Keeping Up with Over 50′s Set – Q&A with Author Don Mankin

16 March 2011

by Nicole Petrak, Special Projects & Assistant Editor, AdventureTravelNews

The following Q&A is with travel writer Don Mankin. Don has been through more career transitions than Arnold Schwarzenegger, from aerospace engineer to psychology professor to business consultant to university dean to travel writer, with a few other stops along the way. Before fleeing the academic life in 2006, he had authored four books in management and organizational psychology, including Teams and Technology from Harvard Business School Press and Business Without Boundaries from Jossey-Bass.

His latest book, co-authored with ATTA President Shannon Stowell, is Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (National Geographic Press, 2008). Riding the Hulahula provides personal, psychologically-rich descriptions of off-the-beaten track adventures for active seniors. The Wall Street Journal described the book as “one of the best travel books to cross our desk this year.”

Don’s articles regularly appear in Active Over 50, a magazine distributed quarterly in the Silicon Valley. They are also available on the magazine’s website, His articles will also be featured in the new magazine Vibrant Living, which will start publication in the Charlotte North Carolina area in April.

This summer Don is adding another career dimension to his resume by leading his first trip, The Far Corners of Brazil: From the Pantanal to the Costa Verde, for Geographic Expeditions ( Don hasn’t left the academic life completely behind. When he isn’t traveling or writing, he consults for educational institutions and advises dissertation students in the PhD program in organization development at Assumption University in Bangkok Thailand.

Don lives in Venice Beach, California with his wife Katherine, his companion on many of his adventures, especially those involving large mammals other than Don. For more information on Don check out his website

You've worked in mainstream travel media for years. Can you describe why editorial media for active people over 50 is taking off, and how it challenges traditional perceptions of over-50 lifestyles and travel?

It’s all about demographics. Most people are familiar with the “pig in the python” metaphor comparing the population bulge of aging baby boomers to the passing of an ingested pig through a python. This metaphorical pig has now been pushed down to the nether regions of the python. The bump of the pig grows smaller as it is digested (i.e., people die), but it’s still a large bump, and a fairly affluent bump at that. Ergo, all manner of companies, including media and their advertisers, are rushing to the market with new products and services to sell to this very large and affluent partly-digested pig.

Maybe it’s a left over from their halcyon days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but baby boomers still think they are different from the generations that preceded them, and at least to some degree they are. One of those differences is reflected in their belief that “60 is the new 40.” They are more active and adventuresome than their parents were at a comparable stage in their life, as the boom in the number of knee replacements surgeries would attest. To sell to this cohort, you need to appeal to their vital and vigorous self-image. The names of the two over 50 magazines that I write for -- “Active Over 50” and “Vibrant Living” – are good examples of that approach.

ATTA has been following the "Boomer" trend for awhile - from your perspective, how much is this translating into a proportional shift of over 50 consumers within the industry?

My long time friend and colleague, boomer expert Ken Dychtwald, tells me that men and women over 50 spend 40% more time vacationing, spend 74% more on a typical vacation, travel further and take longer trips than people under 50. I also have a great deal of anecdotal data. I frequently ask tour operators the age of their typical clients, and it’s almost always over 50. And most report that the proportion of over 50s on their trips is increasing.

This past Spring I attended the 50th reunion of my graduating class from a public, all boys, academic high school in Philadelphia. I was expecting to stand out because I thought I had aged better, traveled to more interesting places, and did more interesting things than my former classmates (I guess we never leave high school one-ups-manship and competition completely behind). I was surprised by how vibrant so many of my classmates looked and by their stories of where they had traveled, trekked, climbed, kayaked and rafted. Not exactly what I was expecting from a bunch of aging, neurotic, over-achieving, working class kids from Philly.

You've mentioned that older travelers have been shifting towards more adventuresome activities than in the past - why is this? Are there certain types of adventure travel that are more or less popular with them?

I think that part of this answer can be found in the kinds of changes that all generations go through as they age. At the risk of sounding morbid, probably the most important reason is the sense that we have less time to check off items on our bucket list, and so everything we do becomes more important and valuable. We don’t want to put off that special, once-in-a-lifetime trip when our lifetime is rapidly running out. (Now I’m really depressed. Thanks for asking).

Another thing that happens to us as we get older is that we become less inner-directed and more outer-directed. When we were young we were concerned with questions like “who am I?” and “what is my place in the world?” as we wrestled with the challenges of career and family. In those days, our perspectives were frequently driven by hormones and adrenaline. By our 50s and surely by our 60s, many of these issues have been worked out, so we start to focus more on the world around us.

We get curious about other people, cultures, and parts of the world and wonder how they relate to the issues that are now important to us.  As our testosterone wears out and adrenaline seems more scary than fun, our perspectives become more cognitive, complex and multi dimensional. For example, visiting historically significant places will be even more poignant, elicit more memories, and evoke more profound and complex reactions, if you lived through the events that made them significant, even at a distance – e.g., Vietnam for baby boomers, Normandy for members of the “greatest generation.”

There are also a number of age-related changes specific to baby boomers. They are well educated, competitive and, many would argue, obsessed with defying their age and denying their mortality. “Do I still have it?” is the question that nags them as they jog, swim, swing rackets and clubs, and pump away on treadmills and weight benches. And just as they did in the 60s and 70s, many baby boomers are still searching for meaning.

Therefore, older travelers tend to look for unique, interesting and meaningful experiences that challenge them, but not so much that they have to starkly confront their age and mortality and answer “do I still have it” with an emphatic “no.”  Folding our bodies into sleeping bags or trying to make loungers out of rocks and logs doesn’t work well for most aging travelers . And probably most important are convenient bathrooms for those middle of the night runs which get more frequent as we grow older.  Physical challenges that confirm rather than shred that vibrant self image are also important as is the possibility of opting out of or mitigating  especially demanding activities without embarrassment or risk.

Is writing for the over 50 traveler different from writing for other the other audiences you've published for? How would you parlay this into advice for the adventure travel marketing industry when trying to reach this audience?

To be honest, most of the time I don’t write with the over 50 traveler in mind. I just let the narrative, the destination, the circumstances and the experiences shape my stories and filter all of it through my point of view. Since I am over 60 my point of view tends to tilt my articles toward an older audience, albeit the more adventurous bleeding edge of that audience. But looking over the list of my articles written over the last few years, I think that most, if not all, of the trips I have written about would appeal to travelers of all ages.

Aside from some of the constraints I mentioned  above -- comfort, access to medical care and bathrooms, opportunity to opt out of especially challenging activities, etc. --  I would market to the over 50s in the same way as I would market to sophisticated younger travelers.  What makes the trip/destination unique? Why should I spend my precious dollars and days doing this rather than that?

I think that a combination of factors makes a destination unique – e.g., exceptional physical features and wildlife, a culture that is very different than ours, a compelling history and socio-political context, especially one that connects to you personally, and current circumstances and events that might have broader impact. Finding what is unique and compelling and telling the story effectively is the key. For example, if I were a tour operator I would think about putting together trips to Tunisia and Egypt that included meetings with participants and leaders in the revolutionary events of recent months. Hot spots that have cooled off a bit can be very attractive destinations to people who are curious about the world.

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of luxury accommodations, gourmet meals, etc., but I think that these considerations are the context, not the main attraction of the trip. For most adventure travelers it’s a reason not to eliminate an interesting but potentially difficult trip from consideration, not the main reason for taking the trip.  Of course, having a very comfortable place to stay the first night of a trip and as something to look forward to at the end is a great way to bracket several days of roughing it in the wild or in a primitive or rustic destination.

Do you see any differences in how this segment travels, or approaches travel decisions and purchases, compared to their younger counterparts?

I think that older travelers are more thoughtful and deliberative in their travel decisions. You don’t want to make a bad decision since you don’t have all that many trips to waste. Besides, the consequences of a bad decision are more profound when you are older. Whether 60 is the new 40 or not, we are physically not able to adjust or bounce back from injury, sickness, or other misery as we once were when we were young and reckless.  I now think much more about provisions for emergencies and take a lot more time to ask about medical help, emergency communications, and the kind of travel insurance I buy than I ever did before. I feel like a wimp when I do it, but at least I know that I will have a better chance of being a live wimp for a while longer  .

What are the main trends in travel for this segment right now, and what do you anticipate them being in the next 3-5 years? How about the trends in media consumption?

Taking off from the above, I think that curiosity, novelty, self-validation, the wish to avoid hordes of tourists and the feeling of “been there, done that,” plus the opportunity to one-up your friends will continue to drive adventurous over-50s to cutting edge, exotic, undiscovered corners of the world.

Another trend I see is heritage travel. As you grow older the need to connect with your roots, to reach into an ancestral past to gain a sense of continuity across generations will lead many travelers to return to their mother countries, even if those “mothers” harassed and chased their grandparents away.

And speaking about continuity across generations, those connections extend into the future as well. Many of my friends have recently become grandparents. When I can get them to stop cooing over their grandkids for a moment, they tell me they can’t wait until the kids get old enough to take along on that camping, rafting, or fishing trip, or even back to the motherland to connect the generational dots in both directions.

As for media consumption, it will take some time before the python digests or excretes what’s left of that dead pig, so media for baby boomers should be around for a while.