Holly Stiel President, Thank You Very Much Inc.
Many of my clients and friends in executive positions with top hospitality players tell me that catering to the senior market has never been high on their agendas. It was millennials that garnered all the attention because of their lifetime value. However, what I know to be true is that the Baby Boomers are the ones to turn the focus on right now.
Why? The over 65 crowd has the time, the money and the desire to have experiences -- and they have the secret sauce: the vaccine! Once vaccinated, they are already beginning to socialize. Having been deprived of connection and camaraderie for a year, they long to converse, to mingle and to get out of the house.
While this market may not have been previously interesting to focus on, today it is worth a serious look because paying attention to it just might keep you in business. But, who knows, you might also enjoy the company.
I want to specifically address the restaurant industry which is ripe with low hanging fruit solutions to attract the patronage of the Baby Boom generation. But first, allow me to first walk you through some examples of the existing pain points and barriers that prevent seniors from frequenting a majority of restaurants.
One of the biggest concerns of the senior market is around sound. The trend towards high decibel environments has become the norm and finding a quiet restaurant where conversation can easily flow is a daunting research project at best and a futile effort at worst. I am so keenly attuned to this, not only as I am in this demographic, but because my husband, who is in his 70's, and like many seniors, has a hearing loss. The sound of pounding bass makes him so deeply uncomfortable that we cannot go out to dinner.
Once, in New York City we walked in and out of seven restaurants before we found a small place that was comfortable enough to sit down in. Another memorable experience was while I was working for a large mall developer in Great Britain. My husband and I were staying at a hotel in their mall on the outskirts of town. There were six restaurants in the mall. Each had interesting menus and enticing themes, but not one was welcoming of a guest with hearing aids. Six restaurants and not one with anything but hard surfaces and not a drop of sound absorption. We were lucky that the weather was nice and we were able to eat on the patio. I borrowed dishes and cutlery from the hotel and every night did take out.
Many of us who have traveled during COVID are familiar with this routine of take out and bringing food back to the hotel and know it is mediocre at best. The experience I am describing happened four years ago -- long before any isolation was mandated. It was simply forced on us as our demographic was simply ignored in the new trends in restaurant design, style and sensibility and we had nowhere comfortable to go.
If you want the one group of people who have a comfort level to go out at this time to patronize you and keep your business afloat, you will need to meet them where they are, welcome them as any great host would and ensure their comfort.
I do not know one person in their mid 60's and beyond who wants to speak on the top of their lungs in a loud restaurant to attempt to have a conversation. If they did go out, they simply put up with it because there were no other choices.
It really doesn't have to be this way and I'm here to share with you five elements of the experience that you can implement immediately to attract and welcome the valuable senior guest. In thinking about this topic, I contacted my former client and go-to Millennial thought partner, Julia Tolstunova, who led Guest Experience at the luxury Collection and is a hospitality consultant. Together, we crafted this list to be simple, actionable and helpful.
5 Experience Elements you can Fine Tune to Attract the Senior Market
Turn down the music. I know a vibe and energy is necessary and music creates atmosphere but check the level of the bass (people with hearing aids can't handle that sound). Experiment with different types of music and ASK your customers what they like.
Invest in sound absorption. To ensure comfort for a mature crowd, look at ways to absorb sound. There are some quick fixes, like area rugs, tablecloths, and cushions. Think conversation and connection as the reason for your guests to be there. How might you approach the design differently if that is the purpose of dining out today?
Enhance the lighting. Aging eyes are particularly uncomfortable in low light. It feels disempowering when one cannot read the menu or see what they are eating. If your restaurant is dark, a simple light adjustment, perhaps even for the earlier dining hours, could help, while keeping the atmosphere. If brighter lighting is not an option, invest in small lamps that clamp on to the menus or add table lamps.
Get Timing Right. While the "Early Bird Special'' has a very tacky connotation, you should know that most seniors would like to be home by 8 pm. They don't like to drive after dark. Is this a stereotype? I don't think so. I attended a Bette Midler concert a few years ago and she thanked everyone for coming after dark. I think that audience made an exception, but if you are not Bette, you might want to think about this. You don't have to serve a discounted special meal at 5 pm. Just keep the music lower, the lights brighter and entice this demographic to dine with you. You might even think about how you utilize your lunch or offer high tea that might appeal to a mature crowd.
Be Flexible. Be aware of food sensitivities. You should already be, but with a senior demographic this is even more prevalent. Ensure your menus call out allergens and staff asks about food sensitivities when taking orders. Also, consider the idea of kitchen flexibility and the ability to customize dishes by keeping potential allergens as toppings so the dish can be easily served without them. You don't have to cook one order of ahi tuna at two different temperatures so the diners can split it, but accommodating for changes and making split orders easy and still served attractively is paramount in making people feel welcomed. Substitutions will be common and should be prepared for.
Now that I shared these five solutions, I want to be clear on one caveat. None of this is about singling out seniors or doing things that are conspicuous. You are not treating them as you would a child when you offer a highchair and a coloring book with crayons. You don't hand seniors reading glasses upon arrival or give everyone in the party a regular menu and a Readers Digest size large print menu to the person with grey hair. There's also no need to make a bouquet of "readers."
Literally don't make a spectacle out of it, just have some spectacles at your fingertips. It is simply about ascertaining needs and being prepared: you are accommodating because you care about their business and want to create a comfortable experience for your guests. It is embedded in your service and it is subtle and seamless. It will be appreciated by people other than seniors as they begin to congregate again. Focus on the purpose of going out today. Rethink your offering. Pre-covid going out might have been an escape from all the intensity, now it is about relationships. What needs to be amplified is what this demographic values: conversation and connection, not the music.
Something to remember about this generation is that these seniors are the children of the 60's. It's a generation that always felt empowered to do good, to change, to rebel, to be curious, to savor life and seize the day. They now have a new opportunity.
They can literally save the hospitality industry, especially the restaurant industry, from the brink of disaster. All you have to do is invite them in and make them feel welcomed, seen, appreciated and respected. The time is NOW and for the next year those children of the 60's who are the seniors of today want to go out. They are alive, and there are millions of them, they have money to spend.
The question is: will they spend it with you? My guess is, if you make it comfortable for them, they will.