NTA president sees a 'graying' of age classes in motorcoach groups

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COVINGTON, Ky. -- The age and interests of motorcoach tour passengers taking trips to the 10 states in the Southeast Tourism Society, and elsewhere for that matter, are changing annually, Mark Hoffmann, president of the National Tour Association, told an audience at the spring meeting of the society here.

Hoffmann, who also is president of Sports Leisure Vacations, Sacramento, Calif., said he can see the changes in his own operation and has acted accordingly.

The traditional motorcoach market for many years "has been silver-haired ladies 65 and older," he said.

But people are living longer, he said, and many travelers who are 65 do not consider themselves old, he said.

In fact, the 55- to 67-year-old group, which Hoffmann calls the "Tweener Gray," is a growing market because of the influence of the Internet and cable TV broadcasts, such as the History Channel.

These educational influences yield more knowledgeable travelers and encourage exploration vs. passive touring, he said.

Destinations offering "cultural and heritage" attractions will be big winners, he said.

The Tweener Gray travelers are younger than today's "senior" travelers, whose numbers also are increasing as people live longer, he said. He defined true seniors (for 2000, subject to change next year) as 68 and older for leisure travel purposes.

In fact, it is not uncommon to find travelers in their early 80s on motorcoach tours, and in eight years, people in their 90s, rather than in their 80s, will be the ones who stand out on a tour because of their age, he predicted.

In addition, there is still a third market, those 54 and younger.

The Tweener Gray travelers, he said, no longer want to be grouped with those in the new "senior" category, because the former group feels that it has little in common with "old" people, Hoffmann said.

The traditional senior market, he said, satisfied with limited activities, will remain viable, but will be shrinking as their ages increase and the lower end becomes the upper end of the Tweener Gray market in the next few years.

Many motorcoach tours will have to be redesigned to satisfy the two younger age groups, he said.

For the Tweener Gray and the 54-and-younger travel groups, there must be more active pursuits in tours and more free time for optional activities for individuals, he said.

Tour operators, long associated with large motorcoaches, may find it prudent to be flexible and to offer some van tours for smaller groups of "adventurous" passengers, Hoffmann said.

Sports Leisure Vacations introduced three- and four-night City Escapes tours, with departures from northern California to places such as Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Vancouver.

The tours are popular because passengers are offered "lots of choices" as to their activities once they arrive, he said.

In the past, a tour escort's on-board narration was often sufficient as the coach passed points of interest, but today's Tweener Gray passengers want more.

They want to disembark and touch an interesting tree, for example, instead of viewing it from the coach, he said.

During his talk he said that destination knowledge (which can be provided by convention and visitors bureaus) is essential if agents and tour operators are to "stay ahead" of their clients, thereby assuring their place in the industry.

The Internet has its limitations, he said.

People can purchase a hotel and air ticket easily enough, but it's difficult and time-consuming for them to plan an entire itinerary combining sightseeing points with unrelated activities and free time because they probably lack in-depth knowledge of the vacation destination, he explained.

Travel agents, he said, in today's airline commission environment, are better off selling a $1,500 tour vs. a $1,500 air ticket.

"Airline revenues are minimal," he said.

"In addition, tour operators appreciate the opportunity to work with agents on a long-term basis," he said, taking another jab at the airlines.

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