When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, whoa nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest nights.
As we walked under a low archway heading down a narrow passageway on an ancient cobblestone street, I heard lyrics as true and clear as James Taylor had ever sung them. I assumed someone was listening to one of Taylor’s albums, perhaps in a nearby apartment, and his ballad echoed brilliantly off surrounding brick walls.
Then, at the end of the passageway, we came upon a young Italian street performer singing “You’ve Got a Friend.” He played percussion by stomping his feet, to which he had cleverly attached a maraca and tambourine. His voice rang melodic and pure. His interpretation of the classic James Taylor song lacked perfection only due to mispronunciation of a few English words – totally understandable and excusable.
And I thought to myself: Why would a young Italian street performer choose to cover James Taylor’s catalog and play these sweet, sentimental American songs just a few yards from a museum housing Peggy Guggenheim’s art collection... in Venice, Italy?
We lingered, appreciating this young man’s joyful enthusiasm and interpretation. His performance earned a few discretionary Euros from us, and as we hesitated to enjoy his music, others near our age also stopped to watch this gentle performer. They also tossed coins in the musician’s open guitar case, which I estimate had accumulated at least 50 Euros.
Then the answer to my rhetorical question came to me. This performer understands how to leverage an economic opportunity obvious to anyone traveling in Europe during the last few weeks. Boomers are everywhere. And if you’re going to sing for your dinner, covering James Taylor is a smart choice. Boomers, both American and European, will happily part with their money for those who deliver authentic experiences.
This young man isn’t just a talented folk singer and guitarist; he’s also a shrewd businessman. And he could teach European tourism officials some valuable lessons in marketing to the vast U.S. Boomer market: It's called value.
As I traveled through Italy during mid-September, I encountered and conversed with Boomers who had chosen to dig deeply into their bank accounts to afford an increasingly unaffordable yearning: the Old Continent and all the rich beauty it offers.
Several days before exploring Venice, for example, I came upon a group of American Boomers who were involved in an educational travel experience under the supervision of a young Chicago-based artist. Poised and painting above Cortona in the Tuscan hill country, these aspiring artists had been learning the ancient craft of oil painting.
Except for the well-to-do, Europe has become barely an affordable travel experience during the last few years. And this sits in striking contrast to the way things were. Many who backpacked and traveled through Europe in the 1960s and 1970s remember the legitimate opportunity to discover European art, history and culture on merely five dollars a day.
As I write this, every Euro costs $1.46 American dollars. Budget hotels in some of Europe’s great cities can be found for a mere €120 per day (which works out to $175.00 U.S. dollars). A reasonable daily food budget might be around €100 for a couple hoping not to dine at ubiquitous McDonald’s restaurants. And the prudent travel budget needs to accommodate a few attractions and museums (or why bother). When you factor in the cost to fly to Europe, suddenly, a “reasonable” European vacation can easily require not $5.00 but $500.00 per day.
There are many reasons why Europe is so alluring to Boomers.
Europe may lose a significant share of its forthcoming Boomer business opportunities if somehow the European travel experience cannot be rendered more affordable. The great American middle class, hit hard by current economic realities and shrinking prospects for unfettered retirement assets, may choose not to travel to Europe in large numbers. Rather, American Boomers may opt to explore their own country or travel to foreign destinations where currency exchange rates and inflation are not so punishing.
In spite of the plethora of Boomers I saw during my travels through Italy this past month, a number of business owners confessed to me that Europe has been hit hard by global recession. Americans are noticeably in short supply. This may continue to be the future for Europe. And it's too bad because Europe used to be one of the Boomer generation's most economical friends.