Hotels face challenge of generation gap:
Boomers and Gen X, both with fat wallets, have different tastes in accommodations

December 4, 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 Xers, 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 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 Xers 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.”

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

Forty percent of U.S. baby boomers stay in hotels five nights or more when they travel. Gen Xers 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 Xers and young people internationally are traveling farther and at an earlier age than their parents did.

Spending gap narrows

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

“The realization of Gen X hit us hard back in early 2004,” said Brent DeRaad, vice president of marketing for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We realized we needed to incorporate nightlife into our marketing.”

While boomers like ritual and ceremony, Xers 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.

It’s a dilemma

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 Xers like intense sports. So the resort organizes hikes but accommodates guests who would rather mountain bike than walk.

While some older properties try to broaden their appeal, others pick a niche. Three entrepreneurs purchased the worn-out Clarendon Hotel + Suites in Phoenix and invested $1.5 million to make it the epitome of Generation 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.

Not so typical

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.

“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 of the Clarendon 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.”