“There is a real market for hoteliers to capitalise on here.” These are the surprisingly profit-aware words of Minesh Patel, policy and campaigns manager at disability charity, Scope. He is referring to ‘The Purple Pound’ that oft-used phrase that connotes the combined spending power of disabled households. “It’s worth £249bn a year,” he says.
Scope research in February 2018 found that on average disabled people spend around £570 a month on costs related to their impairment or condition, and specifically where hotel guests are concerned, the charity says those it supports often encounter a lack of accessible rooms. “If this doesn’t change it will just drive up the cost of what is currently a very limited availability of the accessible hotel rooms,” says Patel.
He adds: “Paying that premium for an accessible hotel room can often fall into that category of a disabled person costs. So for us this is about hotels really thinking about disabled consumer more, whilst increasing choice of rooms available for disabled people. This can be really important to help drive down the cost room for someone going away.
Change is slow, but the last 12 months have seen action in a few industry quarters that would suggest a gradual waking up to a problem that is far from ‘solved’ for people with disabilities.
Airbnb’s recent acquisition of Accomable, a platform that lets users find accessible hotels, vacation rentals and apartments, will expand home-renting opportunities for disabled people. Accomable co-founder Srin Madipalli, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy says he repeatedly found that information about wheelchair accessibility at hotels was inaccurate. “You’d turn up to places and the shower was tiny or there was a step to get in,” he said. “You have to somehow improvise for the night and find a way to not properly use the bathroom. It’s just really humiliating and embarrassing.”
Disability charity Revitalise says the Airbnb and Accomable deal is fundamentally important as it will lead to an “industry shift in attitudes” towards disabled travellers and the revenue they contribute in the tourism sector. “For too long the mainstream holiday sector has paid lip service to the needs of disabled travellers, so it’s great to see a giant like Airbnb taking this issue seriously,” it said in response to the news.
Elsewhere, in November 2017 Accorhotels employees undertook a project to map the accessibility of its hotels and local businesses on the Jaccede app – a platform which gives a guide to the accessibility of places. Anne-Sophie Béraud, the group’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, said a the time staff are working alongside other companies in the network to promote the “professional integration” of people with disabilities around the world. “Welcoming and accepting others, growing from and valuing our differences, are some of the founding principles of AccorHotels,” she said in a statement.
Some arguably encouraging signs, especially given the international profile of the firms involved, but, says Robin Sheppard, owner of Bespoke Hotels, the wider issue is that style and aesthetic are “never really taken into consideration”. “I don’t want an able-bodied person thinking that one of our disabled rooms is a downgrade,” he explains, “so nirvana for me is someone walking into our hotel and saying ‘I would like an upgrade to a disabled suite please’. That would mean we have done the right job, if it was seen as a better thing rather than a relegation.”
He believes there is also a cash opportunity in making a disabled room look and feel a similar standard to regular guest bedrooms. “You’re going to get the same if not a better room rate for it,” he says: “At the moment the disabled rooms tend to to be the let last rooms to able-bodied people and therefore people tend to discount them or sell them for a lower price.”
In 2004 Sheppard contracted an illness called Guillain–Barré syndrome, which is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system, eventually causing paralysis. “I came back to work and managed unlock the paralysis, but I had to relearn how to sit and how to stand and how to walk. So it was quite traumatic. Because of that I experienced being a disabled person in the hotel environment as a consumer for the first time. I became painfully aware of what hoteliers don’t tend to do in anticipation of disabled guests needs.”
According to The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) it is not enough to wait until a disabled person wants to use services. “Hoteliers need to think in advance about what people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, because people can suffer from a wide range of issues such as a visual, hearing and mobility impairments or a learning disability.”
So how simple is it to make some small changes but a big difference? Can hoteliers make life easier for their disabled guests without committing huge sums of money to the endeavour? We set out to find examples of hotels already up to scratch with their accessibility considerations – who is the best at catering to this sizeable portion of the population?
Jeremy Osborne is general manager of the Cringletie Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has been in the hotel business since 1972. His property offers disabled access as soon as the guests arrive at the car park, with four dedicated parking spaces and a ramp up to and through to the front door. In addition the front door is an automatic sliding door and there is a chairlift to allow customers to bypass the steps to the reception. Osborne says: “At all points we have butler bells which are all located at an accessible level, so that we can get people right through the reception.”
All doors in the building are the correct width to allow a wheelchair through – no architectural hangovers from the days when allowances were rarely made. There are guidelines available to make sure you have the right sized width of doors to get around and into bedrooms, but “most public areas in this day and age,” he says, “will have enough width, but bedrooms need extra width to make sure you can get a wheelchair through, especially because wheelchairs are becoming bigger and bigger these days.” Some notable reasonable adjustments include modifications to adjust bed height and a pull-cord next to the bed for emergencies. There are full length mirrors so that guests can see themselves correctly for dressing. Wardrobe rails for holding clothes are placed lower than usually seen in hotels so wheelchair uses are able to reach them easily. Bathrooms all have a corner bath, again designed for greater accessibility.
A unique service at the Cringletie is the use of vibrating pillow cases to warn deaf guests when if the fire alarm sounds. Guests need only inform the reception that they are deaf or hard of hearing, and will be issued with a vibrating device to connect to a power supply and place underneath their pillow. Osborne says the vibrating device “will get stronger and stronger, basically until it wakes them up”. On the ceiling there is a red flashing light that will activate, and they will see the flashing light and know that they have to evacuate.
Asked for his thoughts on how fellow hoteliers might go about implementing similar reasonable adjustments, he says people “have to appreciate that there will not always be major works [necessary]” and most hotels will have even an individual room that “can be adjusted” if required. “The main differences are all the small extra things, such as the vibrating pillows, large telephones with extra large buttons so that if somebody has poor eyesight it will be a lot easier to make calls and adjustable chairs and beds. “Some will be expensive items, but for what you’re providing in this day and age one has to look at it from a business sense. Not only are you looking at a wonderful facility to people who are perhaps not as lucky as everybody else, but it is also a good business practice. There are a lot people out there with special needs, so at the end of the day they are there to be looked after and their pound is as good as anybody’s.”
Sheppard says that his hotel chain has a lot of “emotional intelligence” reflected in the high level of detail and upgrades implemented in the rooms designated for people with disabilities. His main contention however, is that the confidence of the staff is a key factor that can be forgotten.
He believes hotels need to give their employees the tools and the intelligence to feel comfortable when they see a disabled person, and to therefore react professionally. “When I was in a wheelchair for a long time, the old rule was that people should talk to the person pushing the wheelchair rather than the person pushing it. Because they automatically assume that you are so ‘invalided’ that you are not capable of cognitive thought.”
Getting staff up to speed with their attitudes on disability, and ensuring that there is that level of training are essential: “Overall its delight and surprise from the staff,” he says, “and about turning the premises from a functional and hospitalised look, into something that is more romantic and joyful.”
Tess Gilder has been with Park House in Norfolk for 15 years, which is part of the Leonard Cheshire disability group. She says despite being a very old building, the property has all the relevant modern adaptations such as ceiling hoists and automatic doors, as well as wet rooms, which Gilder says are “proper wet rooms”, not just a shower cubicle. “The surfaces need to be flat going into the bathroom, without any ridges. It needs to be seamless even if it means having a little ramp.
As long as [disabled customers] can get over it easily with a wheelchair, because people like to be independent.” Gilder says that there is an on-site nurse and support workers who offer personal care for guests with diseases like MS and Parkinson’s. “That’s our unique factor here,” she says, “so people are able to go away on a holiday that they thought they would never [experience] again, because they need care like that when they are away. When they come here we do the care and can have a proper holiday.”
She adds that 70% of guests are returning guests, because they “love the staff” and the “things we offer”. “If a guest doesn’t like a particular food or are on a particular diet those are all ready for the next time they come. I know that is easy for us to do because we take notes for all of our guest, but in the smaller businesses, like the boutiques, that can be done because it’s just about that extra attention to detail that can make all the difference.”
So how to act, for hoteliers wishing to take new steps for their disabled guests? A statement from the Equality for Human Rights Commision says suitable access to hotels is an important part of a disabled person’s ability to live independently, be included in the wider community and enjoy full lives on equal terms with non-disabled people. By making reasonable adjustments, not only to infrastructure, but also to how they provide and deliver services, hotels can have a big impact on disabled guests’ lives. It’s not just good for those guests who need it – it also makes good business sense for a hotel to be accessible to as many people as possible.
According to the European Commission, by 2020 as much as 25% of tourism spending in Europe is expected to come from consumers with accessibility requirements. Revitalise CEO Chris Simmonds says there is not only a “moral obligation for the travel industry to make itself more accessible to disabled people”, but also a “huge market potential as well”.
Tess Gilder says when people are building hotels or having refurbishments, that is the time when they really need to be thinking about what they can do in terms of accessible rooms. This is important in order to win more business and to be able to make “everybody” feel welcome.
Robin Sheppard says it is “all about equality”, and says the good news is that people are now talking about it. “For a long time it lay dormant as a non-subject. It’s not something we should be asking the government to enforce, I think it’s something that should be done because people want to do it. That is when it’s going to have the most attraction and want to it.”
He says there are some great examples around: “The Shankly Hotel in Liverpool does autism awareness courses for their staff, so there are little pockets of excellence like that where you think, how did that come about? It’s brilliant that they know how to handle it because it is a form of disability.”
Sheppard wants disabled guests to feel as confident and as welcome as anybody else. For accessibility to be equal not only in physical attention but also emotionally. “I want the staff of UK hotels to get the message,” he says, “promote training and coaching from their own peer groups and actually talk to disabled to people to ask about what they want, ensuring that hotels can do be doing everything they can to make disabled guests feel better during their stays.”