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Work that looks like summer camp

Leanne Robinson (right) researched activities in Bora Bora. She works as a group leader for Road Scholar, shepherding travelers to exotic locales.New York Times/NYT

When Leanne Robinson saw an ad asking, “Why not get paid to travel?” she had no good answer. Why not?

That was 20 years ago. She enrolled in a tour director course offered by a San Francisco vocational school and, having recently turned 70, has traveled to places as varied as Nova Scotia and Southeast Asia. But instead of paying for her trips out of her own pocket, she is paid by someone else to take them.

Robinson, who has worked for a succession of tour companies, is now a group leader for Road Scholar, formerly Elderhostel. She shepherds travelers to exotic locales, taking responsibility for passengers and such details as luggage, lost items and, at times, medical issues. And in so doing she has become a trendsetter for her generation.


“It’s a pretty nice working environment,” she said.

As baby boomers redefine retirement and puzzle about how to stretch their nest eggs, they are negotiating the boundaries between work and leisure. In a 2013 study conducted by Merrill Lynch and the consulting firm Age Wave, 70 percent of pre-retirees said they wanted to work after retirement but most were “seeking flexible work arrangements such as working part time or alternating between periods of work and time off.” As a result, some are choosing jobs in tourism and hospitality.

“It’s a reasonably recent phenomenon,” said Stephen Jennings, a principal at Deloitte Travel, Hospitality & Leisure. “There is a matching up of baby boomers with flexibility with leisure businesses that have struggled with complicated schedules.”

Tour companies, cruise lines, ski resorts, museums, and the National Park Service and its concessions have temporary and seasonal job openings. The Commercial Services Program of the National Park Service has contracts with 500 concessionaires, estimating that they employ more than 25,000 workers during the peak season.


Among the most visible concessionaires are Philadelphia-based Aramark, which manages operations at Mesa Verde National Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the US Mints in Denver and Philadelphia, among others; Denver-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which provides lodging in Yellowstone National Park and at the Grand Canyon, among other parks and resorts; and Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos., which operates the Plaza Hotel in New York and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, among other places.

These companies are eyeing a potentially lucrative travel market for those older than 50. “Baby boomers responded to the recession as savings and home values suffered by decreasing their travel expenditures, and generally continue to be cautious, but their travel is now recovering,” Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University, wrote in an e-mail. A study in December conducted by Homewood Suites by Hilton tracked 12,000 AARP members, 80 percent of whom averaged $3,000 on vacations annually.

Betsy O’Rourke, vice president for sales and marketing at Xanterra, says her company frequently turns to older workers to provide services.

“June, July and August was the summer season, which now extends from May to October. There’s not a traditional college student that can work that schedule,” said Patty Ceglio, seasonal human resources specialist at CoolWorks.com, a website based outside Yellowstone National Park that specializes in outdoor and environmental jobs. Listings are up 30 percent this year.

A section of the site designated “Older and Bolder” focuses on older workers. David Freireich, a spokesman for Aramark, which advertises on the site, estimates that retirees make up 25 to 30 percent of the seasonal applicant pool for jobs in areas like retail sales and front desk and office staff.


Embarking on seasonal or temporary employment can be uncertain. Pay may start at minimum wage, although discounted room and board or other perks may be offered. Still, those who choose the lifestyle and its compromises say the work is satisfying.

Bill Whetstone, 65, was an information technology executive for a medical products company in Warwick, R.I., until 2005. He was at a recreational vehicle show in Arizona in 2009 when he had a chance encounter with a district manager of the nonprofit Yellowstone Association, which sponsors education and research programs at the park. After an interview, he was offered seasonal employment as a sales associate in the bookstore at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.

Two years ago he became the full-time district manager of that bookstore and three satellite stores. Between seasons, he and his wife, who also sells books, travel or visit family.

They live in an RV vehicle near the visitor center. Whether a national park provides housing, which may be dormitory-style for concession employees, is determined for each park based on housing availability, the concession’s size, and the distance of the park from communities where housing is available.

In his free time, Whetstone says he hikes, fishes, and practices the dobro, a type of steel guitar. He frequently socializes with other employees over potluck suppers. “We call it summer camp,” he said.


“People don’t really need to replace 100 percent of their income on the glide path to full retirement,” said Martha Deevy, a senior research scholar and director at the Stanford Center on Longevity. “What they want is different from what they wanted when they were raising families and building assets.”

Linda Barrington, executive director of the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University, said that remote locations with fewer amenities allowed employees to get by on a lower income, and that those workers seemed to be entrepreneurial from a career development perspective, saying, “I’ll get extra income, and I’ll travel the world.”

But experts differ on their views of seasonal work. “The part-time hours are flexible from an employer’s perspective, not an employee’s,” said Norman P. Stein, a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

And while there may be an opportunity cost of a shift from full- to part-time employment, Nicole Maestas, senior economist at Rand Corp., said lower-paying jobs that offer other benefits could be more appealing.

For Mary Ann Crotty, 71, those benefits include flexible scheduling and access to cultural events. As part of an Art Institute of Chicago program for temporary employees, Crotty assists with office duties and special projects.

While many colleagues have backgrounds in art history, Crotty, who also owns an antiques business, has experience in database conversions and accounting. “They’ve given me a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility,” she said.


The pay range for the position is $13 to $17 an hour. She works no more than 30 hours a week.

She has latitude to schedule a month away every year. This spring she toured Greece. And she devotes two days a month to attending museum events free to those in the program.

Although she’s been a temporary worker for nearly a decade, Crotty plans to continue. Last year the museum renewed her badge for five years.