The Internet is no longer the domain of the young. Beverley Fearis looks at how silver surfers are becoming a burgeoning market with both time and money to spend on travel products
They’ve got the time, money, equipment and, increasingly, the inclination – so therefore should be on the radar of every online travel company.
The over-50s population in Britain is the fastest-growing age group of online travel bookers, and what’s more these so-called silver surfers are more likely to be buying holidays and cruises at the top of the price scale.
According to a study of British Internet users by Nielsen//NetRatings, 86% of the over 50s who use the web visited a travel website in 2005, compared with 54% across the whole population.
In September alone, 1.5 million over 50s went to secure pages on travel sites to book their holidays online.
NetRatings European Internet analyst Alex Burmaster says the numbers are staggering. “The Internet has enriched the lives of those over 50, as well as those taking early retirement and releasing capital from their homes to travel the world,” he explains.
Research by web analysis company Hitwise, which studied the online behaviour of the over-55s sector, found the group were 20% more likely to be visiting travel websites than any other, with cruise sites top of the list.
According to figures for the four weeks ending April 29 this year, more than one third of visitors to cruise sites were 55 or over – more than double the average for websites as a whole.
A recent report by The AirMiles Travel Company forecast that silver surfers are poised to dominate the online shopping market by 2010. It found that almost two thirds of those approaching retirement are now using the web, compared with only a third in 2001, and concluded that a silver surfer boom is only five years away.
So, how are travel companies adapting to the needs of this new generation of clickers? TUI head of new media Graham Donoghue says: “We don’t design our website with a certain demographic in mind. The over-50s don’t want to be pigeonholed. They don’t want you to alienate them.”
In terms of online product offering, he believes it is a mistake to believe silver surfers want a certain type of holiday.
“The days of the tea dance and bridge brigade are gone. The over 50s want luxury and they’re interested in culture and the destinations themselves,” he says.
Saga Travel head of Internet Rob Silsbury says the operator has adjusted its offline product for its new website, Sagatravelshop.com. “European and UK short breaks and cruises sell well online, but we are adding new product – more adventurous holidays, high-class products, not just the traditional packages. The web has allowed people to be more choosy and Saga recognises it needs to adapt its traditional product for the online market, for both new and existing customers.”
According to the NetRatings report, silver surfers do not necessarily stick to the traditional travel brands, and not necessarily those aimed specifically at their age group.
Although TUI, Thomas Cook, MyTravel and First Choice all featured in the top 10, the research found the most visited travel site was in fact Expedia, followed by Lastminute.com.
Lastminute.com travel director John Bevan says: “Nielsen//NetRatings highlighted that despite initial expectations, this group is broadening horizons online and is shopping around on sites such as Lastminute.com as well as high-street names such as Thomas Cook.
“At Lastminute.com we do not have a specific section or category of holiday dedicated to the over 50s as our customer data shows us they are just as likely to take a city break as a long-haul trip or a cruise or a US self-drive. What we have done recently, though, is start looking more at the cruise market. The over 50s are the major audience for cruising and we are aiming to treble sales this year.”
In order to tap into the over-50s market, Lastminute.com has signed a deal with Saga to provide it with a white-label version of its flights, hotels, car hire, dynamically packaged trips and lifestyle product such as restaurant bookings and theatre tickets on Sagatravelshop.com.
Commercial director Vic Darvey adds: “It’s a huge market and I don’t think anyone has penetrated it. It is a hard market to gain access to, but Saga is the market leader and it has a huge, loyal database.”
Other travel companies are targeting silver surfers through ‘community’ websites aimed at empty nesters, like 50connect, Llaterlife.com and Silversurfers.com. These sites cover a range of services and information aimed at empty nesters, but for all of them travel is a vital part of their offering.
For example, 50connect features subjects as diverse as sex tips, adventure holidays and how to download music. Since launching in 2000, it now attracts 1.1 million unique visitors a month and earlier this year it was awarded an eSuperbrand award, an accolade recognising the site as one of the leading online brands in Britain.
Editor Julia Ellis says the website’s travel editorial is wide ranging. “Unless it’s an 18-30s holiday there’s nothing I wouldn’t consider. We know the over 50s are taking more holidays and they are becoming more diverse.”
She reveals the site has recently seen a surge in the number of travel
companies wanting to advertise on it and have links to their product.
Meanwhile, Laterlife.com launched six years ago and helps people make the most of their retirement.
Director Tony Clack admits travel is a key element of the site. “Cruises and city breaks are particularly popular. We work with Warner Holidays and we’re about to start working with Travelscope on the cruise side. We also have more exotic holidays featured by Jules Vern.
“Our readers might be widowers or single due to divorce, so we try to include holidays for them,” he adds.
He said the mix of users is 50.2% male and 49.8% female. Some 28% of users are aged 55-59, 24% 60-64 and 19% 65-69, while 7% are over 80.
The site’s resident travel writer, Reg Butler, fits into this over-80s category. Still travelling frequently; turning in two travel articles each week; and even turning his own articles into web pages – he couldn’t be a finer example of a silver surfer.
Saga launched Sagatravelshop.com in April. Designed to be a one-stop shop for the over 50s, the site works in partnership with Lastminute.com, Hilton, De Vere Hotels, Hoseasons, Driveline, Great Getaways and Holiday Extras, offering packaged holidays, cruises, self-catering cottage holidays and short breaks, flights, hotels, parking, travel insurance, foreign currency and car hire.
Head of Internet Rob Silsbury says: “At present our online business is still relatively small but we have aggressive targets. Things are simply bubbling at the moment. We’ve recognised that our traditional business model isn’t going to work online. People want much more flexible package-style travel where they can select their hotel, add-ons, with no set dates. With the Saga Travel Shop we are getting a foot in the door to test some of the new product. We’ve got a powerful brand and we’re looking to form relationships with companies.”
He says the design of the site was kept deliberately simple to appeal to the over-50s users. “It’s simple, but there will be changes in the coming months. We’ll have much more rich content – pictures, videos, tours. If we are expecting somebody to part with £4,000 for a cruise, they’ll want to see 360-degree views of every cabin.”
He says the group is planning a big marketing push for its website starting in August. “Up until now our Internet marketing efforts in the online market have been quite small. Our own media plays a massive part – our magazines, radio stations. We have roughly 50% of the UK over-50s population on our database, so we do e-mail and direct mail campaigns, and use search marketing and aggregators. We are also looking for affiliates.”