Seminar: Abta Accessible Travel and Tourism event

‘Agents have legal duty to disclose holiday suitability for those with accessible needs’. Juliet Dennis reports

Bond with your clients to ease accessible travel stress

A strong bond of trust and understanding between travel agents and clients with reduced mobility is key to reducing holidaymakers’ stress levels, according to a panel discussion on accessible travel.

Speaking at Abta’s Accessible Travel and Tourism Seminar this month, holidaymaker and Alzheimer’s sufferer Keith Oliver said his confidence to travel had been helped by the relationship he enjoyed with his local agent.

He said: “The choice is overwhelming, and booking and researching online is beyond my capabilities now. The Canterbury branch of Flight Centre has been fabulous since I was diagnosed.

“The manager identified three members of staff who were best placed to help us.”

He added: “It’s about trust, knowledge, understanding, awareness: these are key elements for any business to support people like me.”

Disability equality consultant Geoff Adams-Spink, born with multiple impairments as a result of thalidomide, said that as well as developing an understanding relationship, agents and suppliers could reduce stress levels for disabled travellers simply by asking questions.

He said: “The best way to deal with any customer, whether they have additional needs or not, is just to ask. There is always a certain level of anxiety, but things can be done to reduce them. Having confidence and a relationship with your provider is key.”

Angus Drummond, chief executive of tour operator Limitless Travel, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 22.

As a supplier, making sure clients feel confident is crucial, he said.

“Often people come to us with a high level of needs and low confidence. Travel can be full of stress and worry; making sure you get that accessible room, for example,” he said.

“Sometimes the worry is so big you don’t enjoy the holiday.

“We put confidence at the heart of everything we do.”

Marina Snellenberg, Tui Group’s manager for people with reduced mobility and accessibility, said the company had changed the language its agents used. She said: “We used to advise our agents to say ‘confined to a wheelchair’ until we were told they would prefer ‘wheelchair user’.”

Agents have duty by law to disclose holiday’s suitability

Under the latest package travel rules, travel firms must provide clients with information as to whether a holiday is “generally suitable” for those with reduced mobility prior to booking.

The new obligation under the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 also requires companies to provide precise information on the suitability of a trip or holiday, taking into account the traveller’s needs, upon his or her request.

But it also puts the onus on the traveller to inform travel companies of any mobility issues.

Ami Naru, head of employment at law firm Travlaw, believes most companies have provided suitability statements, but said talking to clients with a disability was the best way to “nip complaints in the bud”.

“What you should not be doing is saying ‘OK, your medical restriction is this, I don’t think you should go,’”
she said. Naru advised firms to provide as much information as they could on the suitability of a trip, and leave it to the client to decide whether they wish to proceed with the booking.

If they decide to go against advice, it is worth asking them to sign a disclaimer, she added. “Having asked the questions and provided as much information as you can, if someone still wants to book you might want to get that in writing, to say there are mobility restrictions but they have decided to proceed,” she said.

Marina Snellenberg, Tui Group’s manager for people with reduced mobility and accessibility, said the company had created its own set of criteria following the new PTR requirements. “What we have found is that because of the complexity of the products we sell, we cannot have one suitability statement. We have had to create individual statements to say if products are suitable or not for accessible customers,” she said.

Information, language and imagery are key

Travel companies have been urged to develop websites with relevant information and inclusive language to attract and retain clients with accessibility needs.

VisitEngland head of business support Ross Calladine stressed information was key.

In The Access Survey in 2018 by Euan’s Guide, 53% of those questioned said they avoided going to new places if they could not find relevant access information.

Calladine said: “Websites are key and information needs to be up to date.”

He urged travel firms to think of themselves as ‘accessible’ rather than ‘disability-friendly’.

“A lot of people with reduced mobility will not think of themselves as having a disability. When you are describing facilities, call them accessible rather than using the word disabled,” he said.

Use of images that feature people with additional needs also helped, he added.

‘Industry is missing huge commercial opportunity’

The industry will miss out on a “huge, commercial opportunity” and a “bright, rosy future” if it does not open up to the needs of customers with reduced mobility, according to leading figures in the sector.

Chris Veitch, the government’s disability champion for the tourism sector, said catering for clients with accessible needs was a “powerful thing to do for a business”.

“We should see it as a business tool, improving the quality of the experience for customers,” said Veitch.

Benefits to businesses include increased market opportunities; more repeat clients and recommendations; improved financial sustainability; and a unique selling proposition, he said.

Limitless Travel chief executive Angus Drummond urged delegates to embrace this sector, said to be worth £12 billion a year to UK tourism. “I just don’t think there is recognition from the industry of the commercial benefits,” he said.

Gatwick boss intent on delivering ‘caring service’

Being an accessible airport is “fundamental” to Gatwick, according to commercial operations manager Tom Bartlett.

The airport, which handled 670,000 assisted passengers in the last 12 months, has a special‑assistance lounge and became the first UK airport to have a sensory room. Bartlett said: “We see it as the right thing to do; it’s fundamental to us. We have to deliver a caring service.”

But strategic account director Nick Galle admitted it can be challenging if passengers do not let the airport know in advance of their needs. He said: “It can be challenging if you don’t know customers need assistance. Sometimes the information is not passed on by airlines, but we are trying to work with carriers on this.” He revealed that 30% of people who need help don’t let them know.

A new system, which involves passengers wearing a lanyard to signify they need help, is working, said British Airways accessibility manager Alison Dalton.

“Customers are starting to say the difference it makes. Customers can choose to wear it to signify a hidden disability,” she said.

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