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Hospitality expert says boomer boom looming

By the time Las Vegas finally recovers from the economic meltdown, the region will face another costly challenge — accommodating a generation of older customers who will have a hard time navigating the huge, multibillion-dollar resorts that sustain the local economy.

It’s a problem that could be costly because it requires a choice between spending untold sums retrofitting today’s resorts or alienating a lucrative demographic that will represent as much as a third of the potential Las Vegas customer base.

"It will just develop quietly; within 10 years it will suddenly be a major issue," said Jeffrey Catrett, dean of the Les Roches School of Hospitality Management at Kendall College in Chicago.

Catrett, 49, said that by then 36 percent of Americans will be older than 50 and 17 percent will be older than 65.

The inevitable decline in vision, hearing, mobility and strength will make it difficult for many, especially those on the upper end of the age spectrum, to navigate features common in major Las Vegas hotel-casinos — everything from heavy doors to loud restaurants to long lines at hotel front desks.

And, like Catrett, the upcoming generation of older people will be more likely than their parents to rebel against what they perceive to be shabby treatment by businesses.

"If I get treated as I’ve seen my dad get treated, there is going to be a lot of hell to pay," said Catrett, whose speech at HotelWorld Expo and Conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center drew just a few listeners.

The apparent lack of interest in a subject that will affect virtually every aspect of the hospitality business only reinforced Catrett’s argument that the industry is slow to recognize the pending demographic shift.

"I love the hotel industry, but it is an industry that is, by its very nature, very conservative," he said.

The significance of the shift in customer demographic became clear when Catrett started showing all the ways that hotels make visits difficult for older guests.

Everything from long walks between parking areas and rooms, to long lines at check-in, to rooms too crowded with furniture can be problematic.

Older customers can also have trouble with round doorknobs, slick or overly textured flooring, small or hard-to-find light switches, poorly lit stairways and crowded restaurants.

"We need to simplify everything," he said.

Although Las Vegas resorts are big on long walks and loud, chaotic spaces, the resort corridor also includes lots of escalators and moving walkways, which are a big help to older customers.

More escalators and moving sidewalks "will lend itself well to an aging clientele," he said.

M Resort, the most recent hotel-casino to open in Las Vegas, includes a pharmacy on property with two full-time pharmacists, three technicians and two clerks. Customers will be able to apply slot club points to medication purchases, according to the resort’s description of the service.

But retooling Las Vegas for the new demographic wave will take more than cosmetic changes and a pronouncement that a property is friendly for older folks.

That’s because, to be successful, companies also will need to accommodate the "great boomer lie," Catrett said.

The lie, according to Catrett, is that even as current boomers enter retirement, they are unwilling to acknowledge limitations of age.

Companies and destinations will need to make their facilities and attractions easier to use without overtly saying it is an attempt to accommodate senior citizens.

Catrett cited the Westin hotel chain as an example. The company has upgraded beds and bathrooms for comfort and ease-of-use but doesn’t acknowledge the obvious benefits to older people in its advertising.

One Las Vegas hospitality business that’s already walking the fine line between adventure and comfort is the Pink Jeep tour company.

General manager Alix Reed says the firm recently unveiled a Flower Power Trekker Tour that’s aimed at boomer-age clients who want to experience the wildflower blooms in Death Valley.

And Reed says it may be time to revive one of the company’s former marketing slogans that seems to fit with boomer sensibilities. The slogan "off road has never been this civilized" taps into the sense of adventure but hints that the trip won’t strain creaky joints.

"They aren’t your parents’ parents," said Reed of the upcoming boomer boom.

The next generation of older people will expect better customer service and more choices than the World War II generation.

"They’ve grown up with a little bit more control over their products," she said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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