What is Elderhostel about? | TheUnion.com
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What is Elderhostel about?

Since my partner Dianne Marie and I have been Elderhostelers for many years, we are often asked just what “Elderhostel” is all about.

The concept of Elderhostel goes back to 1975 when two Easterners, Marty Knowlton and David Bianco, founded this nonprofit organization, designed to serve senior citizens. Knowlton had been an ardent world traveler and social activist while Bianco was an administrator at the University of New Hampshire. Borrowing from European concepts about senior travelers and youth hostels, they coined the word “elder hostel” – and the rest is history, as they say.

That summer, five colleges and universities in New Hampshire offered the first Elderhostel programs to 220 “pioneer” Elderhostelers. By 1980, more than 20,000 participants took part in all 50 states and several Canadian provinces. And last year there were about 170,000 attendees registered in worldwide programs!



In the early days, almost all programs were held on university and college campuses, usually in the summer months when school was not in session. Participants slept in dormitories and often shared bathrooms. Meals were served in the school cafeteria.

Since those early days, great improvements have been made in physical facilities, but the basic premise of the Elderhostel concept has not changed.




A typical program usually lasts five or six days, during which three separate subjects are taught. Teachers are experts in their field and are often retired school teachers, authors or lecturers, who want to supplement their income.

There are normally three two-hour classes on each subject, which range from astrology to zoology. Many programs feature light subjects such as “Big Band Jazz” or “The History of the Middle East.” There are no textbooks nor are there any tests or grades given. Depending on the location of the program, subjects are often related to the area where the program is presented.

For instance, in the Napa wine district of California, at least one of the courses will deal with “Wine Appreciation.” Recently, the other two courses were on “The Supreme Court” and “Post Impressionist Painters.”

There are also overseas programs, which are usually longer and are geared to the country or region where classes are held, i.e. in Greece you will have at least one course on archeology. In addition to classroom education, there will most likely be some sightseeing or instructional day trips around the area. The emphasis is as much about having a fun time as on learning.

These days, programs are more likely held in hotels, where hostelers have rooms with private bathrooms. Meals are served in the hotel dining room, although sometimes participants have their meals at a nearby restaurant.

It seems that the minimum age for participants has been progressively lowered, so it is now 55 years. (However, spouses of any age are admitted, and there are some inter-generational programs as well.)

Dianne Marie and I have attended quite a few Elderhostel programs in the past 10 years as participants. At one of our tours, we were asked if we were interested in being “hosts.” And so, for the past four years, we have been hosts for various programs presented by “Bay Area Classic Learning,” an organization which was started in the S.F. Bay Area in 1994 by a local couple, David and Pat Kleinberg.

They put together the programs, hire the teachers and make the necessary arrangements with hotels or other facilities since the Home Office of Elderhostel in Boston does not conduct any programs of their own. Instead the Home Office contracts with entities such as universities, colleges, other institutions and nonprofit organizations such as BACL, all of which must adhere to certain guidelines established by the Boston H.O.

As hosts, we are responsible for the well being and care of the participants, of which there may be from about 25 to 50 persons. We check in participants, hand out instructions, set out refreshments in the classroom, and act as liaison between the hotel and attendees.

In addition, we introduce the instructors, see to it that classrooms are set up properly (microphones, audio-visual equipment, chalkboards, etc. as well as parlor games, area maps and so on). Call us “house mothers” if you will. On average, we may be asked to do from three-to-six programs a year. In return, we stay with each group for the entire program and participate in all activities. We also receive a small stipend to pay for gas and incidentals.

We have found that most attendees are “repeaters”. We sometimes have people who have been to 50 programs or more! Folks come from all over the U.S., although since 9/11 we have seen a higher percentage of Californians than ever before. It appears that people just don’t want to fly as much as they used to.

There are couples as well as singles, perhaps more women than men, and on average most participants are well educated. Teachers, engineers, nurses, financial gurus and doctors seem to be well represented. If participants have a common trait, it is that they are alive, active and interested in living life to the fullest.

The cost of programs has gone up steadily over the years, keeping up with inflation and improvements in lodging, food and program content. On average the cost of a five-day program in the U.S. is around $100 per person, which is still well below what most people spend daily on a vacation. Overseas prices vary widely and are, of course, much more expensive. The emphasis on classes is not solely on learning. The selection of good teachers is important and also on programs that are interesting and fun.

Finally, at the end of the program, attendees are asked to complete an “evaluation sheet” for teachers, the hotel and also for hosts. I guess we must be doing something right, since we have been involved with BACL for some four years and hope to continue our recently discovered career as “working vacationers.”


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