Hotels scramble to meet chair lift mandate for swimming pools

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Pool lift - permanentA looming deadline for hotels to install permanent lifts on all their pools and Jacuzzis to accommodate disabled guests is becoming a growing source of aggravation for many U.S. hoteliers.

But to Irv Segal, it is a thing of beauty.

Segal’s Guided Tour Inc. in Elkins Park, Pa., has specialized in coordinating trips for mentally and physically handicapped people for four decades.

Segal himself gets around in a wheelchair, and he insists that all warm-weather U.S. hotels that he and his company patronize have poolside chair lifts that make it easier for his clients to go swimming.

“If I’m in my room looking out at a pool and I see that lift, it’s a very good feeling,” said Segal, whose company leads about 60 tours a year. “If it’s a portable lift, it would be OK with me. But I would prefer a permanent one.”

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), however, is far less sanguine about the distinction between portable and fixed lifts.

And while the DOJ has moved back its compliance deadline to accommodate hotel owners who are struggling with costs and other construction issues, it has refused to bend on the type of lift that is required: Just months before the original March 15 deadline was to take effect, the DOJ ruled that the lifts must be fixed, permanent installations in every pool and Jacuzzi a hotel offers.

Though the deadline was moved to May 21, the last-minute clarification has many U.S. hoteliers facing the prospect of missing even the extended deadline for bringing their pools into compliance with accessibility requirements established a year and a half ago.

As of last week, the May 21 deadline still stood, meaning hotel operators had just weeks to install at least one — and for larger pools, at least two — methods of entry specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to enable handicapped guests to enter and exit publicly accessible pools. The DOJ publishes and enforces ADA requirements.

The motor-powered lifts are not the only game in town. Other available solutions range from sloped pool entries to specially designed pool stairs to transfer walls that enable disabled people to hoist themselves out of their wheelchairs onto a poolside ledge to ease entry into the water.

But from a practical standpoint, chair lifts are seen as the best way for hoteliers to meet the regulations, because the other solutions all require extensive construction.

A late ruling

Many of the challenges and much of the confusion over the standards, which were established in September 2010, stem from the DOJ’s ruling in late January that pool lifts must be built permanently into the side of the pool deck; they cannot be portable devices that can be rolled out to the pool or Jacuzzi, then rolled back into storage.

Bowing to pressure from entities such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA), the DOJ extended its initial compliance deadline from March 15 to May 21, and it has stated that it might extend the deadline even further, to September.

Still unsettled is the status of about 85,000 lodging-operated swimming pools in the U.S., and the question of how, or even if, they will be retrofitted to serve the more than 50 million disabled Americans who comprise 18% of the U.S. population.

In response to Travel Weekly queries, hotel companies were clearly reluctant to discuss the issue or to take a direct position on it.

InterContinental Hotels Group, the world’s largest hotelier by room count, released a statement saying it had “notified all of our hotels of the ADA’s new requirements” and that hotel operators were “advised to review the new requirements to determine how they apply to their hotels and to take appropriate action to comply.”

Meanwhile, Marriott International, the largest publicly traded U.S. hotelier by sales, declined to respond to requests for comment while the No. 2 U.S. hotelier, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, declined comment.

Hilton Worldwide referred all inquiries to the AH&LA.

Warnings of safety issues

As for the trade group, it asserted that fixed chair lifts present a safety hazard because of the likelihood that children will play on them.

Further, the AH&LA argues, unlike portable chair lifts that must be rolled out to the pool or spa by a hotel staffer, permanent chair lifts can be operated without any staff supervision, which presents a safety issue for disabled swimmers and a considerable liability issue for hotels.

“Most hotel pools don’t have lifeguards, so anybody can use [a permanent chair lift], climb on it and damage it,” said Kevin Maher, the AH&LA’s senior vice president for governmental affairs. “You’re essentially putting a diving board at the shallow end of the pool, and that’s a huge concern.”

Even so, the costs associated with the new requirements might be the bigger issue, especially for hotel operators that are unaffiliated with a major brand. While portable chair lifts generally range from $3,000 to $5,000, fixed chair lifts can cost double that because of the construction required to retrofit existing pools.

Additionally, while portable chair lifts give hotels the flexibility of using a single device for multiple pools and Jacuzzis, the requirement that chair lifts be of the fixed variety means that a hotel would have to build one for each of its water features, further multiplying costs.

Pool lift - portable“The DOJ changed the rules at the 11th hour,” complained Jennifer Hatfield, government relations director at the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals. “Allowing portable lifts in all situations brings compliance within the reach of more facilities, enhances safety and durability of the lifts, and eliminates costly and unnecessary disputes as to what is readily achievable.”

But Jani Nayar, executive director at the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, counters that limiting the discussion to safety and durability issues misses the point.

“If the lift is fixed, you do not have to make an appointment and arrange for the lift to be there,” said Nayar, who is not disabled. “When we check into a hotel, we want to go to a pool, pick up a towel and jump in. Why shouldn’t people with disabilities be able to do the same?”

Windfall for equipment makers

The regulations have already spurred sales of poolside chair lifts. During the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year, S.R. Smith, a Canby, Ore.-based swimming pool equipment maker, reported seeing a jump of about 35% in chair lift orders compared with the same period a year earlier.

Margaret McGrath, the company’s vice president of marketing, observed that many pool owners in warmer areas such as Florida, which attract a large number of retirees, will install the lifts to cater to elderly swimmers as much as to disabled users.

Still unclear, however, is what kind of teeth the new rules have and what kind of consequences noncompliant hotel operators will face.

Representatives of the DOJ, which conducted two webinars earlier this month outlining the new pool-accessibility guidelines, did not respond to inquiries about the new regulations. Moreover, the DOJ stated on the ADA website that it was “unable to entertain any questions about its pending rulemaking.”

Still, the DOJ, in a response letter to the AH&LA in late February regarding the fixed-lift mandate, showed signs of providing loopholes for hotel owners that are unable or unwilling to meet the requirements, at least for now.

In the letter, Allison Nichol, chief of the DOJ’s disability rights section, stated that a hotel could buy time by proving that providing the required disability-access points is not “readily achievable.”

That said, however, “readily achievable” was not clearly defined, and the hotel in question will be required, vaguely, to “take steps to improve accessibility over time.”

Among factors determining whether compliance was “readily achievable,” Nichol wrote, was the site’s geography, safety issues and the financial resources of the business owner.

As for the AH&LA’s claims that the installation of permanent chair lifts, as opposed to portable one, would put many hotels in a financially precarious position while creating safety issues, neither Nayar nor Segal were buying the arguments.

Nayar noted that as capital expenditures go, $3,000 for a new chair lift was a relatively small tab for a typical hotel, especially for one affiliated with a major chain.

As for safety concerns, Segal, who mentioned Marriott and Hilton as brands that have been particularly vigilant about ensuring that their warm-weather hotels had poolside lifts, said he’d never witnessed a child playing on one of them.

That said, Segal allowed that the requirement that permanent chair lifts be installed at every one of a hotel’s pools and spas, as opposed to having one affixed at the primary pool, might be pushing things too far.

“That’s not realistic,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s happening here. I’m happy just to get into the pool, and I could forgo the Jacuzzi.”

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly. 

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