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The Road Scholar Online Press Room

The History of Elderhostel and Road Scholar

Road Scholar is the name for the programs of Elderhostel, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1975 to provide lifelong learning opportunities at a remarkable value for adults.

Elderhostel was founded by two unlikely collaborators - Marty Knowlton, a world-traveling, free-spirited social activist and former educator, and David Bianco, a highly organized university administrator.

Knowlton had recently returned from a four-year walking tour of Europe, carrying only a backpack of bare essentials and staying in youth hostels. He was impressed by the youth hostel concept, with its safe, inexpensive lodgings and opportunities to meet fellow travelers. Knowlton was also taken with institutions in Scandinavia, called folk schools. There, he saw older adults handing down age-old traditions - folk art, music, lore and dance - to younger generations

Seeing Europeans in their 60s, 70s and 80s playing an active and positive role in their communities made Knowlton wonder why their American counterparts didn’t have a similar opportunity to remain active after retirement. And, why not give them continued opportunities to learn as well?

Back in the U.S., Knowlton shared stories of his travels with Bianco, then director of residential life at the University of New Hampshire. Why should older Americans be expected to disappear quietly into a mundane retirement? Bianco, after hearing about Knowlton's experiences, said, in a burst of enthusiasm, "This campus ought not to be having a youth hostel, it ought to be having an elder hostel." The name was born, and a learning program was conceived that combined stimulating, not-for-credit classes on a wide variety of subjects with comfortable, inexpensive lodgings.

In the summer of 1975, five colleges and universities in New Hampshire offered the first Elderhostel programs to 220 “pioneer” participants. In 1980, based almost entirely on word-of-mouth promotion, more than 20,000 participated in programs in all 50 states and most Canadian provinces. Riding this growing wave of enthusiasm, Elderhostel offered its first international programs in 1981 in Mexico, Great Britain, and Scandinavia. These first International programs were a breakthrough for Elderhostel. Combining education with travel to foster experiential learning, they afforded participants the opportunity to discover the people, culture, environment, and history of the countries visited through in-depth lectures, course-related field trips, cultural excursions, and extracurricular activities.

Today, Elderhostel has evolved as an organization, and so have our programs and participants. Since our first programs at five colleges and universities in New Hampshire in 1975, today's Road Scholar programs include an extraordinary range of topics, formats and locations in every state in the U.S., in 150 countries, and aboard ships and sailing vessels on waterways throughout the world. The "hostel" lodging of nearly 40 years ago has given way to today's comfortable hotels, inns and other more luxurious yet affordable accommodations. At the heart of today’s organization are the participants, who are lifelong learners engaged in programs that foster camaraderie and a sense of community.


Elderhostel and Road Scholar Timeline 1974-2014 
1974: Elderhostel co-founder Marty Knowlton returns from a four-year walking tour of Europe where he learned firsthand about youth hostels and Scandinavian folk schools. Knowlton shares his travel stories with longtime friend David Bianco. Through a series of lively discussions, Elderhostel is born.

1975: 220 "pioneer" Elderhostel participants take their first Elderhostel programs on a handful of college campuses in New Hampshire.

1976: 21 colleges in six states offer 69 Elderhostel programs to 2,000 enrollees.

1977: Elderhostel is established as an independent not-for-profit organization. A Board of Directors is formed. Bill Berkeley is chosen as the first president and is joined by Mike Zoob and Jerry Foster as the first administrators.

1979: Elderhostel mails its first "national" catalog and launches the first national registration effort.

1980: Elderhostel programs are offered in all 50 U.S. states and in most Canadian provinces, and operate in months other than summer, opening the way for year-round programming. More than 20,000 individuals participate.

1981: The first International Elderhostel programs are offered in Great Britain and Scandinavia.

1982: Registration using tickets as placeholders evolves into a computerized registration system. Elderhostel launches The Independence Fund (now called The Annual Fund) to help meet expenses without raising tuitions and to fund the Elderhostel Scholarship program.

1984: More than 20,000 Elderhostel participants venture overseas on international programs.

1985: The first Intergenerational programs are offered, pairing grandparents with their grandchildren.

1986: Elderhostel passes the 100,000 annual enrollment mark.

1988: The first Elderhostel programs are offered in China. Elderhostel establishes the Elderhostel Institute Network to support the Institute for Learning in Retirement movement.

1989: Elderhostel provides a half-million dollars in scholarships to income-eligible program participants.

1991: Elderhostel's mailing list tops a half-million.

1993: Elderhostel's Great Britain and Ireland office opens.

1997: Elderhostel president Bill Berkeley retires. Stephen H. Richards is named Elderhostel's second president. The Elderhostel website is launched.

1998: Registration offices are moved to Lowell, Mass. Registrations are accepted online. Toll-free registration/fax lines open.

1998: Ships and barges in the U.S. become floating classrooms following 10 years of success on international waters and Elderhostel sets sail with the first Adventures Afloat catalog.

1999: Enrollments top 250,000 per year. Elderhostel participants begin receiving communications via e-mail. Elderhostel purchases its first building in Boston to serve as headquarters.

2000: Elderhostel launches its first capital campaign, Share the Journey, The Elderhostel Campaign for Lifelong Learning, to help fund the headquarters building, new program development, and the upgrade of technology infrastructure.

2001: Elderhostel programs are offered in more than 100 countries. Exploring North America programs are introduced to trace themes and follow itineraries across the U.S. and Canada. More than 170,000 people receive regular e-mail bulletins. The new Elderhostel website is launched.

2002: James Moses, who joined Elderhostel in 1979, is officially appointed Elderhostel’s third President. Elderhostel launches the Elderhostel Ambassador and Alumni Association initiatives to help spur the organization's grassroots network.

2003: Elderhostel introduces Day of Discovery (one-day, community-based programs). First volunteer conference held at Elderhostel's Boston headquarters for Elderhostel Ambassadors and Alumni groups.

2004: Elderhostel launches Road Scholar, a new series of adventurous, experiential learning programs. The Elderhostel Alumni Association tops 50 groups nationwide. Through the Day of Discovery series Building Bridges to Islam, thousands of participants learn about Islam through their local Muslim communities.

2005: Elderhostel celebrates its 30th year of operation with a special series of 30th Anniversary programs and celebratory events in the UK and at Elderhostel's Boston headquarters, and designates the anniversary year as the "Year of the Instructor."

2006: Elderhostel creates its diversity outreach program to attract African Americans to its lifelong learning experiences.

2007: Elderhostel offered Day of Discovery programs at retirement communities.

2008: Elderhostel acquires long-time travel partner Lyon Travel, now called Road Scholar Travel Services, enabling the organization to offer its participants a fuller range of travel services and a seamless, integrated customer experience.

2009: Elderhostel co-founder Marty Knowlton dies at the age of 88.

2010: Elderhostel renames its programs Road Scholar. "Road" connotes a journey and real-world experience, and "Scholar" reflects a deep appreciation for learning. Together the words capture the heart of our program experience: learning from expert instructors, enhanced by direct discovery of an idea, issue, subject or place.

2011: Road Scholar is granted a "People to People" license by the Department of Treasury to operate learning adventures in Cuba.

2012: Senior Vice President Peter Spiers authors Road Scholar's groundbreaking book "Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier."

2013: For participants who want more independent time and a few meals on their own, Road Scholar creates a new line of programs, "FLEX." And "Family" programs for three generations make their debut in the U.S. and abroad.

2014: Road Scholar launches iPad app. This app combines the best of Road Scholar's print publications and website. Users can navigate from page to page with a flick of their finger, viewing slideshows, videos, maps, and more.