PHOTO: A travel agent specializing in seniors can provide plenty of fun and adventure. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)
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In 1985, while serving as pastor of a growing church, Andy Lunt began planning and leading religious groups in 1985. Over the next 25 years, he put together multiple trips to the Holy Land, to England and Germany, and to Germany’s Oberammergau Passion Plays. Rather than use an agent, he did all the arrangements himself, working with airlines and suppliers, and preparing marketing materials and administered payments. In the process, he discovered that he enjoyed helping others travel and experience the world.
“When I realized planning travel had become a passion, I enrolled in classes at the Bennett School of Travel in Ellicott City, MD, and eventually gained my CTA,” he said. He joined Bennett World Travel as an independent contractor, focusing primarily at that time on continuing to plan religious-themed trips.
“In 2013, I joined Travel Experts, which was the best move I could have made,” he said. “Their help and support have been invaluable in enabling me to continue to grow my business with seniors.”
He began working with residents of continuing care communities quite by accident.
“Members of the congregation I served, who had been part of several of my trips moved to a community for retired military officers in northern Virginia, asked me if I would plan and present a trip for them and other residents,” he explained.
The first trip was an Alaska Cruise. “We began to establish an ongoing relationship that led to several trips each year,” he explained. “As I gained knowledge and experience from working with this group, I approached other continuing care communities in Maryland and northern Virginia to offer my services as well. In the process, I discovered that few agents were intentionally working with these communities.”
Since then he developed similar relationships with several communities and worked to build relationships of trust with the residents and administration.
“In one case, that trust level has reached the point where I am invited to have a table at the community’s annual Health and Wellness Fair—the only travel agent present along with representatives of medical and health agencies,” he said. “What this indicates to me is that the community has come to recognize that enriching travel experiences are very helpful to residents long-term health and wellness.”
Lunt said that his mission is always to provide life-changing, life-enriching travel experiences for clients. “I am 72, and we don’t need—or even want—more possessions,” he said. “What they do want, though are more enriching experiences that will enable them to continue growing. And travel is very able to provide that in abundance.”
Creating travel experiences does come with some obstacles. “The first, and perhaps greatest obstacle, is in convincing residents and administrators that I can be trusted to help and not victimize the seniors,” he said. “There is often an initial skepticism that I am only interested in making money at the expense of residents. Not every community that I have approached has allowed me to work with their residents, and I understand that. The best entrée is always through residents who know me and can vouch for my honesty and ability. I think my experience as a pastor helps me to some extent in this regard, though a key for any agent seeking to build relationships with senior communities is the willingness and ability to be a compassionate listener.”
A second obstacle is dealing with the mobility of his residents. “Virtually every group has some members who require scooters, walkers or wheelchairs and others deal with hearing and vision limitations,” he said. “This requires patience on my part and working with suppliers to make sure that accessibility needs are met. Because of their limitations, I try to travel with groups as often as possible, which sometimes stretches my capabilities and schedule.”
Some, of course, are still young and vigorous enough to venture far afield with trips to Europe, Asia and the Southern Hemisphere. Most, however, prefer to stay closer to home. “Cruising has become a major part of my senior travel business, in particular, homeport cruising, where residents can get to the pier without having to fly,” he said. “Cruising is ideal for this demographic since it allows for individually paced activity. Long days on a bus, with frequent overnights unloading luggage are not nearly as attractive to them.”
A very large challenge, he said, comes from the fact that seniors are much closer to death than the general population. “Professionally, this means I am constantly seeking to build a relationship with newer, younger residents to replace those who have died or become too infirm to travel,” he said. “This is offset to some extent by the fact that many seniors who have come to trust me through travel with a group feel comfortable recommending my service to friends and family.”
Personally, it means that he shares the pain of loss when clients do die. “These are wonderful people who have enriched my life as we have gotten to know one another through traveling together,” he said. “All agents face this to some extent, of course, but dealing with seniors makes it a much more frequent occurrence.
The best part of working with seniors, by far, is getting to know them and share in their lives. “These are folks who have lived a full life rich with experiences,” he said. “Their stories, which they are usually very willing to share, are filled with examples of humor, adventure, and moving anecdotes. Getting to hear them is a real blessing. They don’t “sweat the small stuff.” Because they deal daily with the aches, pains, and limitations of aging they are usually more able to roll with the punches and unexpected challenges that inevitably develop with travel.”
Lunt advises seniors to know their limitations and to look for travel opportunities that they can enjoy without becoming exhausted or injured. “While traveling, pace yourself; don’t try to do everything,” he said. “Include some down time in every day for rest and renewal. Wherever possible, travel with a group—whether it be friends, family, or fellow residents—for mutual support and greater enjoyment. And, try to find an agent like me who specializes in dealing with senior populations and is familiar with their particular needs and preferences.”