Three weeks ago, eight retail agents representing three agencies in the U.S. and one in Canada participated in the first special-needs agent fam trip hosted by the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB).
The group toured the island with JTB representatives, doing hotel site inspections with a careful eye on the levels of accessibility throughout the properties for clients with disabilities.
The idea for the fam trip was hatched a year or so ago by travel agent Denise Hangsleben of Travel Your Way in Belleville, Ill., who has made her mark as a certified destination wedding specialist and cruise specialist, primarily in the Caribbean region.
She attended a JTB webinar last year and asked the board to offer a fam trip for agents with disabilities.
Although she had booked clients with disabilities over the years, that market had not been her main focus until she herself began to use a wheelchair more than a year ago and she realized the need for an expert agent to assist with arrangements for travelers with special needs.
"Because my mother was visually impaired and almost completely blind by the time she passed and my father-in-law was hearing-impaired, I did have an idea of what their needs were," Hangsleben said. "Had I not traveled a lot prior to the time I started using a wheelchair, I would not have felt comfortable traveling now."
On this trip, the focus was on accessibility and infrastructure to accommodate travelers with disabilities.
Paul Pennicook, Jamaica's director of tourism, said it is important to find ways to attract new niche markets.
"Like any other vacationers, persons with disabilities should be able to enjoy the full destination," he said. "Our focus is twofold: the physical product must be retrofitted for these visitors, and our workers must be fully equipped to offer excellent service."
Proper training will play a big part as Jamaica seeks to grow this niche, he said.
Overall, several of Jamaica's hotels and resorts got high marks for accessibility and service.
"We felt that the Riu Palace Jamaica in Montego Bay was the most accessible; the Holiday Inn SunSpree was pretty easy to navigate in a wheelchair; and Coyaba Beach Resort & Club, also in Montego Bay, was very accommodating," Hangsleben said. "The staff set up removable ramps for our wheelchairs and were very helpful and welcoming."
The agents looked for drop-down bars next to toilets and drop-down chairs in guest bathroom showers, ramps, zero-entry pools with assist bars, accessible bathrooms at the pool and beach, ground-level restaurants, mirrors above the buffet offerings, wide doorways and wheelchair paths.
Accommodations for the agents were at the Iberostar Rose Hall Suites, and Hangsleben stayed several days after the trip ended at Secrets Wild Orchid, where she found the layout easy to navigate and the staff accommodating.
"I felt very positive about our experience," she said. "Much education still is needed, but JTB and the resorts were open to our ideas and suggestions."