How Hoteliers Could Turn Gray Into Gold

The senior citizen population is on the brink of an explosion in the United States and in the world. In June 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau released data that highlights the staggering news that the senior citizen population seems to be headed to a 40 percent increase during the next five years. In the U.S. the population of people 65 and older will more than double by 2050, rising from 39 million today to 89 million.

“This shift in the age structure….poses challenges to society, families, businesses, health care providers and policy makers to meet the needs of aging individuals”, said Wan He, demographer in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Division.

 The senior citizen (age 65 and older) population in the U.S. was 36.8 million in 2008, 12.3 percent of the nation’s population.#160; But, moving into the senior rank are 14.9 million baby boomers (age 60 through 64).#160; This narrow age bracket is 5 percent of the total U.S. population.#160; Assuming we all live another five years, they will increase the senior ranks by 40 percent.#160; The senior citizen population will jump from 36.8 million to 51.7 million.

These consumers are an attractive group for hospitality marketers since many are comparatively wealthy, controlling three-fourths of all U.S. financial assets and accounting for half of all discretionary spending.  Especially in these recessionary times, the senior citizen market is an extraordinary opportunity for hotels which have planned for this unique slice of the market.

In March, 2004 the late, Professor Anthony Marshall wrote an article entitled, “Gray Matters: How to Profit from an Aging Marketplace” “The real joke in this day and age is on hoteliers who don’t make their properties safe and comfortable for seniors.  But many still don’t…. Another barrier to having a hotel that’s safe and comfortable for seniors is the erroneous perceptions held by staff and servers:

  • People older than 55 can’t hear so you better speak loud
  • Everyone older than 60 has Alzheimer’s disease, so don’t waste any time having a conversation with them
  • Elderly guests are poor tippers so don’t waste any good service on them
  • Elderly guests like to be called condescending names such as “sweetie”, “dearie” or “mom and pop”

The mature market is generally willing to travel in the shoulder seasons if there is enough incentive.  Since many do not work full time, they can travel midweek and arrange their travel plans in accordance with rooms availability.  Many pay in full on departure by personal check (reducing credit-card commissions) and many are willing to give large deposits, providing cash-flow benefit.  In general, they also eat more meals at the hotel than other guests.

However, to reach this market, hotels must understand the needs and wants of the older traveler and provide services that appeal to them.  A tour of scenic spots is of little value when most senior travelers must remain in the tour bus because the hike to the falls is uphill all the way.  A couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary should not be turned off in the hotel lounge because the disc jockey plays only heavy rock and roll music.

In a depressed hotel marketplace that is projected to operate at 56.1 percent occupancy in 2010, whatever can be done to attract this market is worth the effort.  But you should beware of preconceptions.  Most seniors, for example, are more youthful and progressive in their thinking than people imagine.  They are open to new ideas and are information-hungry.  Seniors, it seems, are sensitive about their image and, therefore, any direct reference to age is objectionable.

Older Travelers’ Needs and Preferences Older persons often want more personal attention than other guests.  Many travel largely for companionship and need to talk to people of different ages.  Older citizens are a heterogeneous group ranging in age from the mid-50’s to 70, 80, and older.  But there are certain common characteristics within this varied group.  For example:

  • Lighting levels should be higher for those who are 65 years old
  • One older American in three suffers from a serious hearing impairment

Prejudice against the elderly, which is characterized by rude behavior toward older persons is fairly widespread.  Direct-contact hotel personnel must be trained to work with the older traveler.  The staff must be taught how to communicate with persons with weak eyesight or poor hearing or both.  The cleanliness of rooms and of public areas is especially important to mature travelers.

Many prefer rooms with two beds and they often prefer locations on the low floors near an elevator and fire stairway.  Safety and security are concerns and can be strong selling points.  More than other travelers, older guest enjoy public areas where they can gather to talk and socialize.  Such rooms should generally be separate from the cocktail lounge.

Groups of mature travelers usually enjoy attending some kind of welcoming reception.  You might meet them as they arrive- to explain meal times, hotel facilities and the like- and then offer coffee, lemonade and home-baked goods.  Most older persons also like to participate in organized entertainment after dinner, such as a trip to a local theater, a sing-along, or a shopping excursion.  Guide services for these activities and for day trips are a plus.

Here’s a surprise statistic: Almost 15 million senior citizens are now online.  With the interest becoming an increasingly important resource for informed decisions about health and health care options, a national survey of older Americans by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost a third of senior citizens (65 and older) have gone online.  But more than 70 percent of the next generation of seniors (50 to 64) have done so.

Older Travelers Physical Requirements Interior design for senior citizen must take into account the elements of hearing loss, diminished vision, lessened color perception, poorer short-term memory and weakened upper body strength.

While experts agree that hotel facilities for seniors should be designed to offset these difficulties, I believe that, in fact, all hotel guests would benefit from the following improvements: In Guest Rooms

  1. Better lighting at writing table, at bedside, in closet, at TV set, at room entry.
  2. Master electrical switch at bedside to control all room lights.
  3. TV remote controls that are easy to read, clear in direction, simple to operate and well lit.
  4. Blackout drapes and/or shades that actually keep light out.
  5. Clear instructions on how to use the telephone.
  6. An alarm clock that is easy to program and read.
  7. Lamp switches at the base of the lamp where they can be easily seen and reached.
  8. Real clothes hangers in the closet along with irons and ironing boards.
  9. Make sure that all descriptive printed materials are well written, clearly printed, and large enough to read easily.
  10. Provide a refrigerator and a microwave oven.

In Bathrooms

  1. Apply good non-skid material to both the bathtub floor and the bathroom floor.
  2. Install well-placed and secure hand holds and grab bars in bathtub/shower area.
  3. Make sure the shower controls and the adjustable shower heads are easy to turn on and to adjust.
  4. Eliminate hot water surges and provide scald-proof hot water.
  5. Provide good lighting over the mirror.
  6. Install night lights which won’t disturb sleeping but will provide safe night trips to bathroom.
  7. Install a magnifying mirror on an accordion bracket.
  8. Provide a UL-approved hair dryer with a wall-hung bracket.
  9. Supply better-quality, more absorbent towels in color.
  10. Make sure all shower curtains are long enough to reach well below the bathtub top.
  11. Provide bathroom amenities (shampoo, lotion, etc.) in containers which are easy to identify (with large print) and which have raised surfaces on the cap for easy turning when hands are wet.
  12. In accordance with ADA requirements, provide some bathrooms for handicapped and wheelchair access. These will need higher toilet seat and showers with pull-out  seating devices.

In Corridors and Elevators

  1. Make certain that corridors are well illuminated, especially over guest room doors to expedite the use of electronic door lock cards.
  2. Provide easy to read, well-designed directional signs.
  3. Exit signs should be installed close to the floor so that they won’t be hidden by rising smoke in case of fire.
  4. Elevators should have clear and well-lit floor buttons with “Door Open” buttons easily located.
  5. Elevator door bumpers should retract readily when touched.
  6. Elevator signs describing restaurant facilities should be colorful, simple in design with clear directions.
  7. Provide large print directional instructions to fire stairways on the back of guestroom  doors.

In Case of a Power Loss

  1. Provide flashlights, flairs and glowsticks
  2. Have plenty of bottled water, extra supplies
  3. Install back-up gas-powered generators
  4. Tie water-pump operations to the emergency system
  5. Check and improve the seals on freezers and refrigerators

Finally, heed the wise words of Tony Marshall: “It seems obvious to me that the best way to turn gray into pure gold these days would be to make all aspects of travel comfortable and safe for an aging population.  All hotel planning and design groups should exploit this growing market and include senior input through all stages of development.”

With one in five Americans currently 55 years of age or older, hotel operators searching for new sources of business should renovate their hotels and train their employees to be senior-sensitive and friendly.

About the author: Stanley Turkel, MHS, ISHC operates his hotel consulting office as a sole practitioner specializing in franchising issues, asset management and litigation support services.  Turkel’s clients are hotel owners and franchisees, investors and lending institutions.  Turkel serves on the Board of Advisors and lectures at the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.  He is a member of the prestigious International Society of Hospitality Consultants.  His provocative articles on various hotels subjects have been published in the Cornell Quarterly, Lodging Hospitality, Hotel Interactive, Hotel-Online, Blue MauMau, Hotel Resource News, etc.  Don’t hesitate to call 917-628-8549 or email

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