging.

“If you aim for Boomers, you're going to miss a lot of Gen X,” O'Toole says. “If you aim for Gen X, you're going to hit a lot of Boomers.”

“Baby Boomers are hardened by the experience of war, they've seen recession, and they are more centered on family and religious values,” opines Robert Habeeb, president of First Hospitality Group, which just developed an early Hyatt Place in suburban Chicago. “Gen X and Gen Y are much more the Me Generation. Technology, in their minds, is like the sun and the moon; they can't fathom it hasn't always been there.”

That generational overlap helps explain Hyatt Place, where the formative influence is the “habit of multitasking,” says O'Toole, who calls Hyatt Place “the most researched brand in Hyatt history.”

As demographics morphs into psychographics, Hyatt Place aims to facilitate various, previously contradictory functions. Research showed that travelers want to do many things, often simultaneously. So Hyatt Place features a 42-inch, flat-panel TV, free Wi-Fi and fresh food available in the lobby 24/7. “It's designed for the person who gets into the hotel at midnight and needs to eat, work and see what's happening in sports, all at the same time,” O'Toole says.

A similarly widescreen approach rules at Best Western International, which links its Boomer marketing to alliances with Harley Davidson, AAA and NASCAR, says Marketing and Sales SVP Dorothy Dowling.

“50 is the new 30,” says Dowling, like Habeeb a younger Boomer. “Baby Boomers are a very contemporary, vibrant audience who don't want to be characterized like previous generations.”

Boomers “think in a very youthful way and preserve their health,” she says, noting Boomer appetite for fitness and exercise. (According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, one-fourth of all health club members are 55 and older.)

To reach Boomers, Best Western stresses its variety and “experiential part,” positioning itself as the “original boutique hotels company.”

“Being in the same structure week after week and night after night doesn't appeal to Boomers,” Dowling says. That also holds true for Gen Xers, who, Dowling says, are more environmentally conscious than Boomers — and more fickle.

“We have a very strong Boomer relevancy with our brand and in our loyalty programs,” she says, “but Gen Xers are harder to hold. They date a lot of brands, where Boomers marry brands.”

“Boomers are forever relevant in terms of their aspiration,” says Mike Jiannini, executive vice president of brand strategy and innovation for Marriott International. “Once upon a time, we discussed the generation gap. There'll be no gaps with Boomers.”

Jiannini says Boomers are “keen on operational excellence” and “pick brands they can trust.” At the same time, they're taking cues from the “younger generation and updating their expectations accordingly.”

In the past, a Marriott hotel only had to be functional, well managed and clean. Now, it also must “have inspired design and reflect its locale,” he says. Boomers can be “enjoyment travelers” and “experience travelers.” They're curious and have an appetite for lifelong learning. Differences between travelers are no longer generation-driven or gender-driven, Jiannini says.

“Boomers set the baseline for the generations that followed, but now that the younger generations are demanding additional things, the Boomers are taking their cues from the younger generations.

“They all carry iPods, though it was the younger generation that really caught on with that,” Jiannini says. “What's on those iPods is going to be different, but they'll all carry iPods.”

Accurately gauging the Boomer mindset is difficult, concedes Bill Carlson, SVP of consumer revenue growth, Choice Hotels International. The goal is to “get Boomers to see how Choice can fit into how they travel,” so Choice marketing shows Boomers being active and doing different things — and, across its brands, trying to make Choice the flag Boomers home in on: “No matter where you're going or what you're doing, we've got a hotel for you” is the Choice message, he says.

“We still want to picture them realistically, because typical 55-year-olds today are taking better care of themselves and are probably living longer than somebody who was 55 20 years ago,” Carlson says. “I don't think people are trying to show them like they're 20, but that they're still very active. Which in a lot of cases they are.”


To David Ginsburg, director of consumer information systems for Choice, market research is key. Choice does much of it through communications with its Choice Privileges loyalty program members, “stacking” them into “megacohorts,” or aggregations that cross age groups. “It's not treating Boomers necessarily as a group,” Ginsburg says. “Some might be younger Boomers, some of them might be older Boomers. It's ways we can look at them as a group that isn't so large and monolithic.”

Choice's affinity credit cards with Visa, for example, do particularly well with the “more Boomer and 50-plus segment,” so “we have been catering our communications to relate to this group,” he says.

Dennis Marzella, executive vice president of research and brand strategy for Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, also affirms Boomer diversity.

“We tend to make assumptions that young people only want this and old people only want that,” he says. “We find young people liking to watch Tony Bennett and drink martinis and ballroom dance, but by the same token you find mature people doing adventure travel.”

Experience and interest are critical, he suggests. “Boomers today tend to look more like Xers in terms of their interest in different types of leisure activities, and some newer concepts in hospitality, like NYLO and aloft, are not only for young people but for people who want a hipper form of accommodation than you find in traditional hotels.”

No longer can hotels market to “senior citizens,” Marzella says, calling that tag “the most common sin among travel agents.” Granted, eyesight and other senses diminish with age, and Boomers can fall victim to “boomeritis,” pushing their bodies too far in physical activity. So travel packagers might want to offer different whitewater rafting options to Boomers: One would place them in a motorized raft accommodating a large group, the other in a solo dory one would have to row.

Before today, “when people hit a certain age — when we talked about people in their 60s — they were getting ready to step out of the mainstream,” says New York University's Lalia Rach. “Boomers are never going to do that. And being ignored by marketing, being defined by their age, being limited because design and function do not change — they will not accept that.”

“There's more diversity in that generation than in any other by virtue of the diversity of their cultural influences,” says Mike Fitzpatrick, vice president of account services for Cohorts, a consumer database marketing firm. Boomers remember television shows “featuring married couples with two twin beds in their bedroom and Maxwell Smart's Shoephone,” yet many alsocarry cell phones with video cameras. Hotels must select the sub-segment to target, then build a brand accordingly. It's not easy.

“How do you do that for a group in which some grew up with Top 40 AM radio and others have an 80GB iPod and Bose headphones in their briefcase?”

For more information and related articles, go to


Offer functionality. Boomers, too, value hotels that enable productivity and provide entertainment and relaxation-at the same time.

Respect seasoning, but deliver the fresh. Boomers want their hotels to run well. They also value innovation in style and design.

Be flexible. Boomers come in all shapes and sizes, so make your hotel a destination as well as a sanctuary.

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