|Travel agents make it possible for clients with disabilities to embark on surprising trips, such as an adventure tour in South America.|
Here’s what you need to know to position your business well in this challenging—but lucrative—segment of the travel market.
It was in late June that I finally got to take my older brother Matt on a press trip with me to check out some new suites at the Riu Palace Paradise Island in Nassau, the Bahamas.
Matt’s not your typical guest.
He suffered a spinal cord injury at birth, severely limiting use in his right arm as well as both of his legs, so features like ramps and handrails in the shower were of more immediate concern to him than deciding between a beer or a piña colada.
|Agents need to know what clients are physically capable of doing before sending them off on a trip.|
|Ask the client about transportation preferences— a boat ride could be awkward with a wheelchair.|
Luckily, Riu Palace Paradise Island had plenty of ramps, whether they were to the beach, to the main entrance or to the pool. The hotel had two wheelchairs available for guest use and although there were no rooms set up specifically for disabled guests, I did notice there were handrails in the showers, which is pretty standard these days. But the most important feature was having a helpful staff willing to assist Matt every step of the way.
“I think my biggest fear was being stuck or stranded,” Matt told me. “I mean, like that awful feeling where you have to ask for help because you can’t do it yourself. If you’re constantly having to map everything out, then it’s no longer a vacation, it’s work. And this wasn’t like that.”
Although we got lucky with the fine staff at Riu, I began schooling myself on how to better plan trips for travelers with disabilities. I uncovered some vital tips on how to capitalize on selling travel to this market, commonly referred to as accessible travel.
A $15 Billion Industry
So why you should you sell accessible travel? Because you want to earn a seat in heaven? Well, that’s not a bad goal, but selling travel to clients with disabilities doesn’t require a heart of gold. Instead it requires good business sense and a lot of patience.
“It’s not always something an agent gets into out of the goodness of their heart when you consider that this is an industry that produces $15 billion a year,” says Jani Nayar, executive coordinator for the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH).
The National Organization on Disability estimates that there are 54 million men, women and children in the U.S. with a disability, and as the baby boomer generation ages, there will be even more travelers who have special needs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 percent of women over the age of 65, and 38 percent of men in the same age group have disabilities.
“We are dealing with clients who are basically the generation of the baby boomer, the ‘I want it and I want it now’ mentality,” says Jim Smith, director of marketing for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). “Folks with disabilities tend to be among the most tenacious individuals in this group. They have amazing attitudes and they want to squeeze every drop out of a trip. They almost always travel with a companion. It really makes them an ideal repeat customer for a travel agent.”
Smith shared with us some interesting statistics about persons with disabilities. For starters, 77 percent of the market has no children and 73 percent are the head of the household. Fifty-eight percent own homes and 48 percent have no children.
“The cruise lines were among the first to recognize this market and make necessary accommodations,” Smith says. “In the cruise industry, this is one of the primary segments. Agents and suppliers need to learn how to sell and how to service these people if for no other reason, it just makes good business sense.”
Kristina Rundquist, vice president of communications for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), says her organization always advises agents looking to get into this niche to first learn about the market through groups such as The Travel Institute and SATH.
“The accessible travel market is not one that anyone can just jump into,” she says. “The best advice to travel agents is to do your research and take advantage of every educational offering out there.”
SATH, founded in 1976, is an educational nonprofit membership organization whose mission is “to raise awareness of the needs of all travelers with disabilities, remove physical and attitudinal barriers to free access and expand travel opportunities in the United States and abroad.” Members include travel professionals, consumers with disabilities and other individuals and corporations who support that mission.
We asked Jani Nayar of SATH for some useful tips on what to ask of the cruise line, hotel or airlines you are booking for your clients with disabilities and she offered the following:
Hotels. There should be no steps to get into the hotel and doors need to be wide enough. Doors shouldn’t be too heavy. The bathroom should be wide and there needs to be bars in the right places. If your client is deaf or blind, there should be a light that goes on when someone knocks on the door, vibrating alarm clocks, an emergency calling button they can use and there should be property evacuation programs for disabled guests. Rooms should also have kits for the staff on how to accommodate little people. For example, most of these clients need phone books in the room to get onto the bed, Nayar says.
Flights. The first request should be asking for an aisle seat. A passenger with a disability should give all necessary information on his or her needs at check-in. A traveler may say that he or she has a wheelchair but that may not be enough, Nayar says. Ask your client: Can you get into theseat on your own? Can you slide over or do you need to be lifted into the seat? Also, note that only about 40 percent of arm rests on a plane are able to be pulled up.
The biggest issue, however, for disabled air passengers is the lavatory, Nayar says. Smaller aircraft don’t have the space for someone who has a wheelchair.
|The accessible travel market is a $15 billion worldwide business.|
“They can say they are accessible but perhaps all they have is a 6-inch bar in the bathroom and meanwhile the person can barely stand to get into the wheelchair,” Nyar says.
Cruise. CLIA's Smith says most ships have numerous cabins aboard for clients with disabilities. Agents should ask about accessible cabins that have a lot more room than the average cabin, so you can fit a wheelchair. They have oversize desks and bars in the closet that will allow someone who can’t get on their feet to pull down a hanger and hang up their clothes. Also, there are emergency call bells throughout the cabin.
And what if the hotel, airplane or cruise doesn’t meet the required needs of your clients?
“We really want people to complain more, but not all complaints need to be in the form of a lawsuit. That just takes up everybody’s time and resources,” Nayar says. “Just write to the hotel or to the cruise line and explain what the problem was. That will make a huge difference. And it gives the hotel or cruise line a fair opportunity to rectify the error.”