Earning the trust of the disabled

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n the sixth grade, Connie George was so inspired by Helen Keller's biography that she taught herself the sign language alphabet. She even considered becoming an interpreter for the deaf. Although George, owner of Connie George Travel Associates in Glenolden, Pa., chose a different career path, she has incorporated this affinity for people with disabilities into her business.

In fact, about a third of George's clients are disabled. Her agency specializes in planning travel for the deaf, wheelchair users and slow walkers. The other two-thirds of her business are cruises, resort packages and tours to nondisabled clients.

Ninety percent of the business George books for travelers with disabilities is cruise-related because ships do the best job in catering to this market segment, she said.

Although George plans some destination trips for clients, she believes that agents can't guarantee the same level of satisfaction with special-needs travel. "We can't know the accessibility details of every place in the world," George said. "We handle a few land destinations, but we'd have to reinvent the wheel by spending many hours of research each time we handle a new area -- often for a one-time-only booking."

The home-based George, who does about $1 million in volume, employs six outside agents who are based in Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

She has steadily increased her share of this market over the years by actually getting to know people with disabilities -- and thereby understanding the dynamics of the market. For instance, in the 1990s, George served as staff member for a disabled traveler section of CompuServe's Travel Forum.

What she found was that travelers with disabilities have needs that are not altogether different from other travelers. George notes that agents working with this market should begin the sales process in the same way they would with any other client.

"Agents think they have to start with what [the disabled client] can do," said George. "Start with what they want to do. Qualify clients first with their interests, and then [move on to] their abilities or limitations."

The next part of the qualification process is when the agent must pay painstaking attention to detail.

"For instance, if the client has a mobility impairment, we ask what the specific disability is -- paraplegia, fibromyalgia, post-polio or muscular dystrophy, etc.," noted George. "We need to know if they use a scooter, power wheelchair, manual wheelchair or walker, or if they just can't walk a distance. We need to know if they are a full-time conveyance user -- the term 'wheelchair bound' is a no-no -- or if not, how far or how long they can comfortably walk."

There are also questions about such items as transfer lifts -- the equipment that helps those with limited mobility move from their wheelchair to the bed. Agents need to determine whether a client needs to rent or bring a transfer lift, and if the cruise cabin or hotel room can accommodate the lift. "We make sure that the bed is on an open frame, because part of the transfer lift's stand sits under the bed," George said. "In hotels, that sometimes requires a box frame to be placed on cement blocks. We also need to verify the height of toilets and beds in case they need to be adjusted."

Those agents interested in building heavy volume from the travelers with disabilities market should look elsewhere, George said. "We've accepted that we can't work on sheer volume," she said. "The bookings are time-intensive and detailed."

Agents should also figure they are going to become an activist for the client. In some cases, said George, suppliers don't understand the needs of travelers with disabilities. "You have to educate suppliers," she said.

In the end, teaching suppliers and paying attention to myriad details is well worth the effort, said George. "A major plus [with the travelers with disability market] is the loyalty of the client. But you've really got to earn their trust."

The Perfect Itinerary

Five days in Italy for disabled clients

oan Diamond, president of Nautilus Tours & Cruises in Woodland Hills, Calif., designed a five-day trip to Rome and Florence for clients who use wheelchairs and require hotels with no steps, wider doors, roll-in showers and grab bars in the bathroom. Transportation for the itinerary includes wheelchair-accessible vans with lifts or ramps, which are available in Italy.

DAY 1

Hotels in Rome: Diamond avoids the chains, preferring instead to book clients in centrally located properties that exude Italian charm -- but not at the expense of accessibility. She recommends three four-star hotels, all of which are totally accessible: The President Hotel, Hotel Royal Santina and Hotel Universo.

Clients who use wheelchairs can view the Coliseum on a van tour that takes in many of Rome's most famous sights. Diamond also recommends a sightseeing tour via van that takes in the Coliseum, Pantheon, Arch of Constantine, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and Via Veneto.

For dining, Diamond said that Sabatini in Trastevere is excellent for people-watching. Here, entrees are about $20 to $25. The eatery has both indoor and outdoor eating areas, and Diamond recommends the latter. Her other choice, Ristorante Nino, is less expensive; entrees are about $7.

DAY 2

This is the day to visit the Vatican and its museum and the Sistine Chapel. Tell clients to see the Sistine Chapel first thing in the morning before the tour buses arrive. Follow that with a visit to the museum. The Pope gives a blessing in St. Peter's Square at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays.

DAY 3

Visit the Galleria Borghese in the morning. Built in 1613, the Galleria was once renowned as the most stunning residence in Rome. Leave time in the afternoon for shopping or museum visits. Diamond said to be sure to check with individual museums for accessible entrances, which are not always at the front door.

DAY 4

Take a morning train to Florence. The trip is less than three hours. Most trains are now wheelchair-accessible and most have accessible bathroom facilities, Diamond said. Restaurants in Florence: Diamond highly recommends dinner at Ristorante la Loggia in Piazzale Michelangelo, featuring a spectacular view of the city.

In the afternoon, visit Duomo Square, which houses the fourth largest cathedral in the world, and the San Lorenzo Market, a colorful market featuring local vendors selling meats, fish and cheese as well as Tuscan take-out foods.

DAY 5

A day of sightseeing -- which should include such musts as the Galleria Dell' Accademia to see the statue of David, the Uffizi Gallery and Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest bridge.

Hand in Hand

HAL signs on (in Braille)

f you're booking visually impaired clients, one ship is probably a safe bet: Holland America Line (HAL)'s Zuiderdam.

Gary Metzler and Jackie Hull, co-owners of Outta Sight Travel in Port St. Lucie, Fla., should know. They combed the entire ship to ensure that every single piece of Braille signage was correct.

The husband and wife team, whose agency specializes in travel for the visually impaired, took part in inaugural activities for agents when the ship was in Florida in December. soon after, they escorted members of the Florida Council for the Blind on a tour of the ship. Both times, Metzler, who is totally blind, noticed that some of the Braille signage was upside down.

Two agents worked hard to make sure HAL's Zuiderdam had correct Braille signage. The couple told their HAL representative, Angie West. "We got right on it," West said. The company's access and compliance department immediately contacted the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH), asking for a recommendation for someone to ensure that all ship signage was in order. Coincidentally, the organization recommended Hull and Metzler.

Ten days later the couple got a call from HAL's special services department asking if they could sail the Zuiderdam for a week and inspect the signage.

The couple embarked on a Caribbean cruise with their guide dog, Dr. J. "We checked out every Braille sign we could find," said Hull. Working with a maitre' d, the couple compared Braille and print versions to find discrepancies -- not a quick job, since Braille appears on every stateroom door and in all public rooms.

The experience paid off for all. Outta Sight immediately sold a suite aboard the Zuiderdam to an older person with accessibility issues, and has been working with councils for the blind to develop group business. HAL is doing co-op ads with the agency and is educating staffers on the HAL product. "It's an agency that we'll work closely with this year," West said.

"Hand in Hand" highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Agent Life editor Claudette Covey at [email protected].

Turen's Tips

The fear of travel: Reality and perception

his past Memorial Day weekend, a lovely time to walk the breezy boulevards of Paris, 89% of Americans who traveled did so on four firm tires, without going anywhere near an airport.

Richard Turen.Driving, that most dangerous of activities, is replacing flying. This will probably mean the deaths of close to 4,000 souls who choose to drive instead of fly. And hardly anyone is talking about it.

Last week I spoke with someone who is: David Ropeik, author of the recently published book "Risk! A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You."

Ropeik agrees that travel agents sell trust. If we pretend that the client's fears don't exist, we run the risk of appearing untrustworthy. So there is clearly an upside to being honest and able to discuss the issue of risks on a factual level.

Even now, too many of our clients are convinced that scurrying off on a London theater package is an act of bravery worthy of Congressional recognition. This syndrome has to do with risk perception, said Ropeik. We are less afraid of danger when, like driving, we think we can control it.

We also are less afraid of natural risks than manmade threats. We understand the odds of being killed by lightning. But we have trouble deciding which of the 147 fellow passengers waiting to get on our flight is a terrorist who wishes us harm. We don't know whom we should suspect, so we suspect everyone. Our perception of danger far outweighs the realistic odds of something bad happening to us.

So what can we do with this information?

Perhaps it is time to address our clients' perceptions, trying to put them at ease by suggesting that the facts show that international travel is probably a good deal safer than staying at home. There are many, many facts to buttress this argument. But if we can't coherently make the case, there is no way that even our most trusted clients will buy it.

Industry consultant Richard Turen owns the vacation planning firm Churchill and Turen, Ltd., based in Naperville, Ill. A 23-year industry veteran, he has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's "Best Agents" list since the list began in 2000.

5 Things

Market savvy

ive things to do when you're preparing to enter the travelers with disabilities market:

1. Don't be intimidated. "It's no different than dealing with any niche market you want to get into," said Roberta Schwartz, educational director of the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH). "Just become sensitive to disability etiquette. It's a people-first philosophy."

2. Get educated. SATH and its Web site (www.sath.org) will lead you to information. Agents dealing in this niche must learn about all aspects of accessibility for cruise lines, hotels and destinations. No detail is too small.

3. Make your agency accessible if you're a brick-and-mortar shop. Schwartz said that locations should be equipped with ramps at entrances and telephones with telecommunications display devices for the deaf. The Americans with Disabilities Act Web site (www.ada.gov) provides advice on how to make small businesses accessible.

4. Know how to sell and provide service. "It's really about being the best agent you can be," said Schwartz. "Pay [careful] attention to details." It also helps to have patience and empathy. Although people with disabilities have the same basic needs and motivations as anybody else, booking this type of travel involves more hand-holding and extra services, such as the meet-and-greet detail for connecting flights. Also make sure that these clients are sold travel insurance and emergency evacuation policies.

5. "Under-promise and over- deliver, but never promise anything you can't deliver," said Schwartz. "If clients get what they expect, they're satisfied. If they get more than they expect, they're wowed." It behooves an agent to inform travelers with disabilities what the worst-case scenario may be. Make sure they're prepared for any and all kinks along the way.

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