Cruises for Special Needs Clients: A Primer
by Fran Golden

Part 2 in a series on cruises for passengers with disabilities.

An aging population coupled with improved cruise ship accessibility means that agents increasingly will find themselves serving cruise customers who have special needs. Currently, more than 21 million people with disabilities travel every year, and about 12% of people with disabilities have taken a cruise.

When selling cruises to travelers with disabilities, agents need to keep in mind a familiar lesson: Ask questions and qualify the client.

"The most important question to ask a person with a disability is, 'How can I help you? What do you need?'” said Diana Saint James, owner of Dimensions in Travel, an Ensemble agency in Novato, Calif.

“Don’t assume anything. The needs can be very different person to person," said Saint James, whose clients include Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Client capabilities
Bob Shaffer of Cruise Holidays in Hickory and Charlotte, N. Carol., works with a number of clients in wheelchairs. He said agents should learn as much about the client as possible, including their limitations, so you can best meet their needs.

"The most important thing to keep in mind, really for all clients, is to understand the limits of their capability. You need to help clients understand what is possible and what is not, and that is especially important with clients with disabilities," Shaffer said.

While Shaffer said he would "give the cruise lines an A" in accommodating clients’ needs, agents still have to do their homework.

Cruise line resources
Fortunately, when it comes to answering client questions about accessibility, cruise lines are a good resource. Most lines provide information on accessible travel on their websites, as well as in print materials for consumers and agents.

"In our accessible cruising brochure, for instance, there are things such as, 'Do you have accessible tours in Alaska?'” said Ron Pettit, head of access for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

“That is a tool agents can use as a primer and to work with clients to say accessible cruising is an option," he said. "The brochure helps set the stage."

One good place for agents to start, Petitt said, is by studying the Frequently Asked Questions section, so agents know what areas to discuss with clients.

Special needs form
Agents might also want to download the cruise line's special needs form for consumers and use it as a script.

"It's a checklist and that helps qualify the guest for the products and services they need," Pettit said. "Start off asking questions like, 'Will you need any special assistance during your cruise? Will you need any special accommodations?' Use the form to try and prompt the client."

For more intensive information, look for cruise line webinars on the special needs topic – Royal Caribbean did one last year and is planning another for 2014.

Certification program
Debra Kerper of Easy Access Travel/Cruise Planners near Dallas recommended that travel agents prepare themselves for serving special needs customers by taking the SNG Certified Accessible Travel AdvocateTM program.

The three-module online program was created by Special Needs Group, Inc., a company that provides special needs equipment and services for travelers.

Cruise line access desks

Once a booking is made, agents’ top resource is the cruise line access desk.

Saint James, who twice a year leads cruise groups of 20 to 60 travelers and as many as 25 guide dogs, said cruise line access desks are "phenomenal" in their ability to respond to specific needs.

Princess Cruises has met special requests from her groups ranging from sending Braille menus before a cruise to alerting crew not to leave chocolates on stateroom pillows, as guide dogs on her group trips will go after them.

Agents should make sure to ask the access desk for an onboard contact for those with special needs, Saint James advised.

Preparing the client
Agents should also brief their clients about what they might encounter shipboard, Saint James said.

"The traveler has to be prepared to insist on their rights and to educate the people onboard about what their needs are. You have to help your client get ready and be prepared."

Next time: One agent’s message: Yes, you can cruise.

Related Story
Accessible Cruising Is a Huge Growth Market

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Tip of the Day
I learned a lot about better ways to market the product while I was onboard [the Viking Star]. The biggest challenge for travel agents is understanding which is the best line for each customer, being able to distinguish the products from one to the next.
John Werner, MAST Travel Network president
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