Part 1 in a series.
If there is a big reason for both cruise agents and cruise lines to target travelers with special needs, it is this: The market is huge.
Ron Pettit, who heads access programs for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara), said he uses this argument a lot in internal meetings.
More than 21 million people with disabilities travel every year, and they spend more than $13.6 billion in the process, said Pettit, a passionate advocate for accessibility.
"How many people take a cruise? About 12% of people with disabilities, studies have shown. And you know what? Only about 10% of people without disabilities cruise," Pettit said. "What those numbers tell you is more people with disabilities are cruising than those without."
Clients for life
The market is growing fast, said Debra Kerper, whose Easy Access Travel/Cruise Planners agency near Dallas specializes in accessible cruises.
"The aging of America is also the disabling of America, as boomers get hips and knees replaced, slow down as they age and suffer the effects of various health conditions. The travel agent that can keep this group traveling and going places will have clients for life," Kerper said.
An amputee herself, and a lecturer on the subject of accessible travel, Kerper said the cruise industry has made great strides when it comes to accessibility.
Still, she said, it's important for agents to understand that not all cruise lines are created equally.
Take it case by case
"Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess and Holland America provide excellent service to aging and/or disabled cruisers, as do several of the luxury lines. But each client must be evaluated on a case by case basis in order to choose the best ship and itinerary for them," Kerper said.
"Travel agents have to educate themselves on cruise lines. See what accessible rooms are like.
“Does the cruise line have an access department where you can get the facts? Will the shore excursion department help people at the ports? The agent needs to understand the itinerary and really understand the ports of call."
Agents should also understand the laws, including:
• Cruise lines operating in the U.S. are not allowed by law to discriminate against passengers with disabilities.
• Cruise lines are not required to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, lawsuits by passengers and court rulings have made it clear that cruise lines are expected to comply.
"We have taken those (ADA) standards and implemented them where we can," said Royal Caribbean's Pettit. "The reason large numbers of people with disabilities are cruising is that they know cruising is an accessible vacation option."
Cruise line advances
Older ships have been retrofitted to offer access, and newer ships are getting close to universal accessibility. Today's new-built cruise ships are designed with accessibility in mind, and that goes beyond the staterooms.
Example: On Royal Caribbean’s ships with ice skating rinks, lifts make it possible for passengers in wheelchairs to get onto the ice and mingle with skaters.
"We want to make sure all guests can do the wonderful things we have on our ships. People with disabilities have done the zipline and the FlowRider (the surf simulator), even rock climbing," Pettit said.
On the new Quantum of the Seas, the North Star mechanical arm ride, which will take passengers high above the sea for views, will be accessible. Pettit is also working on making the ship's simulated skydiving experience accessible.
Quantum will have 34 accessible staterooms all with automatic doors – making it possible for a wheelchair user to enter the stateroom on their own, Pettit said. Two suites will have both a shower and a newly designed accessible bathtub.
Older ships too
Kerper said agents should not just consider the newest ships for clients with disabilities.
"Cruise lines that excel in providing good access and service will make sure that every ship in their fleet will meet the needs of all. Sometimes an older ship means a smaller ship and many clients may prefer this," she said.
"Agents have long been taught to qualify their clients. For this market, they must learn to qualify cruise lines, ships and itineraries.”
Next time: Getting started selling cruises to travelers with disabilities.
Part 1 in a series.
The travel agent that can keep this group traveling and going places will have clients for life.
Debra Kerper, Easy Access Travel/Cruise Planners
WATCH YOUR WORDS: IT'S PEOPLE FIRST
Before agents even start looking at the special needs market, agents should familiarize themselves with the concept of "people first," said Ron Pettit, head of access programs for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
"You should always refer to the person first, followed by the disability," he explained. For example: say “person in a wheelchair” rather than “wheelchair-bound person.”
"That helps you understand people with disabilities are not cookie cutter."