Despite all the marketing interest in reaching millennials, it may be the baby boomer generation that is the most likely business source for travel advisors. It’s a high-spending demographic that values interaction with those they can trust.
For David and Carol Porter, newly retired and happily hitting the road on global adventures, the stock market crash of 2008 put them on an unexpected detour. With their savings diminished, the former mortgage brokers launched new careers as co-owners of The Roaming Boomers, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based travel agency whose clientele is largely drawn from their own generation.
“We had started a travel blog with articles from our trips that drew thousands of followers, many of them asking us for advice and even to plan their travel,” said David Porter. “We had thought travel agents were dead, but found it’s not so.”
The couple, who operate a home-based agency with no other staff, focus primarily on river cruises and small-ship ocean cruises. While they don’t charge fees for booking cruises, they do charge a $400 non-refundable fee for handling more customized trips.
Last year, The Roaming Boomers did $6 million in sales and is the number-two ranked agency for Viking River Cruises, and among Virtuoso’s top 20 agency affiliates, according to David Porter. In fact, a spokeswoman for Viking River Cruises said Roaming Boomers is the second largest Viking seller globally, and the top seller in the Virtuoso Travel Network.
“We’re very busy—we booked 52 cruises last month alone,” he said. “It’s to the point that we need to hire some support staff, so we can do more traveling ourselves.”
Both in their early 60s, the Porters initially built their business from among their blog followers, most of whom are at a similar stage in life. The clientele has since expanded through the agency’s weekly newsletter and website, plus referrals.
“We book the occasional honeymoon for our clients’ kids, but for the most part our customers are Boomers or older,” David Porter said. “We decided early on not to try to be all things to all people. I had learned from my previous business to identify who you are and have a target market.”
The Porters’ decision to focus on their peers is supported by two recent consumer surveys that identify Baby Boomers as not only a high-spending travel market, but one that is more likely than younger people to use a travel advisor.
In the American Society of Travel Advisors’ How America Travels consumer study issued in December, 28 percent of boomers ranked travel advisors as their best travel advocates in contrast to 19 percent of Millennials, and 25 percent of Gen Xers. The survey also reported that 6 percent of Millennials said they typically book travel with an advisor, while 15 percent of Baby Boomers said they did so.
According to the AARP’s 2019 Boomer Travel Trends survey, Baby Boomers are expected to take four to five leisure trips this year, spending a total of more than $6,600. Travel spend is expected to be $4,400 among Millennials, and $5,400 among Gen Xers.
Who Do You Trust?
If Baby Boomers are more apt to use a travel advisor than younger people, that comes as no surprise to David Porter. While Boomers may be adept at using the Internet, he believes they are less comfortable with sole reliance on digital information than those who grew up with it.
“I find that people in this age group are looking for advice and guidance from a source they can trust — they want to have a friend in the business,” he said. “The Internet can be overwhelming in its information, with a lot of conflicting reviews and opinions. Younger people are far more reliant on things they’ve learned in the digital age.”
There are also marked differences in travel preferences and objectives among the generations, according to the 2019 Boomer Travel Trends survey. For Boomers, the desire to fulfill a Bucket List wish is the top motivator for international travel (cited by 24 percent), while younger travelers are much more likely to view it purely as a vacation.
In other differences, the survey found Boomers who are not retired are less likely to take all of their vacation time than Millennials (77 percent versus 62 percent). However, Boomers are far less likely than Millennials to bring work along with them on vacation (59 percent versus 78 percent).
While Boomers are more reluctant than Millennials to try non-hotel accommodations, the AARP survey said “they continue to show steady interest in engaging in authentic experiences like eating or touring with locals when they travel, both internationally and domestically.”
This desire for authentic experiences, along with the need for some guidance, is noted by Ed Pettitt, general manager of Blue-Roads Touring , a tour operator with a clientele made up almost entirely of Baby Boomers.
“We’ve been focused on this demographic for 30 years and are adapting to their changing needs,” he said. “Many have traveled widely and independently, but now they want the ease of a small-group tour. At the same time, they still want access to unique experiences, including some they can’t get on their own.”
David Porter finds this true as well, one reason that he finds river cruises, which tend to combine immersive experiences with a convenient mode of travel, to be especially popular with his Boomer clientele.
“The river cruise companies work hard to provide authentic experiences, like having lunch in people’s homes, while making it easy to check off those Bucket List items,” he said.
Although river cruises provide over half the business for The Roaming Boomers, David Porter is mindful that many clients are looking for something new.
“Many of our clients have done river cruises and are saying ‘now what?’” he said. “They don’t want to go on 3,000-passenger ships. So we’re paying attention to the growing number of small-ship, expedition-style ocean cruises out there. The chance to see polar bears or penguins while traveling in comfort is ideal for them.”
The Daily Newsletter
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Photo credit: David Porter and Carol Porter on a Crystal Cruises sailing in front of the Hubbard Glacier on the way to Anchorage, Alaska in May 2016. Roaming Boomers