When it comes to serving travelers with disabilities, hospitality is taking small steps in the right direction, but disruption is scarce. Hotels could even take a cue from airports on this — and leverage a huge market that's there for the taking.
Travel's most forward-thinking insiders will gather September 18–19 for our annual Skift Global Forum in New York. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Skift Global Forum 2019 will take place at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York. This year's Forum speakers include CEOs and top executives from Booking Holdings, Delta Air Lines, Expedia, Air France-KLM, Marriott International, Amtrak, and many more.
Many hotels follow local legislation and meet minimum standards, but where is the innovation that will more meaningfully enhance the traveler experience?
“Things are very stagnant,” said Stephen Cluskey, CEO of Mobility Mojo, which provides software solutions to hotels to evaluate and promote their accessibility features. “There’s been no real innovation in hospitality and accessibility for the last while.” He sees some companies taking small steps, like TripAdvisor and Airbnb adding information to their platforms. But more can be done to capture this business, which Mobility Mojo predicts will comprise 25 percent of the entire tourism market by 2020, including age-related impairments.
Companies have a responsibility here, but governments play a role too. “I think the Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA] is very progressive. The ADA sets a higher standard than some of the best laws in Europe,” said Cluskey, who uses a wheelchair. Enforcement of these laws, however, is another story.
Hotels can also take a cue from airports in terms of serving a very broad audience. Airports are certainly flawed, but they’re all about traffic flow and must be prepared with various mobility solutions. As emphasized in an accessibility manifesto by tour operator Responsible Travel, and echoed by Cluskey, information-sharing is half the battle.
Skift Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Skift: How fast or slow do you think innovation is moving right now? Is the hospitality industry going in the right direction?
Stephen Cluskey: I think things are very stagnant, actually. We know the likes of TripAdvisor are asking a few more questions around this, but to be honest, the impact on that has been minimal.
We’ve seen Airbnb actually try to do something in this area as well, which is really good to see, but there’s still a long way to go before those with accessibility needs have the confidence and the information they need to make an informed decision.
We know that more than 50 percent of people with disabilities don’t travel because of a lack of information and a fear of something going wrong. That’s half a billion people globally. It’s a massive market that’s being underserved because of this gap in knowledge, and because of this gap in information. We haven’t seen any of the major travel providers or hotel providers really provide adequate information around accessibility.
Skift: You mentioned Airbnb. It doesn’t have so much control over the properties on its platform, but information-sharing does seem to be within its control.
Cluskey: I do think Airbnb is one of the more proactive groups in this area. I think what it’s doing is quite good. I think it could be a lot better, but they’re going in the right direction. I know they’ve recruited specialists, and you can see the impact that’s having on the platform.
Skift: Do you think that government legislation will play a significant role in improving the accessible experience, or are laws are just setting the bare minimum?
Cluskey: I’ve thought about this question quite a bit and I think the ADA is very progressive. I know it’s been around a long time, and enforcement is a whole other part of it. It’s very comprehensive, and it’s trying to lift all boats.
I think the rest of the world is a bit behind. I think America is nearly leading the way. I know in Ireland and Europe, it depends on what country you’re in, but building regulations and laws vary dramatically. The ADA sets a higher standard than some of the best laws in Europe.
I do think it’s a real mixed bag, depending on where in the world you are or where you are going, but laws definitely play a role in improving things for everyone.
Skift: I would not have guessed that the United States was doing even a mediocre job. I assumed we were behind the curve.
Cluskey: No. Look, I know the laws, it varies. We’ve done some work on this recently, and the ADA is very comprehensive. The problem is that it’s not being enforced properly. So the law is there, yet there are many not abiding by it. We’ve become aware of hotels that have been sued recently for not complying with ADA, or complying with having accessibility information on their website, or the rooms available to book, and they’re being sued even though that law has been around since the 1990s.
Skift: So what can hotel spaces learn from accessibility success stories? It could be airports, airlines, cruise ships, what have you.
Cluskey: I think airports are a great example of good accessibility. If you think about an airport, it has to cater to everyone with large suitcases, traveling with families, you’ve got trollies. You have a whole list of different items and vehicles that are used throughout an airport, so it’s designed in a universal, accessible mindset.
I think that’s where design should start, that openness to everyone. The hospitality sector can learn from airports in that regard. It’s all about movement and flow, getting people from A to B, making that as easy as possible.
Skift: I’ve seen horror stories on social media of people who need assistance at the gate, and the gate agents have not been trained or informed, so the person just gets forgotten.
Cluskey: It depends again on the country you’re in. I know in Ireland, it’s quite good. There’s a really good company that provides that service, and most of the time that’s outsourced. It depends on the company that provides that service for the systems they have in place.
It’s the growing numbers, as well. We know for the last three years, there’s been a 24 percent increase, year over year, of people requiring special assistance at airports. People are living longer. It’s the elderly parent with that bad hip, or a bad knee, who might need that assistance to get from A to B.
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Photo Credit: Mobility Mojo CEO Stephen Cluskey spoke about hospitality and accessibility at Skift Forum Europe in London on April 30, 2019. Russell Harper / Skift