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Road Scholar, Once Elderhostel, Targets Boomers

How the famed learning-while-traveling program has switched gears

By Robert DiGiacomo

In 1975, a nonprofit educational travel organization called Elderhostel launched with five programs for several hundred retired participants at colleges and universities in New Hampshire. Combining classroom time with travel tours and experiential learning, the organization — which shucked the "elder" connotation in 2010 to better appeal to boomers with its new name, Road Scholar (get it?) — has since expanded around the U.S. and in 150 countries, serving 100,000 people a year, according to President and CEO James Moses.

The group’s 5,500 tours now range from budget-minded five-night stays across the U.S. to immersive, global four- to six-week-long “Living and Learning” stints that attempt to replicate the semester abroad experience.

Road Scholar is helping mark its 40-year milestone with several initiatives, including the expansion of its scholarship program to include caregivers, and the Oct. 15 launch of National Lifelong Learning Day, which it hopes will become an annual event.

Moses, who has worked at the nonprofit since 1979, talked with Next Avenue about the difference between Road Scholar and its for-profit competition; how its programs have adjusted to meet boomers’ expectations and why grandchildren programs have become a growth opportunity. Highlights:

Next Avenue: What prompted the name change to Road Scholar?

Moses: If you talked to any baby boomer and you called them a senior or an elder, they would say you’re nuts. Someone who’s 70 thinks they’re middle-aged. It’s an interesting phenomenon — the World War II generation wore the name “elder” with real pride, like an elder statesmen or an elder in a tribe. But baby boomers don’t see it that way.

You also dropped the “hostel” in the name. Was that a source of confusion?

Moses: I think it was a misperception of what we really were. We launched in 1975 — I would say by 1985, we were almost always using hotels. After years of research and focus groups, we found there was a real aversion to participating in a group called Elderhostel. It denoted they would be staying in hostels and would be backpacking and that it would be hard to do.

They couldn’t get past the connotation of the name to understand what the experience would be about. It was with a lot of trepidation that we launched the new name, but the reactions have been fantastic, even from longtime participants.

How is Road Scholar different from other tour operators with an educational focus?

Moses: Our educational experiences are highly academic. People who choose a Road Scholar learning experience don’t think of themselves as tourists. They’re students, they’re travelers, they’re on a journey. When you come together with people who have that mindset, you can make lifelong friends. When you go back to your university days, what it was like, how close the bonds that were formed, that is what happens on a Road Scholar program.

In what ways has the baby boom generation impacted your approach?


Moses: The name was the biggest change. But there have been a number of program innovations inspired by the baby boomers’ perspective on the world. We moved a lot of the academic experiences out of the classroom and made it much more experiential. For the most part, the current generation of elders wants to be on the go, but is just as fanatical about learning.

[For example], in the past, in Madrid, there would have been a classroom lecture on art in the morning and you might have an hour in the Prado to see key pieces. It was almost impossible to have a group learning experience. Now we have a lecture on the bus on the way to the museum, and we have listening devices the lecturer can use in the museum, and you’re not disrupting anyone.

Boomers also have helped make grandchildren programs an important component, including a new initiative for the college-age set. Why do you think these multigenerational programs are gaining in popularity?

Moses: Baby boomers are embracing grandparent-grandchild learning experiences in a big way, because grandparents don’t generally live in the same town [as their grandkids] anymore. They see each other when the whole family gets together, which is a whole different dynamic. We’re hearing from grandparents and grandchildren that they’re learning together, bonding together and learning about each other in a way they never would have before.

We have grandparents that take every grandchild when they turn 10-years-old. We get letters from grandchildren saying they had no idea how cool their grandmother was.

Are boomers proving more adventurous than previous generations?

Moses: The newer participants are much more interested in what we’re calling “flex learning.” We’ve created a whole series of programs that allow people more free time to pursue opportunities on their own that we prescribe.

They want to be more in charge, and they feel really confident about their ability to go off on their own and do things. But even those who want to take charge recognize there is a tremendous benefit to being with experts who are creating access for you that you could never have on your own.

Robert DiGiacomo is a veteran Philadelphia, Pa.-based journalist who covers food and travel, arts and entertainment and personal finance. He has written for The Washington Post, USA TODAY,  The Penn Gazette and Fodor's. Read More
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