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'Mature Travel' in the Yukon

by Darrell Hookey

  Nobody, but nobody, has the business smarts of ... The Mouse.

  So when Yukon tour operators see Disney World featuring active, greying couples in their television advertisements, they had better take notice. There is a niche market of a niche market that has become a dominant force these past few years: Mature travellers who are seeking alternative experiences and opportunities to learn.

  The television ads usually show 20-somethings scoffing at the idea of their parents going to Disney World just to lie on a beach. A lot of people have to realize that 50 percent of vacationers today are not lounging on the deck of a cruise ship, they are not camping nor RVing and they are certainly not lying on a beach between rich meals.

  Instead, mature adventure travellers are visiting small towns to study overlooked cultures; they are cycling between quaint European villages; they are donating their time to work in an orphanage; and they are exploring the countryside by foot, horse and canoe.

  "Mature" is defined by the travel industry as persons aged 50 to 80. And they control 80 percent of the developed world's discretionary income. This age group puts a high priority on travelling and tends to be in good health. They won't let special diets and modified pacing prevent proudly earned calluses, blisters and bruises.

  This is the best-educated generation ever and its members will not stop learning upon retirement. They measure a successful vacation by newly acquired skills and significant stimulation of their brain cells.

  "Alternative" is defined as a trip that offers a quest for understanding an environment or culture, usually with an interactive element. It is now 50 percent of the travelling market.

  Yukoners need only to look at the Tatshenshini River to see the proof of these numbers. The average age of adventurers on this wildest of rivers is 50. Yet there are no luxury resorts on the Tatshenshini ... not even an outhouse. Instead, travellers are kayaking and white water rafting. They sleep in tents and eat meals prepared over a camp fire. The fact there are adventure companies thriving on The Tat means they have learned to cater to this until-recently ignored market.

  If other tour operators in the Yukon are to survive, they must start listening to people like Alison Gardner, the mature adventure travel industry's guru. Gardner wrote Travel Unlimited: Uncommon Adventures for the Mature Traveler. It is the only book of its kind that offers reviews of tours, volunteer vacations ("voluntourism") and their many derivations and combinations. The book even adds inspirational quotes such as, "People don't mind growing older as long as they can keep growing."

  Gardner also offers tips for travellers and tour operators. She looks at the Yukon and sees a nice balance of nature and colorful history easily accessed by a modern infrastructure. Gardner also sees the Yukon's first nations expanding their tourism role at a time travellers want to learn of new cultures. If she were a Yukon tour operator, Gardner says she would hire a respected storyteller to recite native legends and traditions. As well, she would hire a chef to offer a hands-on demonstration of preparing local specialties.

  Operating a tour would be an ideal part-time job for a geologist, naturalist or historian, she says. Such an idea would have been expensive before the Internet. Today, you don't need slick brochures to be printed and mailed out. Even small-scale operations can afford a website.

  And it is small-scale operations that are favored by the mature traveller. A group of eight to 14 is best, led by a local who knows the area intimately. The website should be "strong, elegant, easy to navigate", says Gardner. Older folks click away from flashing, moving screens.

  Gardner has her own website -- travelwithachallenge.com -- that continues the work her 550-page book began. Additional tips and travel opportunities are updated as opportunities expand. Articles, tailored to the mature adventure traveller, are added quarterly. The website/book project was launched 24 years into her career as a freelance writer. In the early 90s she was named associate editor of Maturity Canada, a magazine for the 50-plus crowd.

  Taking on some travel assignments herself, she found a perfect marriage of her understanding of older people and her love of alternative travel. When the magazine folded in 1997, she began work on the book and website.

  It was a project whose time was right, especially when you consider the numbers: There are 670 million vacationers travelling to another country each year. Half of them take adventure vacations. The majority of them are over 50 and most of them are women.

  These numbers would not surprise Pierre Germain, director of marketing for the Yukon's Department of Tourism. Everything we do is research based," he says. "So we can use the rifle approach as opposed to the shot gun."

  Germain explains the research tells him more and more seniors are coming to the Yukon for activities that it can provide.

  The Yukon has one of the last pristine wilderness environments in the world, he says. More and more vacationers will come here for "edu-tours" and "soft adventures". To be ready for those customers, Gardner says tour operators must be ready to offer a comfortable place to sleep and good meals. In between, however, they will find their older guests are game for most everything. But guides must also be sensitive to the occasional request to ride in the van instead of cycling for an afternoon. It should be respected quickly and without argument.

  Yet if they don't want to hurry, it is probably because they just don't want to rush and not because they can't. Older travellers like to enjoy the experience and let it sink in. For this reason, guides will find they have to answer more questions than what they would expect from a younger guest. And the answer must be sincere, complete and accurate.

  Gardner also says a tour operator should include surprises and unexpected kindnesses. It is these moments that will be shared over post-vacation photo viewing. The Internet may be the favored research tool, but it is still word-of-mouth advertising that is the most effective. This is why tour operators should always have a list of past guests who can offer testimonials.

  One last tip from the mature adventure travel expert: "Ignore the needs and interests of the mature traveller at your economic peril! They are the tourists of the future."