It’s going to take time, careful persuasion and rock-solid reassurance to get many travelling again, says Silver Travel Advisor managing director Debbie Marshall

I’ll confess to having been quite hooked on The X Factor a few years ago, and always enjoyed the episode where the contestants who had survived the first audition were allocated into categories and given a mentor.

In case we needed help identifying them, the categories were helpfully labelled girls, boys, groups and, always last on the list, what was known as the “overs”.

Leftovers? Rollovers? No, these were the contestants who had reached the ripe old age of, well, 25. So that’s “over”, as in over the hill, in the youthful world of what my mother would call pop music. And it was no coincidence that their mentor was invariably the 60-something Louis Walsh who, despite what looked suspiciously like expensive cosmetic, dental and hair surgery, was the oldest of the judges by some measure.

Being categorised as an “over” is a label, of course, and it’s one that sticks. And coronavirus has brought with it a new trend of age labelling, in this case the “overs” being the over-70s.

They were told at the start of the pandemic that they shouldn’t cruise, and many were then required to shield for months of lockdown. This has led to a shift in outlook for some over-70s, and the emergence of what is known as the ‘garden gate syndrome’: a real fear that the virus is lurking out there around every corner and waiting to strike if you so much as walk outside of your home.

Loss of confidence

If you are repeatedly told you are at risk and vulnerable, then eventually this is how you may perceive yourself. And we’ve seen a number of previously confident over-70s developing new concerns and anxieties this year. One regular contributor and avid traveller wrote on our forum: “After 75 years of fearless living, travelling the world in retirement, lockdown arrived and everything changed. As the weeks turned into months, I became used to it. My 76th birthday came and went, and when lockdown ended after five months, much of my confidence had gone and I now worry when I venture out. Yes, Covid has changed me, and not for the better.”

This was far from an isolated remark, and it led us, in our recent survey of the older market, to carry out additional analysis of the results of the over-70s as a separate category. Results showed higher levels of caution and concern among this age cohort: 34% said they would not fly long-haul again (compared to 25% of those aged 50 to 69), and nearly 70% would now not want to try a cruise for the first time. On a more positive note, more than 80% of existing cruisers aged 70-plus said they would cruise again.

There are some gung-ho over-70s who want to throw caution to the wind, but for many it’s going to need a lot of careful persuasion and reassurance. It might also be the case that not all of them return to travel in the way they used to, and the industry may not be able to rely on the disposable income of the over-70s as it has done in the past (even if some did not like to admit that a good proportion of their customers were in this age bracket).

Reassurance is key

It’s good to see how seriously the industry is responding, with the likes of Riviera, Intrepid and Newmarket already tentatively launching tours with extensive risk assessment and protocols, including smaller group sizes and socially distanced seating. A recent Travel Weekly webcast showed the level of detail being considered at every stage of the journey, and the responsibility these companies feel they are carrying, for the whole industry, to get things right.

You’re really not over the hill at 70, and these should be golden years. However, with the vulnerable and at-risk label now firmly stuck on, albeit for valid medical reasons, it’s going to take time, careful persuasion and rock-solid reassurance to get many of these “overs” back in the saddle.