Peter PanBoomers

Komodo Dragons aren't on everyone's bucket list. The world's largest lizards are scaly and quick, and the toxic bacteria in their mouths could put you on their list.

But for a 65-year-old, wheelchair-using client of Ann Arbor-based Journeys International, seeing the reptile in the Indonesian wild was a lifetime dream -- one that Journeys' ground staff helped make happen.

"Our partners are very moved by the commitment of our clients who have disabilities yet want to travel with a spirit of generosity," said Journeys President Robin Weber Pollak. "They created a palanquin [a seat carried on poles] and transported her over the rocky island to see them. They so wanted her to have the experience."  

Atypical, to be sure. But "Industry Snapshot 2015," produced by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, suggests that mature soft adventure is trending. Adventure travelers are 48 on average, the report notes, with 18% being 61-plus and 4% of those clocking in at more than 70. At Road Scholar (5,500 programs, 100,000 participants a year), 27% of international and 20% of domestic offerings are now soft adventure.

"It's going to be our biggest growth area," said JoAnn Bell, senior vice president of program development, from Boston.

Longer and healthier life spans, disposable income and a generational blend of environmental consciousness and Peter Pan enthusiasm are leading travelers beyond the motor coach.

"As you age, you're not as much interested in catching the rays," said LaVonne Markus, a travel consultant with Travel Leaders in Stillwater, Minn. "You want to get the experiential part, where you can go in and become part of the culture. You're less interested in 10 countries in 10 days."

To better serve these clients, Markus just completed the Active and Adventure Specialist Program offered by parent company Travel Leaders Franchise Group.

One of many operators serving this demographic is Infinite Safari Adventures, which provides both East African safaris and gorilla observations in Rwanda.

"My demographic is the empty-nesters, aging baby boomers who are still very active," said chairman and founder Alan Feldstein from Studio City, Calif. "I offer off-the-beaten path trips, but with a clean bed, a hot shower and a toilet to flush."

As both adventure travel and its audience mature, serving these experienced voyagers requires a full-service mix of prequalification, in-the-field attention and post-trip follow-up.


What the heck is mature soft adventure?

Dan Austin, founder and president of Austin Adventures, has been running trips for 20-plus years. "When I started," he said from his Billings, Mont., headquarters, "the adventure travel community was all about burning up miles. As the industry has matured, so has our customer. Active is part of it, but it's not about 80-mile days. It's more an overall experience that has an element of activity and education ... aligned with your interest and ability level."

Mature soft adventure trips can vary from bike-and-hike in France to diving with sharks off the coast of Mexico. But talking with 20 or so agents and operators reveals perspectives as divergent as the trips themselves.


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"'Mature soft adventure' is 'not going to Disneyland,'" said "Captain Mike" Lever, owner of Nautilus Luxury Scuba Diving Safari Liveaboard, whose guests share the ocean with those great whites and giant manta rays. "It's going out with a certain element of risk and a certain amount of fitness," though on ships that nevertheless feature hot tubs and showers. Clients of the Vancouver and Ensenada-based operation complete a pretrip form that asks about dive certification, related injuries and special medical requirements. Travel insurance is required. It's "a very niche market," Lever said, adding that 76% of his 2,400 clients a year book through agents.

Lindblad Expeditions also has a "very strong relationship with agents." But Jacinta McEvoy, vice president of global sales for the New York-headquartered company, isn't comfortable with the very concept of "soft adventure."

"People use that for lack of a better word," she said. While McEvoy has taken Lindblad's "polar plunge," for her, this travel type involves mind-set more than envelope-pushing. She cited Lindblad's alliance with National Geographic as providing travelers access to experts on subjects from science to photography.

"These are folks who have raised their families," she said. "They are looking for immersion and continued learning, an intimate experience with like-minded people."

Still, the larger goal is the same as Lever's: "to get that off-the-beaten path experience."

Qualifying mature adventurers

"If you do the legwork up front, the trip goes quite well," Dan Austin of Austin Adventures suggested.

Meshing mature clients' soft-adventure desires and abilities while acting as their advocate is key.

Tanya Bryant, general manager at TravelStore Santa Barbara, said, "We try to figure out the activity level: What are they looking to do? Have they done it before?" Group or solo travel and accommodation level also are paramount considerations. They don't always know where they want to go. We help them narrow to two or three options, based on the time of the year, availability and their realistic level of activity."

If it's not a fit, Bryant said, "I'll tell them, 'This may not be the best trip for you; let's try something else.'"

And if they persist?

"We'll book them," she said. "Sometimes we're right."

Clint Blandford on a hike of an unrestored section of the Great Wall. The retired teacher has been to 120 countries by the Century Club’s count.
Clint Blandford on a hike of an unrestored section of the Great Wall. The retired teacher has been to 120 countries by the Century Club’s count.

Leora Rothschild, founder and president of Denver-based Rothschild Safaris, said she welcomes agent participation in her company's 45-minute to one-hour qualifying conversation.

"The first call is imperative to find out what the traveler's situation is: age, activity level, room accommodation next to the lobby or a 10-minute walk," she said from Australia. "Sometimes an upgrade might not be appropriate. Most people are pretty honest -- they need to be. They say, 'I'm old, but I do a lot of walking.' Others won't necessarily tell me they can't walk, but you can tell from their activities and interests. Someone could be 70 and a marathon runner, and someone else may not be able to walk."

Once booked, detailed prep packages can go beyond visa details to cover activity levels, reading lists, training instructions for vigorous trips and specifics about handling medications. The goal is to lessen any anxiety about active travel.

Choosing an appropriate travel company is key to matching client expectations. Bryant, for example, calls Toronto-based G Adventures "my go-to" for soft adventure, praising its DNA of social and environmental sensitivity. G Adventure's website suggests seven "travel styles" that vary in intensity. It also sets a physical bar for trip participation.

"It is very important that guests are aware that, at a minimum, an average level of fitness and mobility is required to undertake our easiest programs," public relations manager Timothy Chan wrote via email. "Travelers must be able to walk without the aid of another person, climb three to four flights of stairs, step on and off small boats and carry their own luggage at a minimum."

G Adventures' product innovation manager, Jackie Garrity, added that "'Comfort' might be the most appealing [level] for the 'mature' traveler." Though G Adventures is not a luxury provider, Garrity said, the comfort level features "all the adventures but a softer landing."

In the field

Frontiers North Adventures prides itself on making polar bear viewing accessible. The Winnipeg, Manitoba-based company's travel levels have more to do with access to window seats and a photo specialist than with the bears themselves. But all participants need to climb stairs to board the Tundra Buggy, a vehicle that looks like a Humvee on steroids, with tires 5.5 feet off the ground.

Last year, though, an intrepid 105-year-old successfully made the trip. "Our driver let her drive the buggy," communications and marketing coordinator Brandi Hayberg recalled. "She was a pretty active lady."

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A roster of on-location best practices can support a successful mature travel experience:

Good guidance: A welcoming meeting affords another opportunity to assess competence. G Adventures' chief experience officers, or CEOs for short, live or travel extensively in their regions. "They are really well trained to qualify the passengers when we meet them," G Adventures' Garrity said.

Post-kickoff, group leaders create chemistry and ensure that everybody can maximize adventure travel at their level of competence and (in)dependence.

"The guide is the first line of defense," Dan Austin said. "He has to make the judgment calls ... to protect both the guest and the group."

Since adventures often vary daily, evening recaps and discussions of forthcoming activities and expectations can be reassuring, while leaving room for positive surprises.

Generational specificity: "I've become an expert on mobile CPAP [sleep apnea] machines," Alan Feldstein of Infinite Safari Adventures said. "Many places turn the generators off at night. I now know how to handle an issue that five years ago I didn't have to handle."

Conservation and sustainability: This market can reward suppliers that avoid parks that drug animals and offset carbon emissions from transportation.

Customized activity levels: HE Travel specializes in gay adventure tours, and company CEO Philip Sheldon observed that clients who were doing them in their 40s and 50s are continuing to do them in their 60s and 70s -- at their pace. "We encourage people to test their own limits within the soft adventure world," he said from his Key West office.

During an HE weeklong Colors of Burgundy bike trip, 12 riders broke into three groups with guides moving among them. "We said goodbye to two guys in the morning, and they took it upon themselves to serve wine to the group at the end of the day," Sheldon recalled. "I wasn't holding them back; they weren't pushing me beyond my capacity. I was one of the weaker cyclists, but it was a great experience.

"The most important thing is to bring people out of their activity closet so people know exactly what they are signing up for. The biggest risk is someone who is totally inappropriate for a trip."

Which can happen.

One operator recalled how, during a very active cruise, a passenger came to the captain and said, "My husband has grand mal seizures triggered by rocking." Apparently, this condition had not been disclosed on either the travel information or release of liability forms. The captain brought the husband in and decided that his condition could put himself and the other passengers at risk. A more relaxed itinerary was put together that included a land package with use of day boats.

"Obviously it became a little sticky," the operator said. "But we were able to salvage the trip."   

Author's epilogue

Besides de rigueur surveys and thank-yous, transcendent trips can create loyalty. Lindblad's memorabilia includes a daily experience report, a wildlife list, photos, maps, experience reports and staff/guest contact information to continue the bonding beyond the travel.

"It's a great way for agents to see what the daily activities are, and guests can relive their voyage," Lindblad's McEvoy said.

In the end, it's about the mature road warrior.

On a personal note, Clint Blandford was my roommate on a G Adventures trip to Tibet that I took in 2012 for Travel Weekly. Now 69, the retired teacher has been to 120 countries by the Century Club's count.

"When you say 'adventure,' it often has the connotation of rock climbing," he said. "For me, it's kind of a romantic thing. After you read "The Great Game," you have to see Uzbekistan and Tajikistan." He has seen both, and with an extension to Iran.

Blandford was in Yellowstone when I first reached him just before a trip to Greece and Bulgaria.

"I do a lot of hiking," he said when home in St. Louis. "I do have a bit of concern about what happens if I'm someplace and I have a heart attack. But I can't think of a better way to go."