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Affordable travel luring seniors

Banks offer Alaskan cruises, Hawaiian tours, overseas jaunts

Last month, Jack Herrin, a retired physician from Magee, boarded a plane in Jackson to Dallas and then on to Honolulu. There, he and his wife, Sally, boarded the Norwegian Star Cruise Ship, and toured the Hawaiian Islands for nearly a week.

Nothing much was unusual about Herrin’s trip, except that it’s the only long vacation he’s ever taken.

“I’m not much of a traveler,” said Herrin. “The bank offered it and I just decided I was going. They did all the planning. All I had to do was show up.”

The Herrins paid $2,900 each for the May 11-19 vacation, which included mid-range accommodations and airfare coordinated through Magee-based PriorityOne Bank Diamonds Program.

Bank travel is big business, and growing at a rapid pace as financial institutions jockey for market share of business from aging baby boomers and seniors.

PriorityOne Bank has more than 2,000 members in the program, established in 1996 for “ages 50 and better,” said CEO Odean Busby.

“We wanted to provide a higher level of service for our customer base and travel is only one aspect of that,” he said. “We love to provide a high degree of hospitality to an extremely important segment of our customer base. That’s what it really boils down to.”

Doris Adcox, who coordinates all Diamond events, started the program by offering shorter trips to gauge members’ travel interest. Since then, Diamond members have traveled to San Antonio, Texas, Nashville, Tenn., Branson, Mo., the Canadian Rockies, and have taken an Alaskan cruise.

“Day trips are very popular for a different segment of Diamonds who want to be home at night, so we offer plenty of those, too,” said Busby.

Surprisingly, mystery trips are the most popular outings, where travelers are clueless about the destination, said Busby. “The bus fills up fast when we have those,” he said.

On a recent mystery trip, Diamond members traveled to Newton to tour the La-Z-Boy manufacturing plant, other area sites, and had lunch in a refurbished train depot. Other mystery trips have featured tours of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans and Battleship Alabama in Mobile, Ala.

Jim Knight, owner of Knight Coach Inc. in Laurel, who handles most of the shorter trips for PriorityOne Bank, said bank travel has enhanced his business. Even though bank travel accounts for less than 10% of his business — he has also handled tours for BancorpSouth’s Laurel division and First State Bank in Waynesboro — referrals have been a real boost.

“Senior adults might say, my granddaughter’s in school at such-and-such and they’re going somewhere and I’ll have their teacher call you,” he said, “and you’d be surprised how much new business you get from that.”

Incredible Journeys Inc., of San Antonio, Texas, the travel service that handled PriorityOne’s Hawaiian trip last month, deals solely with banks. “Our tour director (Chris McCool) said they dealt with 42 banks,” said Herrin. “When he dropped us off in Dallas, he was headed to Nashville to take a group to Alaska. He’s on the road constantly.”

Frances Madden, Golden Advantage coordinator for Brandon-based Community Bank, has escorted 103 of 105 trips since the club was established April 12, 1989. She missed one because of her husband’s retirement party and another when her mother was ill. “We’ve traveled 125,746 happy miles with Golden Advantage members,” she said. “I just wish we’d started this club 10 years earlier. It’s truly friends making friends and we all become quite close to each other.”

So close that two travelers who met on a trip to Hawaii in July 2000 were married that December.

“It was right amazing,” said Madden. “She was my roommate in Honolulu and sat with me all the way over there. Once we started home, he asked me, ‘would you mind sitting with mother and letting me sit with Peggy?’ I said of course not. They’re very happy and I’m proud for them. There are many more stories like this one.”

Frequent travelers are already signing up for the New England autumn tour, and Madden recently returned from escorting two busloads on a mystery trip. “We started on the Natchez Trace, had a step-on guide in Kosciusko, headed to French Camp where they showed us a video and served us coffee. Then we went to Lake Tiak O’Khata for lunch and met the mayor of Louisville, who rolled out the red carpet for us,” she said.

Madden is very particular when making travel arrangements, and has been pleased working with Jackson Tour & Travel, which has new 55-passenger buses.

“Everything’s well organized,” she said. “I do my homework before I leave the bank. We’re just ready to have a good time and enjoy God’s beautiful world.”

Brenda Brooks, Lifestyle Club coordinator for Kosciusko-based Merchants & Farmers (M&F) Bank, recently arranged the bank’s first international trip. Nineteen customers traveled to Ireland in March.

“Given the geopolitical climate at the time, I was proud of the group for being brave enough to go,” said Brooks. “That was when the war started between America and Iraq, and there were terrorist threats and the SARS scare. We didn’t have any problems and we had a wonderful time.”

Like most banks, M&F Bank doesn’t see the venture as a moneymaking project.

“Many trips are based on survey results on where our 3,300 Lifestyle customers statewide tell us they’re interested in going, but there’s always a possibility a trip won’t make it if we don’t meet the breakeven point,” said Brooks, who has been coordinating bank trips for nearly three years. “It’s real disappointing to people when we have to cancel. Occasionally, I’ll have 18 when I need 20 and we’ll go and the bank will lose a little money, but some trips have a few more travelers and we usually break even by the end of the year.”

Brooks has already arranged four trips this year, and has another five on the calendar: an Alaskan cruise, a trip to New Orleans, a fall foliage tour of middle Tennessee, a journey to New York City in December for shopping and Broadway plays, and a trip to Los Angeles for a behind-the-scenes Hollywood tour.

“It can be very stressful, but it’s fun,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure to make these trips happen.”

Not all banks limit travel to seniors. The Bank of Anguilla in Rolling Fork established travel for Generations Gold families in August 1996.

“We’re a small community,” said program coordinator Nancy Virden. “Our numbers are small. To make this work, our plan from the beginning was to offer it for all ages.”

Last October, Virden led a tour of 50 people to Dallas to see “The Lion King.” About 30 were adults; 20 were children.

“We’ve been to New York with people age 82 to fifth grade,” she said. “That’s been the lagniappe, seeing people form new relationships — young and old — that usually don’t do things together. That’s been a real plus.”

Virden led a group to New York City soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “We didn’t have as large a group as we’d previously had, but there were those who said, ‘let’s go,’ even though some people were hesitant to fly at that time,” she said. “The clean-up at Ground Zero was still very much underway, with ashes and burns on the buildings. It was quite an experience.”

Truitt Grubbs, business development officer for Community Bank, considers the bank travel program a resounding success.

“We&#8217
;ve found that peopl
e who travel with us talk about the trips to friends and neighbors and help us recruit new customers,” he said. “They’ll talk them into becoming a customer at Community Bank so they can have that companionship while traveling. We occasionally let people who are not customers travel with us if we have space and if we have hopes of making them a Community Bank customer. As a result, we’ve had a high rate of conversion.”

Busby views the travelers as ambassadors of the bank.

“It’s the best and purest form of advertis

About Lynne W. Jeter

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