Outfitters cater to baby boomers with a variety of travel packages

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

When outdoor gear and apparel retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. launched REI Adventures in 1987, the travel division catered mostly to hard-core outdoor enthusiasts.

REI still leads an array of rugged excursions, including a Himalayan trek and a Kilimanjaro climb, but these days the Kent, Wash.-based company's travel division also touts a growing menu of less-risky adventures: a walking tour of Tibet, a family-oriented trip in the Canadian Rockies that includes ''ghost stories around the campfire'' and cruises to Alaska, Antarctica and the Galapagos.

''People frequently like to have a bed to come back to as opposed to a tent,'' explained Cynthia Dunbar, manager of REI Adventures, adding that customers are a decade older, on average, than when the travel unit started.

The evolution of REI Adventures reflects the changing tastes of its aging customer base and, in a larger sense, illustrates the influence nature-loving baby boomers are having on retailers of outdoor sporting goods, particularly in the area of travel.

Older boomers nearing retirement have the inclination and resources to accumulate experiences rather than just stuff, while younger boomers are eager to stay active as leisure time gets chipped away by the demands of the modern workplace.

Outfitters such as REI, Orvis, L.L. Bean and Cabela's each of which has a travel division expect these trends to increase demand for fishing, hiking and hunting in the coming decade, boosting sales of their products and services. As a further incentive, Orvis, L.L. Bean and other outfitters offer catalog-wide discounts to customers who book trips with them.

''It's all good,'' said Dave Parker, managing director of travel at Orvis, the Manchester, Vt.-based supplier of fly-fishing gear and apparel.

Sales at Orvis Travel have increased from less than $200,000 in 1999 to about $2 million a year. The company served fewer than 1,000 travelers last year but believes that number will grow to 10,000 within five years.

While the revenue stream linked directly to travel is minimal at Orvis (it amounted to less than 1 percent of the company's overall revenue), it plays a significant role from a marketing perspective, helping to build consumer loyalty to the brand as well as the sport.

The philosophy is really quite simple, Parker said: ''If you're selling a guy fish hooks and tell him a good place to go fishing, chances are he's going to buy more fish hooks.''

That's not just a line, said Carl Kuehner of Norwalk, Conn. The 39-year-old real-estate developer has taken fly-fishing trips with Orvis to such places as the Seychelles and the Palmyra Atoll.

Kuehner, who at 39 is at the younger end of the baby boomer continuum, said exotic weeklong excursions can cost as much as $15,000 (airfare included) but that they are worth it, ''even if I have to overpay,'' because the quality is always top-notch.

''If I spent $5,000 and hated the trip, that would have been the worst,'' Kuehner said. ''The loss of time would have been devastating.''

The travel services offered by outfitters are also intended to reinforce their reputations as expert practitioners of whatever it is they peddle in stores, catalogs and over the Internet.

Cabela's, of Sidney, Neb., which started a travel unit in 1985, boasts on its Web site that anglers visiting its new lodge in Canada's Northwest Territories ''can expect to catch numerous trout on a daily basis, with the average size being 8-15 pounds ...''

Bicycle manufactuer Trek, of Waterloo, Wis., last October began offering leisure and performance bike trips in Europe and North America, including a six-day ride through the California wine country led by three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond.

L.L. Bean, of Freeport, Maine, has long offered fly-fishing and sea-kayaking schools, and about six years ago it launched a partnership with Frontiers International, a Wexford, Pa., travel company that leads fishing and hunting trips and safaris.

Mike Fitzgerald, 64, who started Frontiers International with his wife in 1969, said 40- and 50-somethings have always been the backbone of his business, giving him a unique perspective from which to compare generations of Americans.

Fitzgerald said boomers are more likely than their predecessors to book several three-day getaways per year, rather than waiting for their annual two-week vacation to roll around. He also said they're better prepared financially for retirement than their parents.

While Frontiers and others have not been immune to the travel slump of the past two years, Fitzgerald said: ''We think the best decade is ahead of us.''

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