UNITED, AMEX PUT SENIORS IN NEW CLASS

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Steady growth in the ranks of affluent seniors is leading more marketers to tap the mature market.

The travel and financial services businesses seem hottest right now, aiming their marketing guns at a segment that has disposable income, plenty of leisure time and the jones to travel.

Next month, United Airlines will spin off its 8-year-old Silver Wings program to a new company run by its agency, Brierley & Partners, Dallas. Silver Wings is an adjunct to the Mileage Plus frequent flier club.

American Express Co. reports strong response for its Senior Card, initially designed to stem attrition among older cardmembers prone to cancel after retirement.

Days Inns of America recently started a frequent stayer program for the senior set, while many other travel marketers offer discounts and other incentives.

"You're going to have more and more of the discretionary income resting in the hands of people over 50 and over 60," said Hal Brierley, agency president-CEO.

The shop has set up Relationship Management Programs to manage the Silver Wings effort's 500,000 members.

The ranks of 50-plus adults, estimated at 67.1 million in 1993, are expected to swell 22.8% by 2003 to 82.4 million, compared with paltry 4.6% growth among under-50 Americans. And household incomes among 50-to-65-year-olds are 20% higher than the nation as a whole.

Silver Wings, now "dormant" because of insufficient funding by United, will step up offers and broaden membership acquisition efforts to those 50 and older, Mr. Brierley said.

The program had been centered on 62-plus seniors.

Relationship Management will also help sponsors market more efficiently to segments of the club's membership, as AmEx now does.

Although seniors have been stereotyped as overly value conscious, marketing experts say mainstream America has effectively co-opted that mind-set.

"What we see is marketers saying, `If I can't get you on price-value, I'm going to attempt to get you on a relationship hook,"' said Jerry Gerber, a senior partner at LifeSpan Communications, a New York consultancy.

Most of the senior-targeted programs offer not just coupons but newsletters, magazines or other communications that have become staples of loyalty-building direct marketing efforts. And many are enhancing their service features.

Silver Wings is adding Brierley clients Hilton Hotels Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line to the program, which also includes other cruise lines, hotels, airlines and car rental companies. The program hopes to add financial service and automotive marketers.

Members currently pay $75 for three years and $150 for life, rates that are expected to increase.

AmEx is believed to have about 500,000 cardmembers in its Senior Member program, which offers a quarterly package of special benefits and discounts for annual fees $20 lower than its standard cards. Wunderman Cato Johnson, New York, handles.

Hospitality Franchise Systems, Parsippany, N.J., earlier this month introduced Ramada Best Days, a frequent-stay program aimed at 50-plus seniors offering 25% discounts and points redeemable for travel and hotel rooms. The company's Howard Johnson's and Days Inns of America chains also offer discounts and newsletters through membership clubs.

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