Boomer Tourism, Cold War Era Automaker Thinking And The Cuba Connection

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Cuba tourism is booming despite the 1960 embargo

Radio announcerDateline: October 19, 1960, Washington, D.C.

At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy imposes a U.S. travel and trade embargo on Cuba. In other news, Detroit’s boffo all-new models for 1961 are being introduced; Cuba will have to keep calm and carry on with old cars.

Before Fidel Castro’s revolution precipitated the embargo, Cuba was a popular destination for American tourists. A lot has changed since then, not only travel behavior but also the automobile market. Back in October 1960, when Boomers’ early memories and attitudes were still forming, it was a very different world …

  • 1961 Top car adsFolks drove cars, not trucks
  • Domestic nameplates controlled 95% of the market
  • VW ruled the tiny import segment with a 2/3 share
  • Mercedes was a small foreign car: it would not displace Cadillac as the Cadillac Of The Industry for another 20 years.

Despite America’s cold shoulder, Cuba has steadily recovered its popularity as a vacation destination. Canadians love the place – over a million visit each year – and the Europeans are not far behind …

  • Caribbean_Cuba travel 20152015 was a record for Cuba visitors (3.5 million).
  • 2014 to 2015 growth (17.4%) was over twice that for the Caribbean overall (7%).
  • Only 161,000 Cuba visitors were mainstream Americans with no family ties to the island – mainly celebrities, academics and politicos  on permitted cultural exchanges.

Boomers … “the driving financial force for travel” (Brent Green)

Some analysts attribute the boom to foreigners rushing to experience the “real” Cuba before we American rubes spoil the place with our penchant for efficiency, air conditioning and Starbucks.

You can be sure that a whole lot of Boomers do indeed have Cuba on their bucket list. The Caribbean is already the #2 overseas destination for US travelers behind Europe (our neighbors Canada and Mexico are international destinations not overseas).

No surprise, Boomers are the bedrock upon which the U.S. travel industry is built. Half of all leisure trips are accounted for by travelers over fifty, and that translates into mega-billions of dollars.

Travel_US 2015 by generationIn 2015 U.S. travelers of all ages racked up almost a trillion dollars in expenditures, $651 billion for leisure and $296 billion for business (U.S. Travel Association).

Given our lifelong curiosity and adaptability, it’s understandable that Boomers should dominate this vast market – after all, we pioneered the mass-tourism business. In 1967, the oldest of us were already grabbing backpacks and taking to the friendly skies at a time when only 20% of Americans had ever ridden in an airplane (Gallup) – today, it’s north of 90%.

It’s also understandable that, following the 1970 advice of Crosby, Stills and Nash to teach your children well, we Boomers went on to introduce our kids to far away places with strange sounding names. Today, overseas travel is pretty much a rite of passage for upmarket Millennials.

Of course, the industry is smart enough to not lose sight of the big dollars – the fifty-plus space in general, and Boomers in particular

As generational marketing expert Brent Green put it in a recent interview with Travel Pulse “for the next 20 years Baby Boomers are, without question, the financial force behind leisure travel … (and) the sweetest of the sweet spot are leading edge Baby Boomers – those 61-70 years of age.”

The 50+ space: automakers can learn from the travel industry 

2015 Vehicle sales _ US _ Germany _ UKAutomakers should take note of Brent’s insights: applying his time frame to the car business, in the next 20 years, Americans over fifty will buy 150 million new vehicles.

Yes, you read it correctly: 150 million in the next 20 years. In 2015 alone, we purchased 7.6 million – more than Germany and the UK combined.

So it’s bizarre is that car makers enforce a strict embargo on ads directly targeting consumers outside the 18-49 demographic. Afraid to scare Millennials, they throw away billions of dollars by marginalizing older buyers.

Don Draper in CubaThis relic of mid-century thinking is frozen in time, just like Havana’s fleet of pre-1960 automobiles.

If the travel industry can profit enormously from a modern understanding of Boomers and Gen Xers now pouring into the 50+ demo at a rate of 4 million a year then why not automakers?

Maybe disruptive Millennials in the car business can persuade the old guard to drop their Cold War era ban on engaging prospects over fifty. You know – build bridges, not walls.

Of course, they’ll need experienced tour guides to show them around Boomer-World and explain the local language and culture and – crucial – avoid dumb social gaffes that annoy the locals.

Opportunity_Cuba travel

Boomer - neXt SM logo_MMOriginally published as a Boomer-Plus Consulting Group post; in September, 2017, we up-branded as Boomer / neXt to welcome the 4 million Gen Xers who join the Boomers in the 50+ space each year.

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