Diana Saint James recalls vividly the day
she accompanied a group of clients on an otter-watching excursion
in Alaskan waters. The travel agent was surprised that her
customers had selected an otter-watching trip because 15 members of
the group were blind.
The excursion was
one of several offered to the group during a cruise Saint James
marketed to graduates of Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael,
Calif. Saint James is the group and marketing manager for
Dimensions in Travel in Novato, Calif.
When Dimensions in
Travel purchased another agency in 2000, it also acquired the
nearby guide dog school as a corporate account. Every month, the
agency arranges travel for 30 blind customers who come to the
school to meet their dogs and learn to work with them. The agency
arranges their return transport with the dogs. In this way,
Dimensions staff developed some expertise in meeting the needs of
In 2003, Saint
James approached the school about marketing leisure travel to its
2,000 graduates in the U.S. and Canada. The agency promotes its
customized packages to grads in the school's quarterly, audio
For her first
effort, Saint James planned a three-day trip to Disneyland, which
attracted 28 grads with dogs plus family and friends. A total of
100 people went on the trip.
"We had to learn
everything there is to know about being blind and taking a dog into
the park," Saint James said. "We know which rides you can take dogs
on -- no dramatic drops."
included a walking tour of the California Adventure Park led by a
blind man who "just loves the place," said Saint James.
With that success
for starters, Saint James turned to cruises. Dimensions has since
operated five cruise tours for blind clients and has two on the
books for 2008. So far, all trips have been aboard Princess ships
because the line "is best for not only meeting the clients' needs
but for enthusiastically welcoming these clients," Saint James
Princess leaves dog treats on the pillow at the end of the day,
along with chocolates.
contracts allow up to 25 dogs per sailing. Saint James said her
largest group had 22 dog teams and a total of 75 to 80 people,
including friends and family.
clients to choose shore excursions in advance, and the agency
advises clients to choose options with an auditory element.
Princess ensures that the selected excursions are safe for dogs and
For example, Saint
James said, the dogs cannot attend the Alaskan salmon bake because
there are huskies around. On the other hand, dogs do join their
owners on canoeing trips.
otter-watching excursion, Saint James said that although the blind
travelers could not see an otter at play in the water, they enjoyed
their time outdoors, taking in the breezy environment. They could
hear the whales.
Clients also have
left their dogs in the cabins to go dog sledding, kayaking,
horseback riding and even snorkeling. Saint James said snorkeling
provides the blind with "a sense of freedom" at discovering they
can swim safely with their faces in the water. They snorkel with a
sighted companion, who is sometimes an off-duty Princess crew
member. Crew on the ship "love to baby-sit" the dogs, she
passengers are interested in the dogs, Saint James arranges
"puppy-petting" sessions, a set time and place where the dogs are
off duty and available to meet other passengers. She said she has
had as many as 500 to 600 come to meet the animals. Saint James
said she learned at the first session that "off duty" did not mean
"off the leash." When the dogs were off leash, owners could not
control them and the animals were running everywhere.
all its passengers through their travel agents that the dogs will
be sailing and permits anyone with allergies to cancel without
penalty. Dimensions in Travel provides hundreds of flyers on guide
dog etiquette, which Princess distributes in the cabins.
One or two
Dimensions staffers accompany every departure. They ensure
relieving boxes are in place for the dogs and that crew are trained
in such details as serving meals, so clients know which foods are
where on the table.
More work with the guide dog school
Also, the agency
now handles the biennial reunions for graduates of the guide dog
school. About 200 came to the first event in 2006 at the Holiday
Inn in San Francisco. Saint James said there were 150 dogs in the
banquet hall, all under the tables.
"You never would
have known a dog was there," she said.
There is some
independent travel, too. Saint James said two clients, traveling
with their dogs, were married on the Grand Princess. The crew threw
dog kibble instead of rice.
The agency also
supports the school by including charity elements in events it
sponsors. For example, the flyers that cruise passengers receive
encourage contributions to the school.
Noting that 80% of
the legally blind have some sight, Saint James said that the agency
participates in online chats with blind participants. It also sends
e-mails to past clients. Recipients have software that magnifies
messages or reads the messages aloud.
travelers accounts for a tiny share of business, about 2%. The $6
million agency is owned by founder Norma King, who employs 20 and
has 10 independent contractors. The business mix is 90% leisure,
Saint James, who
carries a business card with her e-mail written in Braille, sees
prospects for growth. She said there are 10 million blind persons
in North America, and 10,000 have dogs.
Just before her
group departed on the Crown Princess for a Canada/New England
cruise out of New York this fall, she hosted representatives of two
East Coast guide dog schools on the ship to show how clients are
Saint James said
creating adventure for her clients is her passion. Also, work with
her clients has shown her that "there is a rich world of
experiences out there ... the sounds of cracking glaciers, the
smells and touch of flowers."
Saint James said
her clients, although they can't see as others do, "like being in a
place where everyone is friendly and happy."
Not unlike the rest
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England cruise on the Crown Princess
The following is a fall
foliage cruise aboard the Crown Princess that was created by Diana
Saint James of Dimensions in Travel in Novato, Calif., for a group
of blind clients, their traveling companions and seeing-eye
1: Embarkation in New York begins at 1 p.m. Early arrival
gives you time to go to your room before a private safety drill and
find the relieving area set up for dogs on Deck 7. At the drill,
you receive a life jacket designed for pets and are instructed on
how to put it on the dog. The evening is free to have dinner, take
in a show and get familiar with the ship.
2: At sea, gather for an orientation meeting and meet
fellow group members and their dogs. For the remainder of the day,
get a massage, work out at the fitness center, join a trivia game,
savor high tea or try your hand with lady luck in Gatsby's
3: A day in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Explore the shopping
area along the restored waterfront. Take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour
of the city. Tour a centuries-old brewery. Explore the 150-year-old
Halifax Citadel that stands sentinel over the city's thriving
4: A day in St. John, New Brunswick. Experience the city's
past with stops at the St. John City Market Kings Square Park,
Carleton Martello Tower and historical cemeteries. Take a jet boat
ride on the Bay of Fundy, known for its high tidal range. In the
evening, Dimensions in Travel hosts a cocktail party in Skywalkers
5: A day in Bar Harbor, Maine. Dimensions in Travel has
priority tender tickets to help avoid the lines. Explore Acadia
National Park, Mount Desert Island and the charming seaport town of
Bar Harbor. Walk in the Cadillac Mountains. Savor a lobster
6: A day in Boston. Follow the Freedom Trail and visit the
Old North Church, Boston Commons and the adjacent Public Garden.
The historic sights of Lexington, Concord, Plymouth and Salem all
are within an hour's drive of the city. In the late afternoon, meet
in the ship's atrium for a group photo. Feel free to dress up your
7: A day in Newport, R.I. Tour the mansions of Ocean Drive
and Bellevue Avenue by motorcoach, listening to the stories of
families such as the Morgans, Astors, Fishers and Vanderbilts, all
of whom had homes here. Walk the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk on Newport's
east side. Shop on Thames Avenue, then stop for a cool drink and a
lobster roll on Bannister's Wharf.
8: Arrive in New York to disembark.