Agents Can Help Clients With Disabilities Overcome Barriers

by Maria Lisella

When booking travel for adults with disabilities, travel agents should think of themselves as their clients’ advocates, working closely with them to ensure their needs are met.

That’s the word from Eric Lipp, executive director of Chicago-based Open Doors Organization (ODO). The nonprofit organization provides consulting, training and consumer education and assists companies with compliance under the American with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.

Travel Market Report spoke with Lipp to learn how travel agents can better serve clients who have disabilities and to hear his assessment of how well hoteliers and other suppliers are doing when it comes to accommodating such travelers.

Travelers who have disabilities represent a sizable market segment, responsible for an estimated $20 billion in annual travel spending, according to Open Doors.

What features are most important to travelers with disabilities?
Lipp: Ramps and transportation are key.

People hard of hearing will not ask for much, but the blind and those with limited vision need way-finders. Guests should be escorted upon arrival for a tour of the hotel so they can be comfortable and able to find an emergency exit.

How can agents ensure they’re making the right hotel choice for their clients?
Lipp: Call the hotel directly – do not trust websites. Even if 40 rooms at a property have been outfitted for disabled travelers, they will often feature various levels of accessibility.

Agents need to know what their clients need. Patch the client in when you call the hotel.

Among basic questions are: What is the bed frame like? An open frame can accommodate a Hoyer Lift. Can the wheelchair roll into the shower?

Who’s the best person to speak with at the hotels?
Lipp: Those who know the property best are the housekeeping staff and in-house engineers. Optimally, hotel personnel should take your phone call while actually in the room, to be certain each detail is accurate.

What about cruise lines?
Lipp: Cruise lines totally get it. Royal Caribbean, which conducts a deaf cruise, and Princess Cruise Lines are outstanding in their efforts.

When we board cruise ships, we also check land excursions, as not all attractions will be accessible. Agents need to call the destination’s tourist offices or the DMC corresponding to the ports of call to check on shore excursions or be sure transportation can be pre-arranged.

For passengers who cannot disembark during shore excursions, agents should request compensation such as discounted spa treatments or other amenities.
Are hotels keeping pace with the needs of travelers with disabilities?
Lipp: Criticizing an entire brand is not fair, but you can critique a singular property within that brand. Brand standards should incorporate training on how franchisees handle the delivery of services to disabled guests.

The biggest complaint disabled travelers have about hotels are the weight of the doors. If the hotel personnel is accommodating and puts a ramp in place for the guests’ arrival, guests will return. A poorly run property would not do this.

What are some standouts?
Lipp: Among the best-operated properties is the Grand Hyatt Manchester in San Diego, which hosts many conferences for disability-based services. The service is impeccable, which is why people return.

Hotels in Europe can be difficult, especially if you go off-brand. Again, call ahead. The easiest bets are large hotel U.S.-owned properties, but you still have to check as they may not be up to their counterparts in the U.S.

Any pet peeves?
Lipp: Raised letters would help distinguish bath amenities that tend to be in the same size and shaped containers.

What about airports?
Lipp: Airports in general in the U.S. have come a long way.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is in the lead on this. Newark needs a scrubbing but does a great job serving travelers with disabilities, while the elevators at LaGuardia are not properly spaced. And in spite of all the grousing people do about  JFK International, its access is good.

Additionally San Diego Airport is great.

London’s Heathrow is a model as a good and accessible airport. The rest of Europe is making progress.

Kudos for any one destination?
Lipp: New York City has mandated that by 2020 half of taxis have to be accessible.

What’s your advice for clients visiting classic sites and ruins?
Lipp: Ramping ancient sites is not going to happen overnight. They did it in Greece for the Olympic Games, but sometimes it takes a huge event to propel radical changes.

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"I didn’t understand that they could access these amenities through the buying power of these networks they join. I didn’t realize that an agent could open doors that I couldn’t."

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