Image: Sergio Membrillas

Baby boomers are living longer than their parents, and most are wealthier than their kids are now. So how can the travel industry cater to this ageing, yet booming, demographic? The answer is more millennial than you might think.

Patti Smith was born in the inaugural year of the so-called baby boom, and she doesn’t like airport kiosks. “The girl behind the counter insisted I use the kiosk,” the punk poet laureate recalls in a travel anecdote in her memoir M Train. “I want a person to give me my boarding pass, but she insisted I type my information on a screen using the damn kiosk.” Agitated, she rummages for her reading glasses, only to be thwarted by a frozen screen and stymied by a paper jam. Cooling down on the tarmac later, she reflects: “Why did I want the girl to give me a boarding pass? … It’s the 21st century; they do things differently now.”

She’s right. Instead of first-time customers at travel agencies, we are organic website visitors. Printed boarding passes sent by mail? How about eco-friendly e-tickets on the latest device. Paper or plastic? Pay contactless: It’s frictionless and gluten-free. In fact, between biometrics and DIY kiosks, we like to keep things as contact-free as possible. Buttons? I don’t know her. We ditched BlackBerrys and Walkmans ages ago. But can you ask Alexa how long it will take to get to the airport?

We’ve been swept away with the efficiency promised by venture-fed disruption. We even gave disruption a positive connotation, so long as it offers seamlessness and optimizes every nanosecond of our lives. We all have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé, after all, and it’s important that our personal virtual assistants help us track them to the fullest. But as we’ve growth-hacked our way to air travel 4.0, is it possible that we’ve left the boomers – one of the bigger and richer demographics – in the silicon dust?

SENIORITY RULES
The short answer to the question is: not really. Baby boomers may have been born in the postwar years when handwritten letters and typewriters were the primary mode of communication and Winnebagos were a popular mode of transportation, but their aversion to airport kiosks hardly makes them Luddites. Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers came of age at the same time as the commercial airline business, and as the industry’s first full-fledged mass market, they’ve defined air travel for decades. This generation has always taken to the skies, and as they enter their golden years controlling roughly 70 percent of US disposable income, they – at least those who can afford it – plan to continue to do so.

It can be hard to generalize across the 18-year span of boomers aged 55–73, but countless surveys and studies have noted certain commonalities and generational differences. In general, silver travelers are planning earlier than ever, and will book on desktop directly from an airline or hotel website. There’s a higher chance they’re in a loyalty program, which means they’re often looking for rewards or senior specials. They aren’t as influenced by social, but can be persuaded by TV personalities such as Rick Steves or Samantha Brown. Retired pensioners will travel longer, while semi-retired boomers will opt for shorter trips, since a blended bleisure trip is not really a thing for them. They prefer paper boarding passes, and will likely pick a person over a machine if given the choice.

Findings like these prompted the AARP, a nonprofit organization for Americans over 50 (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), to launch a travel website, aarp.org/travel, in 2014. Large type and a simple layout offer easy navigation around vacation ideas, travel tips, deals and membership benefits. Visitors can book flights, hotels, cars, cruises and attractions individually, but the default search is set to packages. Looking for inspiration? Why not try a summer camp for adults in Vermont, or take a low-stress trip to Disneyland with the grandkids? Featured prominently above the fold is a phone number. For calling.

Health is a top concern, and that can add to the stress encountered in the regular pressure points of travel. “When traveling by air, a key concern is flight delays and missing connecting flights,” says Patty David, AARP’s director of Consumer Insights and Personal Fulfillment. “Boomers are also concerned about packing their carry-ons and having room for those bags. The reason for this concern most likely relates to the fear of losing their daily medications if they get separated from their bag,” she says.

A recent YouGov poll found that Southwest Airlines ranks as the most popular airline among baby boomers in the United States, and Tony Roach, the airline’s senior director of Customer Experience, suspects that flexibility has something to do with the result. “We have some of the most flexible policies in the industry,” he says, citing the carrier’s policies of free checked luggage and no flight-change fees. “If healthcare needs require some flexibility when booking, I think we’re a great choice for any customer in that scenario because you have the assurance that we’re not going to charge you a fee to change your flight,” he says. “We think it’s right not to do so.”

Delta Air Lines, which ranked second in the poll, unveiled a related benefit this May called “Reclaim My Status.” Like similar allowances offered by Alaska Airlines, Air Canada and Qantas, Delta’s policy allows members of its Medallion loyalty program to put their status on a parental pause when they have a child. But more notably, Delta also allows members to put their elite status on hold in the event of illness, injury, family care or other major life occurrences – a benefit that could be of particular interest to boomers.

“People want friendly, reliable and low-cost service. While that may skew to millennials in some cases, it also skews to baby boomers.” – Tony Roach, Southwest Airlines

THE BOOMERANG EFFECT
While often pitted against each other, millennials and boomers have a lot in common. For instance, boomers say they don’t have plans to retire, and millennials say they don’t have retirement plans. Same same, but different. All jokes aside, it would do travel companies well to find common ground – as unlikely as it sometimes seems – across all age groups.

“We do a lot of studying about what consumers need, and there are a lot of universal things,” says Roach. “People want friendly, reliable and low-cost service. While that may skew to millennials in some cases, it also skews to baby boomers.”

Even though these universal interests exist in consumers regardless of age demographic, there is a shift in goals between the younger generation and the boomers before them. A 2019 survey by Deloitte finds that millennials now prioritize seeing the world ahead of achieving more traditional milestones, like buying a home or having children, likely the result of growing up in greater economic instability. This millennial sense of YOLO (you only live once) abandon happens to coincide with the AARP 2019 Boomer Travel Trends finding that graycationers are more keen to cross things off their travel bucket lists.

According to Andy Alpine, founder and co-publisher of Boomers Bucket List Travel, a website that helps travelers plan international adventures, bucket lists boomed in popularity after Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson starred in the 2007 movie called – what else? – The Bucket List. “When you’re a baby boomer and you’ve grown up in this generation, chances are you’ve made your Europe trip already, or done some travel,” he says. “But now you want to go back and go deeper.” These deeper experiences are often ultimate extensions of lifelong passions. A trekker may have their sights set on the Mount Everest base camp, while a fly-fisher will be angling to catch rainbow trout in Kamchatka, Siberia. For others, a bucket list trip means doing something completely out of character.

“Bucket list means what you want to do before you die, before you kick the bucket,” says Alpine. “But I think it’s what you want to do when you are still healthy and can enjoy things.” Hiking, biking, trekking and wine tasting are at the top of many lists, with multigenerational and wellness travel rising the ranks, he says. As for destinations, Machu Picchu, Venice and the Galápagos Islands come up often.

Ultimately, travel companies aiming to please platinum pensioners and their kin should treat every customer, young or old, like they’re on a meaningful journey. As the old saying goes, life’s too short to be held up by an airport kiosk paper jam.

“Baby Boom or Bust” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.