December 15, 2014
Improved accessibility can be a competitive advantage for businesses, opening up a whole new market of travellers.
On a recent business trip to Ottawa, Christine Karcza stayed at a hotel with an accessible room intended to accommodate a range of disabilities from blindness to mobility issues. Ms. Karcza, who walks with two canes, was happy to see a chair placed in the shower, as well as shower heads at chair height, as well as higher up.
But when she sat down in the shower chair, she realized the lower nozzle didn’t work. To have a shower, she had to stand up to turn on the upper nozzle. “Fortunately, they had good hand bars and I managed,” she says. “Had I been in a wheelchair I wouldn’t have been able to shower.”
Such occurrences are common, says Ms. Karcza, who runs I Can Do This, a consulting business focused on creating inclusive environments for businesses and government organizations. “Hotels have accessible rooms, but one of the biggest challenges is that the understanding of accessibility is lacking,” she says. “You’ll find the rod to hold the clothes in the closet is up high, not at wheelchair level. Or they still put the TV remote on top of the television set.”
Fixing that sort of glitch is the stock-in-trade of Magnus Berglund, director of accessibility for Scandic Hotels in Sweden, and one of the speakers at Destinations For All 2014, the first international conference on accessible travel, held in Montreal this fall.
Mr. Berglund who walks with the help of a cane and travels with a rehab dog handles accessibility training and design for Scandic’s chain of 230 hotels in Europe. Special features in its hotels include alarm clocks that vibrate or shine a blue light for the hard of hearing, braille hotel fact sheets, accessible rooms, elevator and other controls at two heights (so short people or those in wheelchairs can reach them) and a can-do attitude toward accommodating disabilities. As part of their training, Mr. Berglund makes hotel executives navigate their hotels in wheelchairs, to familiarize them with the challenges.
A noble cause, you might think. But really, what hotel chain/airline/restaurant/public transport system can afford to redesign all facilities for the disabled?
Mr. Berglund says they can’t afford not to. Improved accessibility can be a competitive advantage for businesses, opening up a whole new market of travellers, he says.
Statistics Canada reports that about 3.8 million Canadians (or 13.7% of the adult population) live with a disability. And the Travel Industry Association of America reports, they spend at least $13.6-billion a year on travel in North America alone.
That market is only going to grow as the grey tsunami of aging Baby Boomers crashes across the world, because aging tends to bring a range of physical issues from restricted vision to hearing problems and cognitive challenges. And business travellers both young and old aren’t immune to any of those things, Karcza says.
As Berglund and other presenters at the Quebec conference repeatedly emphasized, “this is not a niche market.”
Chief among the issues sited at the conference was the lack of information needed to help disabled travellers decide where to stay and eat, and how to get there. To that end, Keroul does audits throughout Quebec and conveys the results in The Accessible Road, a print and online tourism guide for disabled travellers that includes a listing of accessible hotels, restaurants and venues. Quebec may be the only province to offer such information (Ontario has set a goal of being fully accessible by 2022).
Courtesy of Starwood Hotels and ResortsWestin’s accessible bathroom. In some hotels, showers can be an impossible feat.. .
Isabelle Ducharme, president of Keroul, would like other provinces and countries to follow suit. Most destination marketing organizations have some information on accessibility, she says, but its limited and often unreliable. “It would be nice if when I went to Paris, or Montreal or New York, we all talk the same language when it comes to accessibility,” says Ducharme, who travels regularly and has been in a wheelchair since a car accident at age 22. “Right now, I might have to call six or seven hotels to find the right one for me because each of them has a different definition of accessibility.”
Those places that make life easy for travellers with some kind of disability are likely to find a payoff in the form of more and intensely loyal visitors, Karcza says. She says she is a fan of the Westin hotel chain, mainly because staff members don’t treat her “like a problem,” but rather as a valued customer.
When the hydraulic door to her Le Westin Montreal hotel room closed too quickly for her to exit via scooter (she uses one to travel longer distances), the manager provided her with a doorstop that solved the problem.
Another time, while staying at the Ottawa Westin, Karcza rented a scooter that didn’t have a basket. The concierge solved the problem by taking her across the street to a bike shop that willingly kitted her out. “The service is there. And the understanding is there,” Karcza says. “They provide creative solutions at no extra cost. It makes me a loyal customer.”