Not Ok, Boomer: Demographic Challenges Await Travel Brands

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With the largest population demographic now the Baby Boomers entering retirement, travel brands need to plan for the future that awaits, not the customers they have. 


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Groundswell Of Older Travelers

The Baby Boomers, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s were born between 1946 and 1964. This demographic is among the largest portion of the US and global population it’s ever been and has created a bulge at the top end of both the financial hierarchy as well as age categories. Baby Boomers are retired or retiring soon and have more resources than younger generations.

“Boomers open their wallets wider than any other demographic when it’s time to plan travel. The website Insure My Trip broke down spending habits and found that boomers, on average, spend $6,700 for their vacations, taking an average of 16 vacation days. Millennials spend $2,000 less and take an average trip of 15 days. The best example of the digital nomad can be found with Gen Z, whose members spend about $3,200 for travel, but their average trip length is 23 days.” – Boston Globe

Baby Boomer travel trends are more about conquering bucket lists and relaxing destinations in luxury travel experiences.

For the older section of the set we find boomers aging out of more aggressive travel plans. Still, travel brands have been smart to target the generation as Baby Boomers spend 2:1 over Gen Z and more than three times that of Millenials, often their children or grand children. And that swell will continue for a little while but not forever.

Some travel brands focus on catering the wants and needs of this generation while others have migrated their approach elsewhere. It’s the former for which this piece will focus.

Large Drop-Off

The danger in the approach of the past 20 years is that travel brands have positioned themselves to reap the rewards of this demographic but will lose a substantial portion of their customer base as it falls off dramatically in the years to come. No one wants to see themselves as older and it’s clear travelers will avoid brands that are perceived as too old for their generation rather than avoid brands that are too young for their generation.

However, departing from the current marketing and branding risks alienating the largest, and highest spending demographic.

Travel Brands Plan Their Response

Brands that have catered to an older clientele risk alienating the remaining Baby Boomers seeking a more traditional product. Some of these brands have candidly discussed in the trades that they are enjoying their best sales periods to-date but it’s clear that it cannot and will not last.

Many are at an inflection point, whereby they must decide if they are to continue marketing a product focused on mature offerings, or pivot to a younger, fresher approach. Brands that don’t plan for the decline will see their business fall which leaves less budget to reinvent themselves when they need it most. But abandoning altogether a market that has served them well for so long and is not yet completed their purchases is foolhardy too.

Because the drop-off from Boomers will reduce the number of eligible clients, brands must expand further down the demographic strata to avoid shrinking.

How does a brand focused on a mature client set now prepare for the incoming younger crowd? One brand’s top search terms tells why attracting younger audiences is dangerous:

  • Is [brand] for old people?
  • What’s the average age of [brand’s] customers?

That brand can focus on squeezing every last drop out of the older market, or it can start now with a refreshed younger focus. The marketing they are using is aligning the brand with an older demographic.

When I think of top luxury products from storied brands, it’s often their history that adds to their caché. The Peninsula hotel still picks up clients in Hong Kong with its Rolls-Royce fleet. The Savoy, and Ritz-Carlton are brands that have been around for a long time but continue to resonate with a new audience.

There’s a reasonable fear that to appeal to a younger generation, a brand has to go the way of W hotels with a DJ in the lobby, and snarky pillows (which many industry insiders quietly talk about feeling very 90s at the moment.) How do you capture a generation of upper 30s to lower 50s that doesn’t make them feel like they are visiting their parents in a 55 and older community but without abandoning that current audience?

From my viewpoint, the right approach is a gradual step down that continues to make your current guests feel at home while updating the product, service, and marketing to appeal to a slowly younger generation. Don’t do away with elements of service entirely, but maybe it’s time to update the ads, the design, the restaurant hours.

One industry leader I spoke with fully recognizes that their brand must change  or it will die, but knows how it would in essence be the same thing to radically shift their model while so many older consumers continue to frequent the brand. Straddling the future with one foot in the past is a delicate balance, and some brands might be best suited to rip off the bandaid and hope the current customer base continues to frequent the brand. They can do some of this by marketing on social media channels where their clients don’t live, allowing them to have one message to their current clientele, while a new market sees a whole new side to the brand. That said, the products themselves have to change too and that’s likely the hardest part.

Fortune favors the bold, but there’s also a branding graveyard filled with reinventions that were the wrong move even if it was the right time. Not every company can be as lucky as Coca-Cola was to live through their own “New Coke” moment and survive.

Conclusion

As demographics change, brands will have to adapt. Picking the right time and approach will be challenging but something many will face. How they manage that transition from who buys their products now, to who they will need to have as customers in the future will decide the winning and losing brands for years to come. Failing to adapt could lead to a Howard Johnson situation, falling from more than 1,000 locations and a symbolic symbol as a hallmark of American road trips, to 30 locations and a symbol of failure. Using social media and traditional media to speak to the two markets with different messages might be the best way to straddle this unique time in history and carry travel brands into the future.

What do you think? 

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