Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Clubs and Marketing and Women's Organizations and Tourism & Hospitality

Red Hat Society over-50 women pursued by marketers

March 12, 2007

They show up across central Indiana with increasing regularity--dozens of women dressed in purple and red, convening for tea, theater or shopping. And when they do, local businesses see green.

Members of the Red Hat Society get together monthly to celebrate life after 50, a demographic marketers often overlook. But these women--and their spending habits--are attracting attention as the California-based club gains traction.

"We get quite a few Red Hat groups," said Julie Powers, marketing director of The Boggstown Cabaret. "We've really noticed it more in the past two years."

With more than 100 active Indianapolis-area Red Hat chapters, it's no wonder local restaurants and entertainment venues are vying to win them over.

The Indiana State Museum's gift shop sells red hats to appeal to members who visit the replica L.S. Ayres Tea Room there. The manager of the Mayberry Cafe in Danville--an "Andy Griffith Show"-themed diner--buys souvenirs like red-hat bracelet charms to hand out to visiting groups. And this year, the Indiana State Fair will feature its first ever "Red Hat Day."

Why bother? Consider the numbers.

The Red Hat Society boasts more than 40,000 chapters in the United States alone, with about 1 million members. If each member spends just $15 a month on an outing, the grand total adds up to $180 million each year.

Indeed, the group's demographic matches what many business owners are looking for--above-average disposable income and strong shopping habits. But the Red Hat Society can be a tough nut to crack.

Although the Web site has a link to e-mail addresses for local chapter leaders, site rules include a strict no-advertising provision. The national marketing reins are tightly controlled by the group's headquarters office, which has cut branding deals for everything from tennis shoes to glass ornaments.

A Red Hat Society spokeswoman fielded a request for an interview from IBJ, checking the publication's circulation and other stats to see if it merited a call back. Apparently, it did not.

The 10-year-old society got its start when founder Sue Ellen Cooper gave a friend a red hat and the Jenny Joseph poem "Warning" as a birthday present. The poem is about a woman who vows to break loose when she's older, wearing purple clothing and a red hat.

The following year, it became an incorporated membership club. So-called "queen mothers" pay $39 each year to organize a chapter. Membership is free, but women can pay $20 a year for access to group discounts and chat rooms.

Reaching the Red Hats

Marketers for local venues say they've looked into advertising in the group's national magazine, but the rates scared them off. So they're exploring other ways to reach members, who usually take turns being in charge of outings.

Sharon Alvey, queen mother of Red Hat L.A.M.B. (for Lively, Ambitious, Magnificent Babes) said each member of her west-side group gets assigned a month to plan activities, which range from an affordable dinner out to the $30-a-person high tea at the Canterbury Hotel downtown

"We just decided that we wanted to have fun," said Alvey, 53. But her members also make sure to sprinkle in some charity work at least once a quarter.

Kathy Hauk started her 60-woman Danville chapter in the senior citizens center there. Although it usually limits itself to activities that cost $15 or less, there are regular exceptions--like a trip downtown to see "Menopause: the Musical" at the American Cabaret Theatre.

"We had the best time at that," said Hauk, 65.

So how are venues reaching such a diverse group of organizers? By starting small. Reports of a good experience--or a bad one--can spread like wildfire through the Red Hat community.

In fact, word-of-mouth recommendations are so important that Emily Cates chases down Red Hat groups she sees passing by her Danville offices.

"Someone will call out, 'There go some Red Hats,' and I'll run out after them," said Cates, sales manager for the Hendricks County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She usually finds them at Frank's Place or the Mayberry Cafe, where she talks up other attractions that might make good outings, such as tours at the one-room schoolhouse in Pittsboro or the Chateau Thomas Winery in Plainfield.

Cates has established a good enough relationship with a couple of local chapters that they call her for suggestions.

Others aren't so lucky. Erin Trisler, director of development at the President Benjamin Harrison Home, said she pitched stories to the group's national magazine more than a year ago but never heard back.

"There are so many ways we could cater to this group if we could find a way to mass communicate with them," Trisler said.

A limited group effort

Broader tourism marketing groups like the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association and the Indiana Office of Tourism Development don't try, preferring to direct scarce advertising dollars at individual leisure travelers.

But they do pitch local attractions at conventions for charter-tour operators, many of whom put together bus trips specifically for Red Hats. But even the charter groups struggle to get access.

Rose Jordan of Peoria, Ill.-based Peoria Charter Coach Co. said it has taken the company four or five years to build its Red Hat business. Now, it organizes six to eight charter bus tours each month.

The company has employees who go on tours with groups, entertaining them en route. A couple of the workers were Red Hat members--giving the firm a foot in the door. Peoria Charter also hosts an annual Christmas party for Red Hat chapters and polls members on tours they'd like for the following year.

"Mostly, our ladies want to have a nice lunch or tea somewhere and shop," Jordan said.

That's the same one-step-at-a-time marketing path taken by Brownsburg's Crown Room Dinner Theatre & Banquet Facility, which opened in 2003.

Event coordinator Stephanie Wagers contacted a couple of Red Hat members she knew last May, and the venue hosted a luncheon that included a fashion show put on by the women.

Wagers thought she'd get 20 attendees, but it quickly grew to a group of 75. She held a Christmas lunch last year and plans two more events for this year.

On April 25, the Crown Room will celebrate National Red Hat Day. Plans call for a professionally produced fashion show, high tea, gift bags and fun. About 125 women are expected to attend.

Wagers also is planning a spa-themed Red Hat day for September and expects attendance for it to "easily top 150."

"It's just taking off," Wagers said. "We just give out a day anymore and a crowd shows up."

Even so, she said the facility has yet to break even on any of the Red Hat events. But with attendance growing, she said, that might change.

An untapped resource?

One local expert said businesses would be savvy to do more to reach out to Red Hatters--and statistics back him up.

According to research by New York-based NPD Group, women 55 years and older spent $17.2 billion on apparel last year, 20 percent of all adult spending. And the 55- to 64-year-old age bracket had the steepest increase in spending in the past two years.

Even so, that demographic often is ignored in favor of younger audiences, said Sotiris H. Avgoustis, chairman of the IUPUI Department of Tourism, Conventions and Event Management.

"I wish we'd do a better job to show off Indianapolis to them," he said.

For example, shopping malls could band together for a shopping junket around the holidays with a noon tea thrown in, he said. Or local tourism organizations could get together to pay for some national advertising.

"Somehow, we fail to recognize them as a powerful group when it comes to economic impact," he said.

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