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Changes Give Travel Company Wider Appeal


By Stacey Dougherty

Sitting in a classroom learning how to take fingerprints, report the elements of a crime scene and follow the trajectory of a bullet that’s evidence in a homicide may sound unusual to some folks when you explain it’s what you did on your vacation. But according to Mary T. Small, she and her granddaughter, Sarah, had a blast.

Two years ago they booked the “CSI: Investigating Crimes Behind the Tape” program offered especially for grandparents and grandchildren by the educational travel tour company, Elderhostel. The learning took place in southern California so their five days were full of plenty of things to see and do around Long Beach and Anaheim when not in the classroom.

Back in 1975, when hi-tech meant you had a touch-tone phone and a color TV, fax machines didn’t exist and the oldest baby boomer was under 30 years old, Elderhostel was born. At the time it was one of the very few travel companies, if not the first, that catered only to people 60 years of age and over and offered an educational aspect to travel.

Fun and games in the Colorado River help beat the heat. Fun and games in the Colorado River help beat the heat.

In the fall of 2009, Elderhostel implemented two changes designed to expand their reach and appeal to more baby boomers. The first was a name change for their program arm, to Exploritas, and the second was the elimination of the age requirement altogether, in their adult programs.

Although the age requirement was eliminated, the programs are still geared to older adults who want to immerse themselves in their destination with other like-minded travelers. And activity levels vary enough to enable anyone, no matter what their level of fitness and mobility, to find the program right for them. Today, Exploritas hosts 160,000 travelers annually with over 8,000 programs available in all 50 states and in over 90 countries.

Ms. Small, a widow living in suburban Chicago and a retired UPC analyst in the food industry, has been on over 40 Elderhostel programs over the years and enjoys her trips immensely. She has taken one-day programs all the way up to a 28-day itinerary that took her through Australia and New Zealand. She is especially grateful for the dozens of grandparent/grandchild options offered because it gives her special time with her now almost 15 year-old granddaughter, Sarah, in an environment where there is always something fun and interesting to do. Over the years it has cemented their relationship.

Heading off for a hike in the Grand Tetons. Heading off for a hike in the Grand Tetons.

Through Exploritas, Ms. Small and Sarah have discovered that they’re both “city girls” through and through. They manage one Exploritas trip every year and when they sit down to choose which program to try a major city usually winds up as their destination. Since both of them are big fans of Chinese cuisine they always set aside time to explore Chinatown neighborhoods in every city they visit. Using public transportation, Sarah is always the navigator and maps out their route before they head out. Ms. Small says these forays are a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery for Sarah and their adventures instill her with confidence.

In addition to the CSI program, Ms. Small and Sarah have taken programs in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York. Their next one will be their first international program together – Paris – this summer.

An authentic western rodeo was great entertainment for young and old. An authentic western rodeo is great entertainment for young and old.
Climbing the rocks along the Colorado River.Climbing the rocks along the Colorado River.

For Pat & Jim Solan of Maryland, both retired, he from Gillette and she from the federal government, having 12 grandchildren keeps them busy as they work them all through the programs. So far, they’ve managed to include 7 grandkids over the years. One of their favorites was a trip to the Grand Canyon that included rafting and a helicopter ride over Quartermaster Point. Unlike Ms. Small, the Solans choose the trips themselves and try to match the itineraries with their grandkids’ personalities. Thankfully, the choices are many and varied and have included hiking in the Grand Tetons and rafting the Colorado River from the base of Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry and the Vermillion Cliffs.

When they’re not taking their grandkids along, both Solans enjoy Exploritas programs – together and apart. Mr. Solan likes to take active trips with his buddies that feature kayaking and rafting while Ms. Solan enjoys more sedate itineraries with her girlfriends.

What appeals to these participants besides the actual travel is the ability to meet people from all over the country and sometimes, the world, who have similar interests. To them, it’s much more fun to be in a group of like-minded individuals and so far, no one has had a bad experience. Accommodations are comfortable, usually most meals are included and programs provide access to some venues that are not open to the general public. All the grandparents I spoke to say that the trips also set the stage for the kids to feel more comfortable in new situations, help with their social skills and give them a broader perspective of the world, its history and the people in it.

Rochelle Kruger of Massachussetts is an avid Exploritas traveler and her oldest grandchild, Aileen, 9, has enjoyed programs with her that have included the Plymouth Plantation and in Virginia, the Misty and the Ponies on Chincoteague Island. To Ms. Kruger, Exploritas is also the company she turns to for many of her trips with her girlfriends – the Sedona, Arizona program being a favorite that she’s gone on twice.

Although available for some time, multi-generational programs exist that can accommodate families from grandkids to parents to grandparents. With the elimination of the age requirement on all of the adult programs, Exploritas makes it easier and more affordable for adults within a family who want an educational component attached to their travel itinerary. Exploritas president, James Moses, states in a letter on the website:

“Why should we bar a 54-year-old (or a 53-year-old, or a 52-year-old) from coming on a program if they have a sincere interest in the destination or the subject matter? Why should we turn away a 32-year-old who wants to go on a program with her 60-year-old mother? Once you start unraveling this thread of questions, you quickly realize that any formal age limit is totally arbitrary.”

Now that the age limit has been removed, different generations in a family have the opportunity to explore their interests and perhaps their heritage, while taking an Exploritas vacation program. As a not for profit organization, Exploritas can offer a top notch experience for much less than a similar itinerary at most other tour companies.

To see the seemingly limitless programs available, from the Sundance Film Festival to baseball spring training camp to a cruise through Antarctica that starts and ends in Buenos Aires, visit their website at www.exploritas.org. To read about how an Exploritas program changed one woman’s life and set her on the path of life-long learning, click here.

Top photo: The younger generation standing in front of the mountains of the Grand Tetons.

The author wishes to thank Pat and Jim Solan for the use of their photos taken on their Grand Canyon and Grand Teton travel programs.

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