Hotels Try Bridging Generation Gap

November 18, 2005 | By Stephanie Paterik

The American travel industry is staring at a generational divide.

On one side are the deep-pocketed baby boomers, with more money and free time than ever. On the other are the burgeoning Generation X’ers, whose oldest members turned 40 this year and who increasingly are asserting their buying power.

The challenge facing hotels, golf courses, airlines, travel agents and tourism marketers in Arizona and around the country is how to appeal to two groups of consumers whose tastes could not be more different.

Typical boomers look for a natural environment, luxurious decor and comfortable accommodations when they travel. Average Gen X’ers want an urban environment, trendy decor and functional accommodations.

“It’s a little bit like mixing oil and water,” said Neil Howe, a Virginia-based author, economist and consultant on generational issues. “Every time you try to accentuate your appeal to one generation, you end up rubbing another generation the wrong way.”

In Arizona, hotels are building or remodeling to accommodate the changing tastes. They’re including sleek furnishings, lobbies that double as gathering spaces and wireless Internet service. The state is creating a Web site and other tools to reach this age group. Travel agencies are offering more online trip planning instead of face-to-face service.

National research shows Gen X’ers spend significant money on leisure travel, and it is a wake-up call to the industry, said Casey Ambrose, director of advertising and fulfillment for the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Forty percent of U.S. baby boomers stay in hotels five nights or more when they travel. Gen X’ers aren’t far behind at 31 percent. The number of Gen X leisure travelers is growing by 7.4 percent annually compared with 6.5 percent among boomers, according to research by D.K. Shifflet and Associates. Gen X’ers and young people internationally are traveling farther and at an earlier age than their parents did.

In short, boomers are still the big spenders, but Gen X’ers aren’t far behind.

“The question remains: How are we really going to be able to market to this leisure market that contains both boomers and Gen X’ers, who are looking for very different experiences and amenities when they do travel?” Ambrose said.

Arizona is making its first concerted effort to lure travelers younger than 40. The Office of Tourism met this week to brainstorm a campaign aimed squarely at this group, particularly those who live in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas.

It will roll out a Web site billed as an insider’s guide to metro Phoenix, Flagstaff and Tucson, touting dance clubs, breweries and sports such as snowboarding and rock climbing. Beginning in March, it will spend more than $500,000 to get the message out that Arizona is cool.

The Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau traditionally has targeted boomers, who love the city’s golf resorts and spas. But a curious thing happened at a series of focus groups in Los Angeles last year: Many of the attendees, all of whom had visited Scottsdale, were in their 20s and raved about the city’s social scene.

“The realization of Gen X hit us hard back in early 2004,” said Brent DeRaad, vice president of marketing. “We realized we needed to incorporate nightlife into our marketing.”

DeRaad said boomers will be the biggest economic force in Scottsdale for the next decade, maybe two. Gen X’ers and their successors, the Millennials, represent an investment in the future.

This winter, the bureau is inviting New Yorkers to whip out their camera phones and take photos of themselves suffering the bitter weather. The winner of the “Take Pity on Me” contest gets a free trip to Scottsdale.

The CVB also is running national magazine ads depicting a cowboy on the left and a 20-something Chicago couple on the right. It reads, “He lives in the Wild West. They plan to make it wilder.”

The bureau invited Howe, the generational expert, to speak at a meeting this year. Gen X is now a frequent topic of conversation among Scottsdale hotel and golf course operators trying to figure out how to stay relevant to this group, DeRaad said.

Gen X is notorious for cutting out the middleman, which is why online travel bookings are up and the use of travel agents is down, Howe said.

The Scottsdale CVB’s phone volume has dropped noticeably in the past five years, while annual Web hits have gone from fewer than 1 million to 1.7 million. The bureau has responded by doubling its online marketing budget to $500,000 a year.

STA Travel, a travel agency that targets students, invites customers to book online or through a toll-free number if they don’t want to sit down with an agent. Travel search engines such as Travelocity, Expedia and Sidestep play to the self-reliant X’er.

While boomers like ritual and ceremony, X’ers defy it. They want more free time and fewer structured activities during business trips. They have little patience for the rituals of golf, like cleaning the clubs, playing a full 18 holes and exchanging stories in the clubhouse, Howe said.

Grayhawk Golf Club hosted last week’s Tommy Bahama Challenge for professional golfers ages 30 and younger to shake the perception that golf is a stodgy sport. In the tournament, which will be televised Jan. 2, four Americans faced off against four young guns from abroad. The industry isn’t sure how to appeal to both generations at once, said Greg Hanss, marketing director for the serene Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. There’s likely to be some trial and error, but he thinks the answer is finding common ground.

Boomers like the outdoors and X’ers like intense sports. So, the resort organizes hikes but accommodates guests who would rather mountain bike than walk. It has hosted bubble-gum-blowing contests and Xbox tournaments.

The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch, an older property with boomer appeal, remodeled its lobby with modern Asian decor and started offering a blackberry balm hand massage for fatigued text messagers this year.

While some older properties try to broaden their appeal, others pick a niche. Two hotels have emerged as the Valley’s decidedly hip destinations: the James hotel in Scottsdale and the Clarendon Hotel + Suites in downtown Phoenix. The venerable Valley Ho in Scottsdale is being renovated from the ground up to appeal to Gen X’ers; it reopens Dec. 20. A W Hotel is planned for Scottsdale as well. W Hotels, a part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, are known for unique properties in trendy neighborhoods.

Three entrepreneurs purchased the worn-out Clarendon, remodeled and reopened it last December. They invested $1.5 million to make it the epitome of Gen X cool. There are no valets; multicolored spotlights point the way. There is no opulent lobby with an overpowering counter; a young staff greets guests in a living-room-style atmosphere complete with red velvet drapes and glass-topped desks.

At the dimly lit hotel restaurant Camus, diners can plop down at a synthetic leather booth and order brined pork chops until 1 a.m. Guest rooms feature sliding artwork in lieu of curtains, along with LED desk lamps, cordless phones and touch-screen alarm clocks.

About 80 percent of the hotel’s customers are Gen X business travelers. Another 10 percent are visiting performers, such as the Black Eyed Peas.

“Gen X is always looking for something that’s not the typical hotel room that looks like your grandmother’s living room,” said Ben Bethel, 34, a partner and general manager.

There are hazards to rolling out the welcome mat to Gen X, he added, including out-of-control parties, noise and property damage. Bethel said the Clarendon has stopped going after people in their mid-20s and started focusing on the more mature 30-40 age group.

Steve McCaslin, 32, of Orange County, Calif., stays at the Clarendon once a week when he is in town for business. He tried the Comfort Inn, the Holiday Inn and the Hilton Suites before discovering his favorite local hotel.

“I just didn’t like them,” he said. “The boutiquey hotels cater more to people my age. Their service is typically better and the decor is more along the lines of my modern tastes.”

Some boomers appreciate the new trends, Bethel said. Others are better off staying at a more familiar hotel.

Howe, the generational expert, is 51. He prefers the desert landscape and elegance of the Four Seasons in Scottsdale. He stayed once at the W Hotel in San Francisco, but the dark, sparse rooms made him tense.

“They’ve got this weird music in the elevator, which I actually didn’t like at all. It was not a comfortable place to be,” he said. “Which must show I’m a boomer.”