Travel professionals – including independent and hosted agents – should stop viewing the special needs (handicapped or disabled travel) as a niche market and instead see it as a mainstream service option, says Andrew J. Garnett, president and CEO of the Florida-based Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea (SNG).
Agents will see more requests to support special needs travelers and should be prepared, Garnett says, buttressing his position with hard numbers, including the growth of baby boomers as a share of the population.
Garnett also cites the growth in disabled/handicapped/special needs travelers and the increased awareness among professional agents of the importance of the market.
“The professional agent should be aware of the full range if services available to them and to their clients,” Garnett says. “This includes cruise and tour travel and independent travel at conventions, resorts, theme parks and meetings. We have positioned SNG as a full service special needs provider with worldwide resources.”
SNG pays a 10 percent commission to agents and works closely with all major cruise lines. The average rental for a scooter on a one-week cruise is $175 with pickup and delivery included, Garnett notes. “While the commission is relatively small, our service is essential and often critical for clients to enjoy the freedom of travel.”
Garnett notes that some 63 million Americans have a disability and roughly 10 million aged 15 and older use a walking aid such as a cane or walker. An estimated 3.3 million use a wheelchair, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The data is dated but Americans with disabilities spent $13.6 billion on travel in 2002 (the latest data available) and that spending is likely to have kept pace with the aging of the U.S. population and growing numbers of disabled.
Agents sell what they know, Garnett notes and is especially proud of SNG’s professional education program (SNG Certified Accessible Travel Advocate) and the recent decision by CLIA to credit SNG program participants with credits toward CLIA certification.
The one-hour, three-module program focuses on understanding accessible travel, building expertise in accessible travel and demonstrating accessible travel advocacy skills. “This initiative represents the first time travel professionals can become conversant with this market segment through online study and testing,” Garnett says. The program is presented in a non-commercial format with the focus purely on content.
The SNG program now has nearly 400 agent participants suggesting solid interest in serving the special needs market. “Access to reliable disabled services – a wheelchair or scooter, for example – may be the difference between going or not going on the trip. Access to resources can be a key to families traveling together or for small groups.”
Garnett credits many suppliers – airlines, cruise lines, tour operators, hoteliers and destinations with opening opportunities for disabled travelers. “Access to special needs equipment and expertise has helped expand demand.”
Cruise lines earn substantial praise as they have led the way in serving the special needs market. “We work closely with all the cruise lines and they have shown a welcomed willingness to serve the market – including well trained staffs.”
Special Needs Group, Inc., will continue to expand its services, Garnet says. It is a force in the special needs equipment rental services to major Orlando locations, including theme parks, hotels, resorts, villas, the Orange County Convention Center and Orlando Science Center.
Twenty percent (63 million) of the U.S. population has some form of disability, and the number of these individuals is increasing daily, he notes. Studies show that 24 million disabled Americans would travel/travel more frequently if their special needs were met.
Also encouraging is that Baby Boomers and mature adults took 340 million domestic vacations in 2006 and 110 million international trips from 2004-2006. The mature market alone spent $192 billion in travel expenditures. These markets contain many “slow walkers” individuals who do not consider themselves disabled, but who could benefit from special needs products and services, Garrett says.
SNG’s web site offers a diversity of resources for agents and travelers including online booking capabilities and an informative blog.
“Whether it is some form of mobility or impairment (including temporary disabilities), the need for oxygen, a crib for a baby, refrigeration for medication, or even materials for a service animal, we strive to fulfill all special needs for travel,” Garnett notes.
Travel professionals interested in learning more about the SNG Certified Accessible Travel Advocate program and how it can benefit travelers with special needs, can call 1-800-513-4515 or visit www.specialneedsatsea.com/certification-program.