Elderhostel changes name, if not image, to Exploritas

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Goodbye Elderhostel, evoking white hair and a slow pace in sensible shoes.

Hello Exploritas, a combination of exploration and the Latin word "veritas," or truth, that evokes a more adventurous image.

Today, one of the country's best-known travel and learning organizations is changing its name in hopes of updating its brand, appealing to a somewhat younger demographic and boosting enrollment.

Not that the slow-pace image was completely accurate. Elderhostel President James Moses said there were always plenty of programs for the vigorous. But the name Elderhostel itself has been a big barrier for baby boomers in their early 60s who love travel but hate being reminded that they're not getting any younger.

The age restrictions are changing, too. Programs are now open to those 21 and older, compared to previous age limits of 60 (1975 to 1993) and then 55. In addition, Exploritas.com has added a social networking feature where participants can meet each other online.

"We started thinking about this four or five years ago when we launched Road Scholar," said Mr. Moses, referring to a small-group program designed to attract younger, more active travelers. "We were hearing from a lot of people without asking them that they didn't think of themselves as old, that the program was appealing but the name was a bummer. They were urging us to change it."

The organization convened focus groups and found an "almost universally negative reaction to the name." Many participants said they'd tried to persuade friends of how worthwhile the experience was but had a hard time getting them past the name.

Pauline and Jim Parker of Gibsonia have taken 11 overseas trips with Eldherhostel and 22 in New York City, where they act as volunteers. They're all in favor of anything that brings new blood to the program, which they say features educational components they couldn't get on their own at unbeatable prices.

"Elder implied old people, and a hostel is a dorm with a bathroom down the hallway, which is very rare," said Mr. Parker, 75. He likes the idea of exploration with people of all ages. Mrs. Parker, 69, said the couple would never have learned how to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef any other way.

Mr. Moses sought to downplay changes in the program's content, maintaining that the subject matter has always evolved. Education, he said, has always been the central component and will remain so, with experts in their fields giving talks, conducting classes and leading tours. The organization currently has 8,000 programs in 90 countries, although 75 percent are in the United States.

Still, Exploritas already is offering more three-day trips (all domestic) for those who can't get away for long periods of time. It is also building more free time into some excursions and increasing the percentage of highly active programs with hiking, canoeing and bicycling.

In some cases there will be more famous names. A recent short program on Martha's Vineyard featured former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, while the writer Nigel West and producer-director Giles Ramsay of the British theater are on board for a United Kingdom program. In addition, trips will be rated by degree of difficulty.

Star power could help attract celebrity-conscious baby boomers, whose presence would help bring the average age of participants down from the current 73. Ten years ago, that number was 68.

Elderhostel has suffered with the rest of the travel industry from the post-9/11 downturn and the recent recession. Last year's enrollment of 155,000 was down 10,000 from the year before. That meant a loss of $9 million, $2.5 million of which was a direct result of the market crash. Last year's number was also a huge decline from the 261,000 who signed up in 1999.

Mr. Moses called the past decade "a perfect storm" of wars around the world, SARS, hoof and mouth disease and the economy -- not to mention swine flu. "It's been a very tumultuous time. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it wiped out 3,000 enrollments at once. New Orleans was our biggest destination for programming in the U.S."

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has zero offerings. The closest two are in the Laurel Highlands, while the other 68 Pennsylvania programs are in the central or eastern part of the state, mostly focused around Lancaster, Gettysburg and Philadelphia. Elderhostel spokeswoman Despina Gakopoulos said Pittsburgh's attractions have been a "hard sell" for travelers unaware of its charms.

Mr. Moses is guessing that the most receptive audience for the Exploritas will be those in their early 60s. But he knows that some longtime loyal participants might be put off by the rebranding effort.

"We're trying to communicate that we're not changing the organization they love. We're still Elderhostel, even though our publications and catalogs will carry the Exploritas name. This is really about reaching those who have not participated in the past."

Jean Gershon, 87, of Oakland, is a veteran of more than a dozen trips.

"They're going to lose the older crowd, I think," she said. "Exploritas doesn't sound like something people in their 70s are going to go to. I would be set back by the term if I didn't know what it was. All the shortened courses are a big turn-off. If you're going to travel, you want to spend enough time to make it worthwhile."

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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