Boomers: who do they think they are?

“Age is just a number. And maths was never my thing”  says Helen Mirren in the latest L’Oreal ads (or at least she did, until the National Numeracy campaign stepped in).

But is age really “just a number”?  And does it matter when thinking about target markets for destinations?

It’s certainly a blunt instrument.  If you want to understand people, behavioural segmentation has long been recognised as the way to go.  Now marketers are questioning the value of that too: in the era of big data, do we need any of this when we can target people via their search histories and social media activity?

Well yes, we do.  Demographics aren’t the whole picture, but they are still part of it, helping us to identify, understand, reach and satisfy potential visitors.  And it’s not just about communications – it’s about using market intelligence to help shape products, services and experiences too.

Let’s look at the generation born during the massive baby boom 1946-64.  British Boomers are approximately 20% of the population yet own 80% of the wealth.  They take 40% of all UK short breaks.  And many are staycationers: VisitEngland says that of the extra 5m domestic short breaks taken from 2006-13, 4m were by people aged 55+.

Boomers are often free to travel outside peak leisure times and some take multiple breaks each year.  Marketers have spotted the “super-parents” trend – as Boomers increasingly organise and fund 3-generation leisure trips for their children and grandchildren.

It’s clear why destinations want to know what makes them tick.  And there are common and enduring generational values that we need to understand if we’re targeting Boomers.

Yet marketers too often miss the mark, stereotyping and lumping all Boomers together, and with much older people too – treating everyone over 50 as one homogeneous cohort.

We’ve carried out some original research with our sister company Bluegrass, to find out more about British Boomers’ attitudes to leisure and travel, and to segment the generation into meaningful “tribes”.

We found that many British Boomers feel sidelined by the marketing industry.  Some 84% said they hate to be defined by their age – yet that’s so often what the tourism industry does.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found words such as Empty Nester, Grey Panther, Senior Citizen, Golden Oldie, Pensioner and Elderly are particularly unwelcome to many Boomers.

When Alan Sugar asked his Young Apprentices to devise marketing to the 50+ market, they found it difficult to empathise with Boomers:  “They like quite plain things … fish and chips … garden centres … pillows … They still use phones.”  Of course we can all see the funny side.

But there are subtle examples of ageism everywhere you look in tourism.  The targets are often well-travelled, sophisticated and fit individuals.  So why did you stop calling them “adults” at the point of sale, and start calling them “concessions”?   Why are you inviting them to “stroll” rather than “stride out”?  And why are you offering them low-quality discounts and freebies?

Next time you devise a promotion for this generation, you could try asking yourself, “what would tempt Ms Mirren?” Although – as she turned 70 this July – she’s actually too old to be a Baby Boomer.  Now there’s food for thought.

This blogpost was first published on the Tourism Management Institute website on 27 July 2015