Understanding the needs of senior citizens travelling to New Zealand is the key to unlocking a lucrative and comparatively untapped tourism market.
That's the finding of AUT postgraduate student Dominik Huber, whose PhD concluded "life events" (like retirement, health issues, children leaving home, the absence of a partner and more) affect the way a group of retirees, aged from 65-91, travel.
His findings, which include recommendations tourism businesses develop more products to allow less mobile seniors to travel comfortably and easily, have been hailed by the director of the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute, Professor Simon Milne, as significant in an area where little research is available.
"His research has opened up our understanding of this important market. New Zealand is dependent on tourism and understanding the travel behaviour of this group can help governments tailor infrastructure to allow tourist spots to be more accessible to this growing demographic ," he says.
The grey or silver market is recognised internationally as a major segment of an ageing world but there is little New Zealand research into the wants and needs of a travel demographic widely recognised but little understood.
International figures, like those of AARP Travel research published late last year, suggest that 99 per cent of US baby boomers (aged between 51-70) have travel plans in 2016 - but only 32 per cent involve international travel. That is where the opportunity lies for New Zealand tourism; senior travellers tend to stay longer and spend more than other groups.
The opportunity, says Huber, also comes at the higher end of the age spectrum when seniors facing health or disability issues are dissuaded from travelling because of the effort involved in a simple task like handling luggage.
He says there is potential for tourism businesses to develop products enabling less mobile seniors to overcome age-related disability - and not just by focusing on senior-friendly accommodation and disabled car parking.
"Accessibility needs to encompass the complete travel process including the planning stages (digital and written information), transportation, and services at the destination," he says. "In particular, carrying luggage often appeared as a constraining and uncomfortable issue for seniors whose strength is diminishing.
"The development and marketing of a complete senior-friendly product with a senior-friendly transportation chain can help overcome constraints experienced in old age."
Even booking travel online - something being embraced by older travellers - doesn't differentiate between senior and other travellers; Huber says a digital window enabling seniors to see how they would be catered for could boost tourism
Huber focused on a group of senior citizens from Germany; studying them as potential visitors in that age group from an important market for New Zealand tourism.
Compared to previous generations, Huber says, seniors are already well-travelled and far more inclined to take their travel habits into their twilight years - opening the opportunity for further tourism growth.
"This population is important since it is a growing market segment," he says. "These people are likely to carry their behaviours into old age."
But while such travellers are often comparatively affluent, the industry lacks understanding of their needs so are unable to cater fully to them, he says.
Milne, also Huber's supervisor at AUT, agrees: "Dominik's research filled several gaps when it comes to understanding travel behaviour. Researchers have tended to focus on the activities of young and middle-aged travellers," he says.
That is not a pattern limited to travel. A wide range of businesses around the world have been assessing whether their marketing focus has been too limited to younger age groups even as statistics clearly show that the world is ageing and those in that demographic have a large slice of the spending power. One example late last year was the arrival of the first mobile phone designed specifically for seniors, with larger buttons and simpler controls.
Huber believes seniors are often perceived as a homogenous group, meaning significant variations in health, mobility and other factors are ignored and travel options aren't being tailored to their significantly different needs.
"In fact this population group is as heterogeneous as their younger counterparts. This is the reason why it is important to understand the real-life conditions of the population.
"[Younger seniors' experience is determined by] retirement and when children leave the family home," he says. "That often leaves a vacuum that can be filled with tourism activities."
Older seniors, on the other hand, have their travel curbed due to deteriorating health, a decline in their social environment and lack of travel partners.
Read more from AUT here