Jake Steinman, editor-in-chief of INBOUND, as well as the founder of a portfolio of popular tour and travel industry events and conferences acquired earlier this year by Connect Travel, has been concentrating on a new project—the first TravelAbility Summit, a highly focused conference dealing with the issue of accessible travel. He launched the effort a year ago, and the first Summit will be staged Nov. 12-13 in San Francisco. Steinman recently participated in a panel discussion on the subject of accessible travel at the U.S. Travel Association’s recent annual ESTO conference in Austin, which brings together DMO leaders from all kinds of destination organizations. INBOUND’s editor talked with Steinman several days ago about his ESTO experience and how the TravelAbility Summit is shaping up. Following are excerpts of our conversation.
INBOUND: So, what have you learned in the past year as you’ve been putting together the TravelAbility Summit, and what did you learn about accessible travel needs at ESTO?
Steinman. We’re creating an awareness event designed to help destinations and their industry partners become accessible as a way to drive more tourism.
You could see this coming. Seventy-five million Baby Boomers are going to be ageing into a disability, and the tour and travel industry is going to have to develop an infrastructure and products for them as they move into that phase of life. They are the ones who are going to have the time and income to travel.
“For the Disabled, Travel is a Commando Raid”
Travel involves getting from point A to point B—from home to the destination—that is an arduous and stressful journey for people who are “abled” so you can imagine what it’s like for those with a disability. Disability blogger Cory Lee Woodard recounted the intense preparation and contingency planning he had undertaken before a long haul flight that made it sound like a commando raid. On long haul flights he doesn’t eat or drink for 36 hours before takeoff so he won’t have to use the bathroom. And then he still has to worry about his motorized wheelchair arriving undamaged.
But to affect change during the transportation process, much of which is regulated by the ADA and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), involves advocacy by disability lobbying groups. Improving accessibility at the destination level however, is something that I believe can be done by raising awareness within the DMO’s communities of hotels and attractions and that small gestures and incremental improvements in service can make a big difference
INBOUND: And, of course, you’re not talking about a single disability that a destination has to address.
STEINMAN: One thing I’ve learned is that every single disability has a spectrum, and so it’s virtually impossible to be accessible for everyone.
INBOUND: Speaking of destinations and accessibility, you recently attended US Travel’s recent ESTO conference in Austin, Texas— which is all about destinations at all levels—where you organized a panel around accessibility. How did that go?
Steinman: We view accessibility as a new and inexpensive form of product development for destinations. The product is already there in the form of museums, hotels and attractions that are already ADA compliant and DMO’s can aggregate them onto an accessible section on their website and then promote it to people with disabilities and their families. DMO’s are in charge of long-range planning and they need to fast forward five to ten years from now when 25% of the baby boomers with time and money to travel will have aged into a disability. If they are prepared for them today, they will be perfectly positioned for these baby boomers who will be selecting their vacations based on what’s accessible to them.
We see DMO’s taking different approaches to promote accessibility as a new product and one of the best examples is Indianapolis. The disability community has a saying: “Nothing about us without us.” The CEO, convened a meeting with several of the local disability organizations covering mobility, blindness, autism and simply asked what they needed in a website and then built what many consider the best destination website for accessible information.
Who Should be the Accessibility Go-to Person on a DMO Staff?
If they currently have someone responsible for “inclusivity” or “diversity”— African American or LGBT market—accessibility fits naturally as the ADA is part of the Civil Rights Act. If not, it should fall under the Visitor Service training function as it’s their job to educate front line hotel and attraction staff, which can greatly reduce complaints and negative feedback.
INBOUND: How does one go about developing an Accessibility Strategy?
Steinman: There is a small, but growing group of accessibility consultants who can help the tourism industry develop an accessibility plan that would address different disabilities. For those that want dive in I suggest they begin with autism. It doesn’t require equipment and there are several credible training organizations, consultants and even apps that can be used. Myrtle Beach has been promoting an Autism Day care center that gives parents with autistic children time to enjoy the destination.
INBOUND: Since you don’t really control the actual visitors experience how do you avoid setting unrealistic expectations?
Steinman: We are all in the pioneer stage right now and, as the old saying goes, the pioneers get arrows in their backs and the settlers get the land. The arrows, in this case, come in the form of criticism. One way to deflect criticism would be to advise industry partners to provide as much accurate and detailed website information about the accessibility features that exist, or include actual images, which can remove most of the ambiguity and would be greatly appreciated. Another is to inform them about innovative technology and products that we have aggregated here on our website.
We implemented blindness access technology to our museum exhibit, but not one person has used it. Blind visitors and their families are probably not aware that this exhibit is even accessible. The most efficient approach is to promote the exhibit to residents through a the local blindness organization and to visitors and locals through digital marketing that targets families members of the blind.
There are ways to manage expectations about the information on your website. One way would be to openly acknowledge that information on the site may not address the needs of everyone with a disability, but that your website is a work-in-progress that will continue to improve with input from the disability community. Managing expectations is also a function of customer service training and how people are treated. The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel CVB recently added an accessibility module to their customer service training program.
INBOUND: Can you tell me more about the structure of the TravelAbility Summit? The speakers? The program?
Steinman: There are three main segments we will bring together at TravelAbility: the tour and travel industry, the disability travel community, and innovative technology and product providers with low-cost practical solutions that can be used by hotels and attractions to make themselves more accessible. There hasn’t been conference on travel accessibility in the U.S. for 13 years and in that time many new products and services have been developed by social entrepreneurs that we have featured on our website and will be inviting to present at the Summit.
Below are the companies we will be inviting to take part in the TravelAbilityPre-Conference “Launchpad” workshop on the afternoon of November 11th. This workshop will be free to conference registrants.
In addition to destinations we’ll welcome anyone in the travel space that is interested in learning how to become more accessible. We have to start somewhere and we’re limiting attendance to 150 people to maximize networking. We’re also concentrating on destinations as they have the capability to spread the word to their industry partners—hotels, attractions, museums, restaurants who rely on them for trend information that will affect their future business.
We’ll make all the presentations available to all attendees so they can use the content to form their own workshops that can be led some of the experts they meet at the Summit. .
INBOUND: Any plans for the future of the Summit?
Steinman: I have a three-year plan. The first year will be completely focused on raising awareness that will result in a mind shift about how and why to address disability tourism. In the second year we’ll focus on training the trainer workshops and in year three we will layer on an awards ceremony to recognize best practices.
To learn more about the TravelAbility Summit, click here.
To subscribe to the Summit’s official newsletter, the TravelAbility Insider, click here.