Serving blind travelers and their four-legged friends

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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 blind travelers.

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 newsletter.

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."

The package included a walking tour of the California Adventure Park led by a blind man who "just loves the place," said Saint James.

Cruises, too

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 said.

For example, Princess leaves dog treats on the pillow at the end of the day, along with chocolates.

The Princess 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.

Dimensions asks 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 their owners. 

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.

On the 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 said.

Because other 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.

Princess advises 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.

Serving blind 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, 10% corporate.

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 cared for.

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 of us.

Think you're a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Nadine Godwin, Agent Life editor, at [email protected]avelweekly.com, and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put "Agent Life" in the subject line.

Perfect Itinerary

A Canada/New 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 dogs.

Day 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.

Day 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 Casino.

 

Day 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 downtown.

Day 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 Nightclub.

Day 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 bake.

Day 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 dog, too!

Day 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.

Day 8: Arrive in New York to disembark.

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