Joy Ryan is nowhere near 85 years of age, but for a few minutes on a Wednesday morning in October, she and two other Small Market Meetings Conference attendees flashed forward several decades and became senior citizens.
Their time travel came courtesy of Vicki Rosebrook, creator of a training and awareness program called Xtreme Aging, part of Rosebrook’s Macklin Institute.
To become decades older in an instant, Rosebrook outfitted Ryan, a senior sales manager for the Tri-Valley CVB in Pleasanton, Calif., in an aging suit — blue coveralls with weights added at the elbows, wrists and ankles. The outfit made Ryan look like an elderly astronaut or auto mechanic. It also made her move very slowly, she told the conference audience.
At the same time, Rosebrook handed glasses that mimicked the effects of cataracts or macular degeneration, and gloves that make hands operate like those with arthritis to Eugene Jerry, a meeting planner for the Social Security Administration in Maryland, and Jamie Wagner, a meeting planner for Campus Crusade for Christ in Missouri. They stuffed cotton balls in their ears to mimic hearing loss.
As Ryan, Jerry and Wagner stood onstage, their frustrations with sudden loss of mobility, strength, vision and hearing were apparent. They had trouble reading a menu, reading or sending a text message, buttoning a shirt. They told Rosebrook they felt discouraged, disconnected, isolated and helpless. After walking a few steps in the shoes of the elderly, all three — as well as those who watched their transformation — were much more aware of the challenges older people face.
That’s Rosebrook’s mission with Xtreme Aging training, which has been featured on “The Today Show” and National Public Radio and in the New York Times.
She’s out to build understanding of and empathy for the physical, emotional and psychological issues of aging. Her hope is to change negative attitudes so that those who work with older people — pretty much all of us, she points out — better understand and serve their needs. Her training is the ultimate prep course for what she calls “the aging tsunami” as the senior population doubles in the next 20 years, from 35 million to 70 million.
Xtreme Aging training is a weapon against ageism, a form of prejudice Rosebrook says has “fast become as prevalent as racism and sexism.”
Yet when the size of the future elderly population is considered, it makes sense that the over-65 market is one that hospitality professionals and meeting planners should be pursuing. Put simply, Rosebrook said, “Reducing ageism can improve sales.”
Meeting planners and hospitality suppliers are a logical target for Rosebrook’s training, given the diverse audiences they serve.
As Rosebrook pointed out, seniors will likely be an even more significant part of future meeting crowds, because even though baby boomers are retiring, that generation is projected to have three to four jobs after retirement and is likely to remain an engaged generation, with at least 42 percent involved in a hobby or pursuit that will send them to conferences and conventions. On the whole, seniors are likely to have more expendable income than other generations.
“If I was a meeting planner, I’d be looking at seniors,” Rosebrook said. “They have the money.”
In planning for the growing number of seniors, meeting planners need to keep in mind the issues of mobility, vision and hearing like those Ryan and her peers had foisted on them.
That means that signage, audiovisual presentations, and brochures and other printed materials must be easy to read.
Hearing loss, the problem about which people are in greatest denial, means that sound must be clear and take into account competing background noises inherent in conference settings.
Mobility issues make it imperative that meeting planners consider layout of convention floors and distances attendees must travel.
Changes might also be warranted in how registration is designed. For example, many older people might want to attend a conference but be hesitant to travel alone. Special “companion” registrations might be something meeting planners should consider, Rosebrook said.
Also, although seniors do typically have more expendable income, they are also very careful and conservative with their funds. They look for value, which might make registration discounts appealing for senior attendees.