Taking Steps, in an Age-Simulation Suit, to Assist Older TravelersThe number of people 60 and over is growing. So airports and hotels are beginning to look at design changes to help them.
By Julie Weed, April 22, 2019
Samantha Flores was having a tough time getting through the airport. The signs were hard to see, the announcements were hard to hear and the people rushing by made her feel unsteady on her stiffened knees. Finally, with relief, she made her way to a bench to sit down, catch her breath and take off her “age simulation suit.”
Ms. Flores is the director for experiential design for the architecture firm Corgan, and the nearly 30-pound suit was meant to help her, a 32-year-old, experience the physical challenges of navigating the world as an older person. Goggles and headphones “impaired” her sight and hearing. Gloves reduced feeling and simulated hand tremors. Weighted shoes, along with neck, elbow and knee movement restrictors, approximated mobility limitations.
Using the suits is one way designers who work with airports and the travel industry are starting to look at creating spaces for different groups of people (besides interviewing senior travelers and others about their experiences). And older people are one group whose numbers are growing.
According to the World Health Organization, the percentage of the world’s population over 60 will nearly double by 2050, rising to 22 percent from 12 percent. In the United States, the Census Bureau projects that by 2035, people 65 and older will outnumber children for the first time.
While some design adaptations for older travelers might seem obvious, like benches placed for frequent rest stops, others are not as intuitive. Research conducted by Corgan found that elderly people were more likely to look down while they were walking, which means they could miss directional signs above their heads. So the company suggested that its airport clients place more information closer to the ground. It also found that older air travelers often headed straight for their gate to reduce anxiety about missing flights, so they bypassed the main concession hubs. The firm recommends that airports add more food options near the boarding areas.
The firm also found that shiny floors should be avoided because they could appear wet and cause people to worry about falling.
Donald P. Hoover, associate director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s International School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said the leisure and tourism industries would do well to focus on this group. They “must consider the disabilities related to aging and keep them in mind when designing and creating anything associated with the guest experience,” he said.
Professor Hoover said many of the changes could benefit travelers of all ages. At hotels or airports, for instance, shortening the time spent waiting in line to check in, training staff to recognize and act on guests’ special needs, or designing simpler websites and more ergonomic bathrooms could improve everyone’s experience.
Some adaptations are more technical. A few airports have begun installing special systems that transmit announcements directly to the telecoil receiver in a user’s hearing device, allowing those with hearing aids to more easily understand announcements at the gate. The airports in Detroit and Rochester are among those rolling out the system.
A handful of airports, including Los Angeles and Seattle-Tacoma, have recently begun offering Aira, glasses for low-vision or blind people. The glasses connect through Wi-Fi to allow a trained guide to see what the wearers are seeing and help them navigate through the airport, identify luggage and accomplish other tasks. Kevin Phelan, vice president of sales and marketing for the company, said its top requests from older people using its service in hotels and Airbnbs were to do a walk-through so they could avoid tripping hazards and to adjust thermostats.
The Seattle airport has estimated that 35 percent of the people coming through last year were 55 or older, said Perry Cooper, an airport spokesman. To serve this group and others, the airport has begun offering electric cart service between the airport’s light rail station and the terminal, so passengers don’t have to walk the few tenths of a mile. A service for travelers arriving on cruises from Alaska lets them send their luggage directly from the ship to their departing flight.
At Tampa International Airport, the proportion of older travelers is higher than national levels — 40 percent of adult travelers are 55 or older, said Danny Valentine, an airport spokesman.
During a large renovation and expansion project that was completed last year, the Tampa airport worked with the design firm HOK and Skanska, a construction company, to minimize walking distances and create an open layout so passengers could easily find their way to gates, restrooms and restaurants. Additional staff members were stationed throughout the terminal. “For older passengers,” Mr. Valentine said, “it’s important to have that human touch.”
Hotel companies like Marriott International say they are also keeping an eye on travel trends among older guests. Toni Stoeckl, vice president of distinctive select brands at Marriott International, said one of the brands, Element Hotels, was introducing “Studio Commons” later this year — units with four rooms positioned around a single common area. The concept was developed partly in response to a rise in multigenerational family trips. In the new rooms, he said, “baby boomers can have their own private room but still share a common living area with kids or grandkids.”
Smaller properties look at those needs, as well. Joanne Cunningham, director of sales and marketing at the Dunes Manor Hotel & Suites in Ocean City, Md., said some of the hotel’s guests had been visiting since the 1960s. The management wanted to make sure they could keep returning comfortably with children and grandchildren, so Dunes converted the top three of its 11 floors to rooms that would be friendly to older people, equipping them with showers instead of bathtubs, and fixtures and furnishings that are easier for older guests to use, like extra bright lamps with large visible outlets for electronics.
“It’s important that guests who have been part of our ‘family’ for so many years are well taken care of,” she said.
Small businesses that cater to tourists are also taking steps to become more elder-friendly. Miceal O’Hurley, proprietor of Fantastic Flavours Ice Cream Parlour in Youghal, Ireland, estimates that almost half of his customers are retirees from the United States and Europe. Last year, he worked with older people and architects to evaluate each aspect of his customers’ experience and went beyond eliminating tripping hazards and installing better lighting.
Mr. O’Hurley said he had widened door frames to accommodate walkers and people being assisted by a friend. He bought sturdier table bases so customers could lean on them when rising from a chair and removed some furniture to make the space easier to navigate. The store installed sound dampeners to drown out the sharp sounds and moderate the high frequencies that had caused older travelers to turn down their hearing aids.
“It was a lot to do,” Mr. O’Hurley said. But, he added, it was also important “as the average age of travelers increases.”
Jimmy Carroll, co-founder of the travel expedition company Pelorus, said he had found that as multigenerational travel had become more popular, grandparents “don’t want to miss out on anything.” He said his staff tried to find ways for everyone to participate in activities. On one family’s trip to Costa Rica, for instance, a grandmother traveled along in a submersible vehicle with a pilot while her grandchildren snorkeled around her.
Pelorus also arranges experiences for its older clients with the goal of “having them do something they thought was no longer possible,” Mr. Carroll said.
Aixa Ritz, who researches sustainable tourism at Fairleigh Dickinson’s hospitality school, said people’s “definition of adventure changes as we get older.” She is 72, and refers to herself as a “senior boomer.” She said she and her friends were still excited to see new places, “but we want everything taken care of.