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Selling Accessible Travel

According to the US Census Bureau, approximately 20% of Americans are disabled, a figure projected to rise dramatically as the Baby Boomers age. But have travel agents really capitalized on the commercial potential of this growing market, or are disabled travelers still underserved?

Says Jani Nayer, Executive Coordinator for the Society of Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), “Even though more travel agents are looking into this segment of travel, a general lack of educational resources and reliable accessibility information prevents most from entering this lucrative niche.”

Laurel Van Horn, Research Director for Open Doors Organization (ODO) agrees. “It’s still rare to find access information on hotel websites or to be able to book and block an accessible room online,” she points out. Still it’s a hard market to overlook, as according to an ODO survey, Americans spend $13.6 billion annually on accessible travel.

Economics aside, some travel agents enter this niche to avoid legal complications. “Travel agents are prohibited from turning away disabled clients under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” says disabled travel specialist Connie George. She also believes that travel agents have an ethical responsibility to learn more about this market segment. “As a travel agent, it’s my job to question my clients about their needs, and try to find suppliers who can accommodate them,” she adds.

Ann Litt, owner of Undiscovered Britain and Ireland agrees with Ms. George, but realizes that it’s a steep learning curve. “If you don’t have the time to learn about accessible travel, then develop a network of travel agents or tour operators who specialize in this niche, who can work with you to serve your disabled clients,” she suggests. To that end, SATH maintains a list of accessible travel specialists; and holds a yearly conference where accessible tour operators and travel agents can network.

The Travel Institute also offers a Lifestyle Specialist — Accessible Travel course, which provides a good introduction to the subject. Designed in conjunction with SATH, the curriculum includes information on the basic access laws in the US — the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act - and provides practical tips on arranging accessible trips.

Ms. George notes that these resources didn’t exist when she entered the niche, over 30 years ago; so she learned the ropes by reading and asking questions. Ms. Litt did a lot of legwork, with a clipboard and a tape measure, to compile her accessible hotel database. She also received help from the cruise line access departments, and recommends those as a resource for agents entering the market.

The bottom line is, it takes a lot of time, effort and hands-on experience to become a true expert in this field; however with a little work ASTA members can gain a good working knowledge of it. And as Ms George also notes, “Selling disabled travel is a great marketing tool for my group cruises, as it’s highly likely that at least one person in the group will be disabled.”