For a recent episode of the Skift Podcast, we looked at the experiences of travelers with disabilities. For many companies, accommodating customers with disabilities is a legal obligation, but the companies that do more are better satisfying their customers and capturing this sizable market share — according to the Open Doors Organization, adults with disabilities in the U.S. spend $17.3 billion a year on leisure and business travel. Over the two years before the study, 26 million adults with disabilities took 73 million trips.
Our guests included Peter Slatin, founder and president of Slatin Group, which provides education and training to help businesses — including many in travel — improve interactions with clients who have disabilities. His program Elements of Service: Serving Guests with Disabilities also recently went online through the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute.
Also with us via Skype was Brett Heising, CEO of brettapproved.com, a travel and entertainment review site for users with physical disabilities or mobility impairment. Through a travel agency partnership, the site also provides bookings and trip coordination.
They joined Skift podcast host Hannah Sampson and reporter Andrew Sheivachman.
Here are five takeaways from the conversation:
Hotels and state tourism boards need to catch up to museums and theaters.
In Slatin’s view, entertainment businesses like museums and theaters have done a more comprehensive job of welcoming customers with disabilities than hotels and state tourism boards.
“There is a lot of lip service. Oh yes, we want you to be our customer, but we don’t really want to do anything other than what we were told we had to do — and we really didn’t like doing that because it costs us money,” explained Slatin. “That breeds a head-in-the-sand mentality that’s going to eventually bite the industry in the wrong place.”
“There’s things being done at the state tourism level, but we do have a long way to go,” added Heising.
Meetings and events are big business for this demographic.
There are many big gatherings around the country for people with disabilities, and when these events happen, hotels are often unprepared to serve a high number of customers with disabilities at once. That potentially translates to lost income.
“I go every year to the largest organization of people with vision impairments. The National Federation of the Blind has its annual meeting sometime usually in July,” said Slatin. “You have 3,000 people, many of whom are wheelchair users, many of whom are hearing impaired or hard of hearing, as well as blind. There are a lot of dogs, there are a lot of people, and there are a lot of able-bodied people as well, but that’s a big spend in that they’re renting a couple thousand rooms, they’re eating all over the place and that’s just one group.”
Travelers with disabilities may prefer to book direct.
Since logistical problems are likely to arise at some point during a trip, many travelers with disabilities prefer to cut out the middleman, i.e. the online travel agency, and book directly with the hotel. This way, if the room ends up not being accessible, the traveler can more easily address that issue with hotel management.
“I always book directly with the hotel because if there is a problem, they’re going to be able to resolve it much quicker, as opposed to saying, ‘Oh, you booked through OTA X, give them a call.’ Like all consumers, I want a speedy resolution to my challenge,” said Heising.
“Now, of course, I can’t read those screens and those [OTA] sites are really not accessible, although the OTA’s will say they are,” said Slatin, who deals with vision impairment. “[The OTAs] have phone numbers you can call, but those are sales people and they work really hard to sell you something… you have to push back really hard. It becomes kind of an unpleasant interaction, so I then will turn to a sighted colleague or I’ll just start calling some hotels.”
Hoteliers should make Universal Design a higher priority for future properties.
First, a definition of this term: “Universal Design, as I understand it, is just a physical design of something. It could be a hotel room or a can opener, that works for everybody. That has the masses in mind,” explained Heising.
Disability takes many different forms, so moving forward, hotels might find that it pays off to take this wide-ranging look at how a room should function, to serve as many people as possible.
“Why not make sure that they follow the seven tenets of Universal Design and make sure that everybody can use them? Here’s a wacky idea: How about a hundred-room hotel with a hundred roll-in showers? Isn’t that nuts? I mean, how cool would that be?” said Heising.
“I don’t see any silver bullet. I don’t see any earthquake. I see incremental change, but we’ll get to the point where we will notice the separation less and less,” said Slatin.
Disability is far more prevalent than many travel leaders realize.
Heising points out that while many travelers won’t suffer from blindness in their younger years, for example, a person will probably develop some type of disability as they age and will require appropriate services.
“You might not need brettapproved today, but if you live long enough, you’re going to need brettapproved, or you’re going to go someplace really cool and it’s not going to matter. Right?” said Heising.