Elderhostel moves into a new age

January 22, 1995|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

Elderhostel is an organization that lures retirees out of their comfortable homes and into far-flung dormitories for weeklong meditations on subjects from physics to poetry to architecture. It began as a collaboration between a visionary hippie and a university administrator, and grew into a nonprofit group that has grabbed a massive market away from the highly competitive travel industry. It is frequently what older people talk about when younger people aren't paying attention.

But now the elders are getting younger, and their travels are getting bolder.

Born in New Hampshire and based in Boston, Elderhostel has been running educational travel programs for 20 years. The group, which began with 220 "hostelers" in the summer of 1975, served about 285,000 last year, allowing them a chance to travel cheaply, educate themselves liberally and wander the planet in one- to three-week journeys, eating cafeteria food, lodging at a network of 1,900 collegiate dorms, cultural institutions and other facilities. The group operates in 50 states and more than 40 nations.

"I have square-danced with a telephone lineman, scooped ice cream with a retired farmer, listened to opera with a college administrator, and photographed a Hohokum burial site with a retired nuclear physicist," writes Mildred Hyman, author of "Elderhostels: The Students' Choice," which evaluates various Elderhostel programs.

So far, most of the program's participants have been age 60 and above, in accordance with an arbitrary limit set in the organization's earliest days. But beginning with the release of a new domestic-program catalog Feb. 24, the group will reduce its minimum age to 55. (Baby boomers, take note: On July 26, 1998 -- 3 1/2 years from now -- Mick Jagger will become eligible for Elderhostel.)

This isn't exactly a revolution, because the program has long allowed Elderhostel registrants to bring along spouses of any age and companions as young as 50. But it is a sign of the continuing evolution at Elderhostel. With its growth rate stabilized at around 10 percent after a staggering boom in its first five years, the organization's leaders are facing up to the changing tastes of a new generation.

"People are retiring earlier," says Elderhostel marketing director Karyn Franzen, and the organization is evolving to "address those changing retirement patterns."

Demographers agree that the average retirement age has been falling for several decades. Figures compiled by the National Institute on Aging show that 46 percent of men age 65 and older were still working in 1950. By 1989, that number had fallen to 17 percent.

Listening to the new retirees, the group's leaders hear calls for more physically demanding programs and more luxurious accommodations, which they are attempting to reconcile with the program's central mission of education and its affordable price structure.

For those interested in getting physical, there are Elderhostel collaborations with Outward Bound in Colorado. There is a weeklong camping trip on the Hualapai Indian Reservation along the Grand Canyon ("shower facilities available midweek," says the catalog); or a Colorado River trip that includes a two-day, one-night rafting and camping journey that covers 64 miles of the river, including some white water; or an 11-day, 80-mile wilderness canoe camping trip on Maine's Allagash Waterway, near which Elderhostelers will have the opportunity to dig their own latrines.

(Concerned by health risks inherent in such programming, the organization recently imposed a yearlong moratorium on new adventure-oriented courses. That ban has eased since the hiring last spring of a veteran adventure tour administrator, Rob Rubendal, who oversees safety guidelines and assesses physical risks.)

Meanwhile, those interested in finding the more comfortable fringes of the "plain and simple" Elderhostel lodging prescription may be intrigued by the indoor swimming pool and exercise facilities of Prude Guest Ranch in the Davis Mountains of Texas, or the historic rowhouses that have been rehabilitated for Elderhostel use (including elevators and private baths) at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University -- one of the most popular Elderhostel sites, with 90 programs a year.

What lies behind these changes? Perhaps a generation gap. Many Elderhostel officials have noted that younger participants who remember less of the Great Depression, tend to be less frugal and more interested in fancier accommodations -- "and I think we're going to feel that even more strongly when the baby boomers start hitting us," Ms. Franzen adds.

Nonetheless, "Educational experience is still the core of everything we do, and that is what sets us apart," Ms. Franzen says. "A lot of operators put together a tour and then throw in an educational component. We start at the other end."

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