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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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].
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.