By Marty Whitford H&MM Senior Editor
Hoteliers need to get on the bandwagon - or motor coach, in this case-and start tapping and better-serving the seniors market, according to three industry consultants.
"Think about it-demographically it's one of the fastest-growing segments of the population," said Mark Skinner, a director with The Highland Group, an Atlanta- based hotel consulting company. The "maturing market" - which commonly couples pre-seniors (those age 50 to 64) and seniors (age 65-plus) - is exploding, according to Stanley C. Plog, president and c.e.o. of Plog Research in California. The maturing market in the United States tallied 85.2 million people in 1995, including 33.7 million seniors. The segment is expected to rocket nearly 39 percent to 118.7 million people, including 40 million seniors, by 2010. In two decades, two-fifths of Americans will be 50 or older, he said.
"The seniors market is where the action is,'' said Plog, who founded the consumer travel research firm. "That's where we've been directing all our clients." Although these maturing individuals typically have a lower annual household income, they have enormous disposable income and time, and a burning desire to travel and relax, Plog said. "They're typically empty nesters who have no mortgage and their kids have gone through college," Skinner added.
In addition, seniors typically travel during off-peak times-spring and fall, said Peggy Murphy, marketing manager for Days Inn-Canada. "There's a lot of pent-up demand from people in their late 50s, 60s and 70s," said Vivian Deuschl, director of media relations for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. "They probably feel like they've worked their whole lives and don't want to leave it all to their kids."
How to win their business
Seniors want what most people want from a hotel stay: good value for their money, said Ed Remington, a professor of travel - and - tourism at Florida International University. They expect cleanliness and good service, but something as seemingly trivial as bathroom water pressure and temperature mix can trigger a thumbs-up or -down from seniors, Remington said. Hospitality tops most seniors' wish lists, he said.
"The key is to add as many 'niceities' as you can," Remington said.
"You can do a lot of little things that add up to a lot. "You can give
the ladies a rose when they come in and a little note when they check-out,
thanking them for their stay," he said. "They take these things home with
them and they cherish them. Then, they tell everybody they see what a great
experience they had at 'Hotel XYZ.'"
One way to win seniors' hearts is to offer them discounts. In return, seniors typically will occupy rooms during soft seasons, and feed properties' other profit streams, Remington said.
About 30 hotels offer seniors discounts ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent through the American Association of Retired Persons. Other avenues for discounts include members of tour groups, the American Automobile Assn., or even just age verification at check-in.
Best Western International has averaged 9.3 percent senior-sales growth annually for five years. Timeshare operator Central Florida Investments, which offers 10- to 15-percent discounts, has seen its weekly rental business with seniors triple in the past year, said Mary Kenny, public relations director. However, Remington warned hoteliers: Don't be mistaken. It takes a lot more than reducing rack rate to cash in on big-volume opportunities. "If you're a hotel, you have to commit yourself to the seniors market," he said. "You have to put a specialist on the case and rout it out."
Targeting mature market
Advertising and joint-marketing efforts with tour groups and seniors'
associations are a must, Remington said.
The North American tour industry chalked up $2.77 billion in lodging expenses in 1996, and that figure is rocketing, thanks mainly to seniors' business, said Charles A. Presley, president of Group Leaders of America, Salem, Ohio. GLAMER's 20,000 members serve 6.5 million seniors who, combined, purchase about 7.2 million roomnights annually, he said, noting there are nearly 30,000 other tour group leaders not yet members.
Presley said several hotels already are linking up with GLAMER and tapping
the group's resources, including:
|Ramada Franchise Systems receiving 90,000 to 100,000 sales leads a year from the group;|
|Days Inn capturing a significant chunk of the seniors' church group business- GLAMER's second-largest clientele;|
|Choice and Howard Johnson International are strong advertisers in GLAMER's monthly newspaper-The Group Travel Leader-and frequent the association's 65 citywide seniors tour trade shows.|
Remington recommended hotels hold welcome receptions for seniors' groups, opening a small meeting room for cookies and punch, he said. This gives the seniors a chance to relax and socialize and the hotel staff an opportunity to deliver luggage to the rooms, pass out room keys and orient seniors to the property's facilities and local attractions. Properties also can win repeat seniors' business by opening a small meeting room for card play at night and offering a shuttle for in-town shopping and entertainment.
"Let's not forget the easy-but-often-forgotten one: Ask seniors what they want and don't want and commit yourself to meeting their needs," he said. That's just what Choice did, said Bill Todd, v.p. of sales. The company had more than 100 people age 50 and older-a group commonly referred to at Choice as Prime-Timers-critique its rooms. As a result, the company mandated a minimum of 10 percent of all its Econo Lodge rooms and 20 percent of its Rodeway Inn rooms have door handles and latches rather than knobs for the arthritic; increased number-sizes on the telephone, TV remote and clock radio; and large-type, non- glossy directions and marketing information.
Just an important, Todd said, Choice continually conducts senior-sensitivity training, which can be eye-opening to the franchisees and their staff. "We might put Vaseline on the lens of one staff member, so he knows what it's like to have blurred vision," Todd said. "We might put cotton in the ears of another, and bind with tape the knuckles and knees of a third and fourth. We're not just teaching them. We want them to experience it."
The company five years ago published a Tips for Travelers Over 50 book and since has distributed it free - of - charge to all its Prime-Timer customers. It also has added more senior-age spokespersons for its print and TV ads. Choice's efforts are paying off. The firm's business with Prime-Timers through its reservation center-which accounts for about half the company's total business in the 50-plus age market-has risen to $12 million in a good month, from $400,000 a decade ago, Todd said. Nationally, Prime-Timers account for 32 percent of the roomnights Choice properties book, he said.
Avoiding the pitfalls
There's a laundry list of "don'ts" critical to capturing the seniors market.
Rule No. 1: Shed the stereotypes. Seniors like many of the same amenities and activities typical travelers do, said Tom Otwell, an AARP spokesman. "It's unwise and inaccurate to stereotype seniors."
Other pitfalls include unsatisfactory facilities, service, cleanliness, and most importantly, sometimes a complete lack of hospitality, Presley said. "The next time a group of 30 to 40 seniors shows up at your restaurant at 6:30 in the morning, don't whisper 'Oh God, they're here already,' because they can hear just fine," Presley said. "Instead, welcome them and prepare to serve them as best you can."
"A cold cup of coffee tastes so much warmer when it's served with a smile," Presley added.
Hoteliers that ignore these rules likely will lose the senior customers they have, as well as other business, Remington said.
"Seniors are a great source of word-of-mouth advertising," Days Inns' Murphy said. "They tell their children, their grandchildren and their friends all about their trips and stays-and that can be a plus or a negative." Hoteliers mustn't get greedy and forget the fine link between sales and marketing, Skinner said. The seniors market is booming, but is it your market? "Hotels have to be very careful: There are certain mixes that are not complementary," Skinner said.
Properties that cater to seniors must avoid attracting too many families that can have "sometimes-noisy children," Skinner said. Hotels currently targeting business travelers are ideally suited to accommodate seniors, he said. On the flip side, resorts catering to the twenty-something crowd, must be careful not to add too much business in the mature market, Skinner said.
"I certainly wouldn't ignore the market, but if you're a resort with
a lot of young people 'whooping it up,' you don't always want a lot of
seniors," he said. "If the resort has a night club, they may be calling
the front desk, asking about the noise. Seniors discoing? I don't think
so-at least not most of them."