The greying of the world's population, the increasingly active and younger retirees in many developed countries and the general trend towards combining a vacation with experiences to really get to know a country all these are factors that point to growth in demand for language courses for senior clients. As Agent, Mary McKay Vilén at Canada Live in Switzerland, points out, "There are still a lot of adults who need to make up for what they did not learn earlier in life, [and] with an increasingly active population of retirees, there's every reason for them to be looking for language programmes [overseas]."
Language courses for senior students, aged 50 and above, are not a new phenomenon in the language travel market but they remain a niche product for most providers and agents. Nevertheless, with growth assured in the future, they are definitely one sector worth watching. Gál Orsolya, Executive Manager at Katedra Nyelviskola agency in Hungary, reports that although they have not yet had any bookings for the senior programmes they offer, "we consider that there will be more and more demand for special senior programmes in the future".
While most language schools accept students of all ages, there is debate among providers as to whether there really is a need for specific senior courses. The Piccola Universita' Italiana in Tropea, Italy does not offer a specific programme for seniors; nevertheless, around 20 per cent of its annual intake is made up of older students. The school's Director, Antonio Lamantea, says, "[Seniors] study together with other senior students and also young students in the same group. In our experiences they prefer mixed groups, they like the atmosphere and, not being the only senior student in the group, they don't feel embarrassed."
However, although seniors will always like the choice of being able to join mainstream classes, there is also demand for targeted senior programmes, although McKay Vilén argues that this targeting is mainly through the type of language tuition provided and the range of activities offered, rather than age. She believes the age limit on senior programmes "can be as low as 25 years".
But there are many language schools that believe senior students do enjoy learning in classes of similar aged students and have developed courses to meet this demand. Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth, UK has been offering specific courses for older students for over 20 years. The school's Marketing Manager, Guido Schillig, explains why they entered the market. "[We launched these programmes] to fill a need for mature students to study English in classes and enjoy activities and excursions that are apart from other younger students."
In Spain, International House (IH) Barcelona and Palma launched their seniors' course about five years ago. "We decided to enter this sector because we realised that people at this age often prefer to study with people the same age. Older people often have [different] interests in the cultural programme and the other activities so we made this course specially," explains Carmen Sanchez, Marketing Manager for IH Barcelona and Palma, where seniors generally make up between five and 10 per cent of their annual intake.
Sensitive to the different interests of seniors, Rotorua English Language Academy in Rotorua, New Zealand expanded its English plus activities to include English for older students. "This course is very similar to [our] English with activities course, but some of the activities are more suitable for older students," explains Chris Leckie at the school. "We will often go on garden tours or lake cruises, and do plenty of walking in the forest and around the lakes."
Certain locations are also more appealing to seniors. Canada Live offers a senior course in Wakefield, Quebec, "which has the advantage of being in a rural setting, but close to Ottawa with all of its museums and other attractions", says McKay Vilén. She adds, "The Indian summer in this part of Canada is also particularly beautiful."
In contrast to most other sectors of the language teaching market where, top of the list for many students is squeezing in as much language learning as possible, the opposite is often true for seniors where a slower pace of learning is usually desired. In addition, says Joan Lynch at Galway Cultural Institute & Galway Business School in Ireland, "we have seen that vocabulary and speaking needs are generally more favoured than grammatical or writing development." Emma McEwen at EC English Language Centre in St Julians, Malta, agrees. "Our Club 50+ course is highly practical and focuses on speaking English confidently in everyday situations."
At IH Barcelona and Palma where the seniors' course consists of only three hours of Spanish lessons a day in small classes of an average of six students Sanchez adds, "Senior language students expect interesting classes where teachers help out with individual programmes. They are interested in learning the language to get by in day-to-day conversations. They also expect a well-organised cultural programme, where they can learn a lot about the city, without having to organise it all by themselves."
Lorinda Theuma of Inlingua Malta in Sliema describes typical activities on their senior programme. "After morning language lessons, students are accompanied on tours to World Heritage sites and visits to some of Malta's historic towns and villages."
Europass - Centro Studi Europeo in Florence, Italy, which has always attracted a relatively high proportion of senior language learners, has recently expanded its course offerings to include a specific course for seniors. This was in response to the needs of seniors for a more relaxed learning programme, as Nora Huellmantel at the school explains. "We continuously had enrolments from elderly people, but these students often tended to spend time in museums or [took] a day off, going on a day trip instead of frequenting the lessons regularly." The new programme for seniors includes an art and cooking course, which incorporates 10 hours of Italian tuition with two lessons of art history, two cooking lessons and two guided tours per week.
Another newcomer to the seniors sector is Instituto Picasso in Malaga, Spain, which launched its specific senior programme this year in response to several requests from agents. Like Europass, it has always attracted a relatively high proportion of seniors between five and 20 per cent of enrolments in the off-peak months are from students aged 50 and over. The new course is less intense than their general Spanish course and dedicates an equal amount of classroom time to conversation as it does to grammar. According to Ursula Holthausen at the school, the course is targeted at two types of seniors: those who want to enjoy the mild winter weather in Spain, and those who are resident there. "This second group, in particular, does not need the fast progression of the courses, but a continuous opportunity to practise and use the language," she says.
The grey dollar country trends
Nationality trends in the senior sector generally reflect the affluence of the provider countries, with Western Europeans and Japanese topping the league table of seniors for many course providers. Andrew Hjort, Principal at Melton College in York, UK reports that their main nationalities are Scandinavian, German, Belgian, Japanese, Italian and, more recently, Czech. Anja Denysiuk at Alpha B in Nice, France also notes growing demand from the Czech Republic for their Club 50 course. "Czech students in this programme are quite new which is certainly due to improving economic conditions of the country and increasing [business] between France and the Czech Republic," she asserts.
Lynch in Ireland says their senior clients come mainly from "the continental European market Spain, Italy, France, Germany, etc", but she adds, "In recent years we have seen a steady growth in our Asian and Eastern European student numbers."
Other student provider countries have yet to catch on to the trend towards senior learners, although a lot of this has to do with the socio-economic situations of the countries themselves. Olga Namestnikova, Director of Sales at Magister agency in Russia, says that they offer the whole range of language travel programmes including courses for seniors, but that older students are generally not interested in these types of courses but still favour more intensive language programmes. "The majority of our female bookings for over-50s are for courses for teachers or general courses," she recounts. "The majority of our male bookings are for business courses."
In the main provider countries, growth in demand is expected to continue to grow. As Tabitha Symonds, UK Director of volunteer placement company, Global Vision International, says, "Nowadays most people are still in excellent health in their 50s and 60s, just at the time where they are often released from the responsibilities of careers, mortgages, children, etc, and finally have an opportunity to do something they want to do for themselves."
McEwen adds that low-cost flights have also boosted demand. "Club 50+ accounts for approximately two per cent of our adult enrolments. This proportion has increased annually since the launch of our package [in 2002] with improved frequency and cost of flights," she says. "Seniors are travelling more often, enjoying their disposable income and free time. Our programme enables them to make friends from all over the world and socialise in a natural environment whilst building their confidence to use the language."Tourism indicators
Although senior language courses may make up a relatively small part of the total language travel market, there are also indicators in the mainstream tourism market that point to growth. According to the World Travel Market's UK and Europe Travel Report, demand for package tours is high from more mature Japanese travellers who want to experience the lifestyle of the local people at the destinations they visit and language programmes definitely fit in with this.
At Anglo Continental in the UK, Schillig says that, although their seniors are looking for a "lifestyle experience", they have more disposable income than younger language travel students, so generally favour executive-level host families. This is borne out by the experiences of McKay Vilén. She says, "[Seniors generally] ask for accommodation in a host family where there are no small children and where they have a private bathroom."
Another interesting trend in the mainstream tourism market is the demand, especially among mature Japanese travellers, for package tours that offer very specific activities. According to the report, among the most successful packages in the Japanese market have been tours to various cities in Germany that host Christmas markets. Even during the tourism crisis years of 2001 and 2003 when Japanese outbound travel declined and Europe lost market share, these tour programmes attracted growing numbers of participants, it states.
This trend towards specific packages tailored to the senior market has been picked up on by Schillig. "Schools need to offer different types of themes," he asserts. "This is why we at Anglo-Continental introduced a second programme for seniors that focused on learning English and enjoying country gardens. Students study English, attend lectures in gardening and particpate in excursions to different types of English gardens. We are thinking about introducing other themes in the future, as the seniors are wanting to do new things."
Another interesting trend is the increase in seniors taking up volunteer placements overseas. Sarah Horner at i-to-i.com, based in the UK, states, "We have seen numbers [of senior volunteers] double year on year for the past three years. It is currently our fastest growing group." According to Horner, these senior clients tend to choose "people-facing projects usually teaching or community development" in India, Kenya and Latin America.
One could assume that a niche product such as language programmes for seniors demands niche marketing. Certainly, one way to market such programmes is through the targeting of special interest clubs that attract a high proportion of older people. However, this is not always the best way in which to market to seniors, says Mary McKay Vilén at Canada Live agency in Switzerland. "[We used] to market via a senior club, but it soon became apparent that they wanted to have more in common with other course participants than simply being the same age," she relates. Instead, Canada Live now suggests a senior course to suitable clients who contact them with a general inquiry.
Agents have an important role to play in the selling of programmes to seniors. Often less trusting of the Internet than younger students, seniors tend to look for face-to-face consultations when booking language courses, as Nora Huellmantel at Europass - Centro Studi Europeo in Italy points out. "Agents work quite well in this area, as they appear trustworthy and an easy method of getting all the information, whereas Internet research is often done less by seniors," she says. According to Huellmantel, their senior numbers have grown to account for between five to 10 per cent of their annual enrolment and she attributes this increase to their business partnerships with agents. "We have been working closely with agents focusing on this sector and have done much word-of-mouth publicity, mainly in European neighbouring countries [such as] Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where it is easy for people to come to Italy, or they already have some contacts or experiences with Italy."
Joan Lynch at Galway Cultural Institute & Galway Business School in Ireland also says that their main recruitment method for senior programmes is agents. "We find the third-age students are more trusting of our agents than the Internet and want assurance that they will be taken care of from the moment they book until their return to their own country. Agents provide the ideal service for them."
Emma McEwen at EC English Language Centre in Malta notes that their agents have been sending their own parents on their programme! "With an increasing number of agents testing out our senior programme, we expect this sector to continue to grow."
As well as agents, word-of-mouth recommendations from previous students are also an important feeder to schools, says Guido Schillig at Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth, UK. "For these types of programmes word-of-mouth recommendation is very important this is why Anglo-Continental has so many of its seniors returning year after year. They also recommend our senior programmes to their friends."
At Lydbury English Centre in the UK, Duncan Baker reports that they have one company that requires its employees, while at the school, to spend a day at their UK headquarters during the two-week course, but that on the whole, "most students are here to get as much out of the course and the [teaching] environment as they can".