MORE THAN A COOL BUS RIDE NEEDED TO SWAY SENIORS

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The graying of America has adventure travel operators seeing green.

Tour operators who offer outdoor and exotic excursions around the globe are seeing business boom along with their aging clientele-and the future should offer more of the same.

In 1990, the 55-plus population in the U.S. was 53 million. By 2000, it should hit 59 million, and by 2010 it should reach 75 million, estimates Dennis Marzella, sen-ior VP with Robinson, Yesawich & Pepperdine, a travel-oriented ad agency based in Orlando, Fla.

What makes seniors most attractive as travelers is the buying power they represent, says Thomas M. Keesling, president of Travel Associates. America's seniors-or "goers" as he calls them-have the most time, money and inclination to explore.

"Travel is one of their priorities," says Mr. Keesling. "It all supports the fact that that's the blossoming portion of the business."

Travelers 55 and older represent about $60 billion worth of the $293.7 billion travel industry, according to travel consultancy D.K. Shifflet & Associates.

Seniors travel more frequently, longer and spend more than younger Americans, Mr. Marzella says.

According to 1994 National Travel Monitor, an annual telephone survey conducted by his agency and Yankelovich Partners, 8% of the 850 seniors contacted camped or hiked last year; 11% went on fishing excursions; and another 8% took a cruise.

Fifty-five percent have taken trips of five days or more, compared with 49% of the total population, he says.

"Even though those percentages are small, they account for literally hundreds of thousands of people," says Mr. Marzella.

The age shift is nothing new to Richard Bangs, co-founder of Mountain Travel/Sobek, a West Coast adventure travel company.

Adventure travel began in the 1950s with Army surplus DC-3s and Jeeps opening once-remote stretches of the globe. But with the growth of an affluent senior market, "soft" adventure travel -where participants can expect little strenuous exercise, good food, hot showers and comfortable beds-has become upward of 70% of his business; 60-plus is 10% of his business, Mr. Bangs says.

"The client we're looking for is not 'Indiana Jones' anymore, the young male of 25, because usually they don't have any money," says Jerry Mallett, president of Adventure Travel Society, an ecotourism and adventure travel association. "Women, families and seniors are strong players."

At Abercrombie & Kent, an upscale adventure travel retailer, the over-60 crowd is 60% of the company's business, says Christa Brantsch, PR director.

There's nothing soft about adventure travel's prices, however. Mountain Travel's two-week Antarctic cruises run up to $6,000. An 18-day voyage to the North Pole aboard a Russian icebreaker begins at $14,900, and "almost everybody in the trip is a senior," says Mr. Bangs.

Another company offers a more luxurious, three-week excursion aboard an atomic icebreaker through the Northwest Passage to the North Pole for $27,000, says Mr. Keesling.

Mountain Travel's 130-page catalog includes Adventure Disc, a CD-ROM disc that offers pictures and sound from trips.

The company also has a listing on the Internet as part of on-line publisher Global Network Navigator, and runs print ads in magazines including Sierra, Outside and Travel & Leisure.

Certain ad placements, in The New Yorker, for example, "almost by definition" attract an older audience, Mr. Keesling says.

"We really have not tried to sell to demographics, and that may be a mistake," he admits. "We've really just sold the concept."

Ads for adventure travel aren't as important as positive PR and article placement, says Mr. Mallett of the Adventure Travel Society. Few of the 8,000 U.S. adventure travel operators advertise; most rely on PR to get their messages out, he says.

Seniors seem to seek more inclusive travel-airfare, tour, food and even tips, according to Bill Rother, director of sales with Tauck Tours.

"They don't want to worry about nickel and diming." While some may go for a helicopter tour of Canada, others are drawn to more traditional travel excursions-but with a more energetic bent.

"They are asking for tours that get them out of the coach and doing things, rather than in the old days when they wanted to sit there and go, 'Ooh, ah' out the window," says Mr. Rother.

But many seniors remain interested in letting others worry about the details, from carrying luggage to driving the transportation, adds President Arthur Tauck. In part, this has led to an increase in the number of seniors taking cruises, says Mr. Tauck, whose company operates cruises throughout the Mediterranean.

The motivation is the desire for some to slow the pace, he adds. "They want other people to start handling things for them."

Some 21% of cruisers age 60 and up have taken their first cruise since 1989, according to Cruise Lines International Association.

Cruise lines also have taken the active cue and folded adventure travel into their itineraries. For instance, Royal Viking Line offers a 20-day, $16,995 trip around the tip of South America where passengers could go piranha fishing, tour rivers and land at Cape Horn.

"People don't just get a book and sit on a deck chair," says Mark Flager, PR manager for the line.

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