Skift Take

Older travelers represent an enormously lucrative market. And as more are getting vaccinated, tour operators are rushing to accommodate them in a welcome sign for one of travel's hardest-hit sectors.

During the last several months, countless tour operators have resumed tours, conducting business much differently than prior to the pandemic with fewer guests, social distancing, and health screening requirements.

While those businesses were among those hardest hit by the pandemic, widespread vaccinations are assisting them in welcoming back an important market: older travelers itching to travel again.

A UK study tells that story—77 percent of older respondents to a recent 2021 survey by Silver Travel Advisor, a website devoted to travel by those over 50, said they plan to book travel within six months of being vaccinated. Furthermore, 86 percent said they would spend as much or more on travel in the next year while adding they missed overseas travel even more than hugging their grandchildren.

Those older travelers are incredibly valuable in the travel industry. In the United Kingdom alone, people older than 50 represent just below 60 percent of the country’s travel and tourism spend—in fact, $3 billion (£2.2 billion) more than millennials. Travelers in that age group are responsible for more than a third of all bed-night stays by British visitors.

And in recent months, many over the age of 50 have been booking trips in large numbers.

Numerous tour operators have seen increased bookings by such travelers—like the women-only Wild Terrains, for whom women older than 55 served as the driving force for 40 percent of the jump in bookings from the previous year for trips starting as soon as May.

And Quasar Expeditions, a Galapagos Islands-based cruise operator, is receiving inquiries for travel from June onward largely from guests older than 65. Seventy percent, in fact—a figure 30 percent more than in previous years.

All the while, tours operators remain fastidious with precautions despite the vaccinations.

“The steps we take (such as training all tour leaders and crew in Covid-19 safety protocols and adjusting itineraries to avoid crowded locations) to ensure our trips keep everyone safe apply to all demographics,” said Matt Berna, the managing director of North America for Intrepid Travel, which is slated to launch next year its Intrepid Premium project with older travelers in mind.

Likewise, Kensington Tours—a senior-friendly tour company—is also following regulations it has established. “We’ve implemented stringent protocols in each destination to ensure that all guides and drivers are in good health while assisting our travelers, that all vehicles are well sanitized, and that social distancing can be maintained during tours,” said the company’s senior vice president of marketing, Shahla Lalani.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Encounter Travel has decided to adopt a safety-first mantra in regards to limiting the risks of Covid-19. The company’s tours outside of the country have been shelved due to “the extremes experienced by other countries” pertaining to the virus, said Justine Waddington, the Sydney-based company’s founder and director. “All our tours operate under Covid-safe practices defined by government standards that have been derived from medical professionals,” she said.

In the same boat, Explore Worldwide has decided to heed the advice of medical experts. “If the FCDO (Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) recommends against travel to a destination, we will not operate a trip there—and customers will have the chance to change their booking or request a refund,” said Sam White, the company’s North American director. “Similarly, if the State Department or the Canadian government advises changes to that country, customers will have the option to change their booking or request a refund.”

Seniors among those on tour in Jordan. Source: Explore Worldwide.

So it’s clear what general steps tour operators have been taking to keep their guests safe. But such businesses are grappling with another crucial question: Should guests be required to get vaccinated? Well, opinions on the topic diverge.

Christopher Heppner, the senior director of communications at Road Scholar—a tour operator specializing in educational excursions for older travelers—is firmly in the camp of mandatory vaccinations. “Having our entire group vaccinated makes the experience more worry-free for everyone,” he stated. “While mask wearing will still be promoted on programs, if everyone is vaccinated we may be able to take a more relaxed approach in certain situations when the group is alone together.”

Louis-Gabriel Bideau, group leader, for Road Scholar conducting a tour in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Source: Road Scholar.

Intrepid Travel has enacted similar guidelines as Intrepid requires vaccinated travelers to produce proof of vaccination as part of the mandatory pre-trip health screening. But those who have not been vaccinated or who have only partially completed the process, “must provide proof of a negative Covid test within 72 hours before the first day of their trip,” Intrepid’s Berna said

Furthermore, “travelers aged 70-plus years or anyone with an existing health condition that puts them at a higher risk of Covid-19 infection must be vaccinated to join a trip,” he added.

On the other hand, Ivan Shirokov takes a laissez-faire attitude on the topic. “We believe it is up for the traveler to decide if he/she wants to be vaccinated,” said the chief commercial officer of Firebird Tours. “As a company, we should not require that. Instead, we will ensure that we provide full support and service to our travelers based on their specific situation and requirements.”

“However,” he added, “it is likely that for one to two years, if you want to travel, you will need to get a vaccine or recover from a virus. Most likely countries will permit travelers if they a) have been vaccinated, b) have recovered from a virus and have antibodies or c) take PCR tests on departure/arrival.”

Encounter Travel’s Waddington shared similar views. “I don’t believe it’s our place to mandate the standards around tour participation and vaccination,” she stated. “That said, there may be a future when the majority of travelers are pro-vaccination, and they drive the demand for creating a mandate for vaccination for us.”

So after settling the issue of whether to vaccinate guests or not, tour operators specializing in excursions for older travelers must prepare themselves to welcome a larger number of guests again.

A larger number of guests? Yes, numerous representatives have echoed the point made by respondents in surveys conducted by Silver Travel Advisor: older travelers are buzzing with excitement about exploring the world again.

“As more people are getting vaccinated, 60-plus are the prime interest group who are actively planning their trips,” Firebird Tours’ Shirokov said. “As soon as the borders reopen, we expect to see a wave of travelers going, primarily 60-plus.”

Shirokov also believes the tendency of older travelers to get vaccinated bodes well for their travel plans. “In the post-Covid era, it might be the older travelers who are permitted to explore different countries, ahead of the younger travelers,” he added. “That is because they are already vaccinated and are good to go.”

Road Scholar’s Heppner has also seen older travelers exhibit enormous interest in getting back on the road. “We recently mailed our first catalog in nearly a year, and we’re already seeing many programs fill to capacity,” he stated as Road Scholar will resume on-site educational travel programs in July (the company has offered online learning adventures since last summer).

Waddington can be counted as another one envisioning a boom in bookings. “There’s a good chance that we will experience a bigger surge in tour booking compared to general companies because we cater exclusively for solo travelers,” she said. “This long-lasting pandemic has left solo travelers that live alone feeling more isolated than ever; long periods of lockdowns and lack of travel opportunities. Where families or couples may take off for a short road trip together, solo travelers often don’t have the same opportunities, as many are not wanting to go alone.”

The director of Encounter Travel cited her company’s location, which has been relatively successful in combatting Covid-19 as a significant reason why it is poised to rebound. “As Australia has largely been insulated from the levels of devastation from the virus experienced by other countries, its likely visitors from around the world will see Australia as the safe haven from the virus,” Waddington stated, which is a development she feels will entice over 50 year olds from outside the country to join their tours.

She also feels the communal nature of Encounter Travel’s excursions will boost the psyche of her older guests. “Where families or couples may take off for a short road trip, solo travelers don’t have the same opportunities, as many are not wanting to go alone,” she added. “They join our groups to enjoy the benefits of sharing their travels with other solo travelers.”

Enjoying travel … something that so many people haven’t been able to do for a long time. So when Heppner said, “When we get back on the road this summer, it will be a reunion unlike any other,” those are apropos words.

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Tags: intrepid travel, seniors, tour operators

Photo Credit: A group of senior enjoying a tour from Road Scholar in Paris, a scene surely to be replicated in the months ahead as vaccinated baby boomers hit the road Road Scholar