FOCUS ON: Accessibility and inclusion

by: Felicity Cousins | July 11, 2024

In our FOCUS ON features we choose a topic and delve deeper. Here we look at accessibility and inclusion across the hotel sector from both the guest point of view, and for those who work in the industry.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in six people worldwide live with a significant disability, which is approximately 1.3 billion people. Of those people who are disabled only 7 per cent use a wheelchair. Here we look at how the hotel industry is treating guests with seen and invisible disabilities as well as how it treats guests from diverse backgrounds. It’s a massive topic to cover so we will be revisiting this throughout the year.

Give us some more numbers: OK. 70 per cent of people in the world are touched by disability, there is an estimated 39 per cent of business travellers who say they have accessibility requirements that impact on their experience (this includes air travel as well as accommodation). According to Visit Britain when it spoke to tourists from markets across the world, a quarter of travellers either have, or travel with, someone who has an accessibility requirement, with hearing/sight loss or impairment being the most prevalent. In the UK alone a quarter of the population has a disability and they spend £16 billion a year on travel. Is that enough numbers for you?

£16 billion a year just in the UK? Yep and according to Richard Thompson of Inclu Travel who was at OutThere magazine’s Icons of Inclusion event in March, the market for this sector of traveller is huge and shouldn’t even be about accessibility – rather about inclusion. “How big do you want it to be? It hasn’t been created yet. There are 1.5 billion people in the world with 10 trillion dollars to spend on luxury travel. Let’s shift the narrative from accessible to inclusive. Accessibility is when you are invited to the party – inclusivity is being asked to dance.”

So why is there an issue with providing proper experiences for those with accessibility or other needs? Who knows. Disabled people travel with carers, friends and family and they stay longer than the average hotel guests. Thompson said that disability is simply “not in the conscience of the industry so it’s kind of been forgotten.”

Hotels on the other hand will say they offer accessible rooms, they have inclusive policies but there’s an interesting say-do gap which needs to be addressed.

What should hotels be doing about accessibility and inclusion? You have both sides of the check in desk to think about here – on the one side there are guests with accessibility needs and invisible disabilities, and on the other side how hotels manage their DEI policies and employees with different needs. 

Any examples for the hotel side? Yes, although the fact we are writing about these stories as “news” means it’s not really a given across the industry. But let’s focus on the positives. Most of the big hotel groups of course have robust DEI policies and want to attract and retain staff who feel a sense of belonging. The industry has enough of an issue with churn without excluding vast numbers of the workforce. We reported last year about how in Thailand IHG Hotels & Resorts had partnered with Steps, a consultancy working with employers to realise the potential of neurodivergent people. According to Steps, there are more than 2 million people with disabilities registered in Thailand and fewer than 25 per cent of them are employed. Steps offers education programmes for young neurodivergent people, and runs inclusive business models, such as cafes, as well as offering consultancy work to help organisations diversify their workforce.

And what about on the guest side? All of this should be a given right? But we are not there yet. However, there are a few examples such as Karisma Hotels launching an autism concierge to help autistic guests or those travelling with a person with autism with any questions before and during their stay.

Accor has teamed up with experts in accessibility, data and the hotel sector to launch the Disability Inclusion Self-Assessment Hotel Toolkit. The hotel group has launched the tool with the aim to help hoteliers deepen their understanding of the challenges and barriers that travellers with disabilities can face, while emphasising the importance of sharing information about a hotel’s accessibility.

Hyatt has been collaborating with sensory inclusive training and certification firm KultureCity to survey neurodivergent individuals and caregivers on their hotel needs. The hotel group said that more than 90 per cent of neurodivergent individuals and caregivers of neurodivergent individuals in the US plan to travel at least one night this year, leading to the research into how hotels can make their journeys more seamless and inclusive.

But is this enough? Nope. When Sustainable Hotel News attended this year’s Icons of Inclusion event headed up by Uwern Jong experientialist-in-chief of Out There magazine, we heard several speakers talking about other issues of accessibility and inclusion in the luxury travel sector. For example one issue is hotels showing their inventory to those guests with accessibility needs. Out of 600 luxury hotels around “95 per cent don’t show accessible rooms on their website photos.”

Why is this? Hotels seem to have the fear, as Thompson explained: “The industry is frightened and doesn’t understand what it is about. It’s not about disability, it’s about barriers. Doing nothing is safer than getting it wrong. Fewer than 10 per cent of organisations have positive strategies to wow and delight all guests.”

Henny Frazer, ÀNI Private Resorts added: “Of course this is not true of every hotel, many hotels make the effort to offer accessible rooms, ramps, lifts and so on. But accessible rooms being hidden away is a real problem within the industry”. Privately owned ANI Private Resorts builds properties all over the world to support the local communities and all of them are wheelchair accessible and have lifts. 

At the Business Travel Show Europe in London last month Carolyn Pearson, CEO Maiden Voyage, which which specialists in inclusive travel and safety, headed up a discussion on accessibility within business travel.

CEO of British Wheelchair Basketball, the national governing body for the biggest Paralympic team sport in the UK, Justine Baynes said there was a problem with the lack of thought, which goes into planning trips for those with accessibility needs.

“One of the challenges is the lack of thought. We have issues with wheelchair access on planes – just getting the wheelchairs onto the planes is a challenge. Then we have the rooms – we’ve been turned away because of hotels having a policy which required a certain amount of staff per wheelchair user. Why is this the case have they asked the wheelchair user what they need?”

“There is a legacy around an inaccessible world but how can you help us change the societal attitude of people with disabilities?”

British Wheelchair Basketball has been working with TMC ATPI since 2019 for its travel programme. Baynes said: “Throughout our partnership, the responsive support and expertise of the ATPI team has allowed us to plan and execute our logistics with confidence. This has proved vital for us to deliver success across the globe as our teams travel extensively to compete.”

But when we talk about accessibility we aren’t just talking about wheelchair access are we? No. Most people with a disability do not use a wheelchair. Not all disabilities are visible and there are other disabilities hotels need to think about and look out for to help their guests have a good experience. Some accessibility requirements may be hidden like neurodivergent travellers or guests with hearing or sight loss or those with chronic pain.

Thompson points out that when talking about accessibility and inclusion that there is more a hotel needs to do than provide accessible rooms.

 “We are seduced by the wheelchair – 93 per cent of disabled people don’t use wheelchairs. You can be accessible and inclusive to those other people so let’s get beyond the wheelchair and not feel it’s the beginning and the end of everything.” 

What is the industry doing about these issues? Not enough otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it. But there are shifts happening. Last May we reported that the World Sustainable Hospitality Alliance partnered with the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) to increase disability inclusion and promote universal access in the hospitality industry. The aim of the partnership was to see both organisations working together to make the world’s hospitality industry accessible to all. 

The GBTA Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) has also launched the GBTA Accessibility Toolkit. The toolkit is a guide to help travel managers and buyers create more accessible policies and practices in their business travel programmes addressing challenges in accessible business travel. According to the GBTA 70 per cent of travel managers don’t know or won’t estimate how many of their travellers have accessibility requirements.

And CWT, the global travel management company, has launched a Special Assistance service that provides “an accessible and equal experience for travellers with visible and non-visible disabilities.” CWT’s Special Assistance offering is tailored to “meet the unique needs of each individual traveller, with a broad range of support capabilities and services.” 

What is one of the greatest challenges for travellers with disabilities? David Dame, senior director of product accessibility, Windows + Devices, at Microsoft said at the launch of the GBTA Accessibility toolkit: “I’ve had great experiences while travelling, but then I’ve had horrifically poor experiences. The biggest challenge is the inconsistency. I would like the opportunity, as somebody that travels both for work and for pleasure, to take for granted that I will have a seamless trip, just like anyone else. Consistency and best practices are sorely needed in the industry, and I am excited to see momentum on this.”

What questions should the industry be asking? Let’s whizz back to that panel at the Business Travel Show Europe moderated by Carolyn Pearson, CEO Maiden Voyage which has recently launched a new Inclusive Guest Safety Excellence course for hotel staff.

One of the panellists Helen Moon, CEO, EventWell, which is dedicated to “prioritising neuroinclusion, fostering mental wellbeing, and promoting attendee welfare” at events, pointed out you need a great relationship between the TMC and the traveller to make the travelling process seamless.

Pearson asked what sort of questions should TMCs be asking travellers for this to happen? Moon replied: “Is there anything else we can add to enhance your trip? Do you feel safe and comfortable and well to take this trip. What more can we do to make this better?”

But Moon also pointed out that it should never be assumed that a person needs support. “Support should available to use if they choose to use it.”

There was a consensus on the panel that there is no consistency when it comes to disability and inclusion across the sector. There are pockets of positive action and then stacks of bad experiences.

There’s an issue with governance across the travel industry when it comes to accessibility, with so many suppliers doing different things and different regions behaving in different ways towards those who have different needs.

Pearson concluded: “Maybe we need an industry forum for accessibility and inclusion across airlines, hotels and border control.”

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash