Seniors: The Grey-haired Revolution

older woman of Tahiti

It’s all about the fun of discovery

I just spent seven months living in a floating seniors’ facility. It was a blast.

Well, to be technically correct, it was a cruise ship and I was a guest presenter.

Each cruise lasted about 14 nights, and before we sailed, I would look at the demographic breakdown of the new guests. On most of our cruises, the average age in the 63-67 range. That’s the average, mind you—for every person under that age, there was somebody over it. Think about it.

What was it like? Well, if you ever get the chance to do interpretation just for seniors, I think you should take it. My seniors were friendly, spontaneous, loyal, inquisitive, good-humoured, approachable and honest. They were also well-traveled, wealthy, had high expectations and could be critical, particular and demanding.

Let me introduce you to a few of my friends.

Micheline is from Trois-Rivieres. She is 72; I thought she was about 58. She is happily retired, single but has a boyfriend with whom she travels. She has a list of must-see attractions in her hand at every port of call, and ticks each place off systematically. She doesn’t like big guided tours, and is willing to spend a fair bit of cash on private guides who will get her to each attraction just a little bit before everybody else arrives.

David and Margaret are 86 and 84. They have spent the last 55 years traveling together; most of it was spent hitchhiking and camping the back roads Europe and their native Australia. They travel by cruise ship now because she has a walker and it makes the hitchhiking too complicated.  (And if I can get to 86 and be just a fraction as cool as David and Margaret, I will be a happy man.)

Jean is 67 and from the northern USA. She’s a keen learner and attends all my nature programs. She loves to chat; one day as we talked, she wanted me to confirm for her that climate change was just a natural process, and there isn’t anything we can do about it anyway.  She takes shore excursions provided by the ship; they’re the safest. She prefers it when I keep the politics out of my nature presentations.

That’s just a tiny sample of my audiences’ diversity. When I started this cruise ship gig, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of how to develop and deliver programming for seniors. It turns out I was making a fairly basic mistake: you can’t target seniors as a single group; they are far too diverse and complex. You have to target your seniors, and that takes some research, some experimentation and some listening.

You may be familiar with one segmentation tool called Explorer Quotient or EQ. My friend Micheline is clearly a Free Spirit; David and Margaret are Authentic Experiencers while Jean is probably a Gentle Explorer.

I discovered that years before EQ came out, there was a body of research done to identify  priorities and values among senior travellers in particular. Let’s have a look at how they break down:

Nostalgics (32%) travel to revisit favourite places,  achieve family togetherness, and visit family and friends.

Friendlies (22.7%) travel to meet new people, make friends, or travel with existing good friends.

Learners make up 18.9% of the group. We’ll look at them in a moment.

Escapists (9.3%) want to get away from it all, relax and do nothing, indulge in some luxury, and be looked after.

Thinkers (7.1%) travel to re-evaluate their own lives, raise their own self-esteem, be alone with their thoughts, and challenge their own mental abilities.

Lastly, Status Seekers (6.5%) are all about going places where their friends (and rivals) haven’t been.

Let’s look at those learners again; of all the groups, these are the seniors who might show up at your interpretive programs. (They certainly came to mine.) Learners want to collect new and different experiences and satisfy their curiosity. They want to stay well-informed and be on top of what’s going on. They need to learn new things and enrich their lives, become more cultured people, connect with others and feel a sense of community. Learners want to experience the fun of discovery, feel actively involved in the world around them, be a little adventurous, and gain new skills as a traveller.

Look at those attributes. Does that sound like the stereotypical senior citizen to you? It certainly challenged my preconceptions. I threw out my old “senior-interp” techniques (making connections to the past, emphasizing family connections, avoiding references to technology) and concentrated on the fun of discovery. It worked.

My advice? Don’t make assumptions about seniors. Don’t even generalize about their physical abilities; you can make some very insulting mistakes when you do. Do your research. Who are your seniors: the ones who have been visiting you, or might potentially do so? How do they get around? What is their group dynamic? How much do they spend? (Because some of them will spend a lot.) How much safety and familiarity do they require? Are they learners? Friendlies? Nostalgics? If you can, go beyond these existing profiles; survey your seniors yourself, and create custom profiles based on what you find.

Senior travel is growing by leaps and bounds as the baby-boomers reach retirement. I really think these demographics will make for some of the most mutually-rewarding relationships you’ll ever have with your audiences. Just resist the urge to project your prejudices on them the way I did. In the words of Bette Davis, “Inside every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.” I’ll try not to forget that in the future.

smiling woman, Manila

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