By Dakota Parks for Visit Florida
Travelers with disabilities represent a growing population for the Florida tourism industry. But these travelers need information and accommodations to feel confident about a destination. The following article informed a November 2022 educational webinar for tourism partners hosted by VisitFlorida.org.
How the Tourism Industry Can Inspire a Dialogue of Innovative Feedback for Florida Travelers with Disabilities
Anyone who travels frequently knows that something will eventually go wrong during a trip.
These hiccups are part of the journey—getting lost in a new city or losing your luggage. But, for travelers with disabilities, these mishaps and setbacks are incessant and preventable. For Mike Wiseman, a blind traveler, these mishaps can range from missing a flight because an airport escort forgot to help him board the plane to struggling to find his room down a winding hotel hallway.
To learn how the tourism industry can foster better communication and create meaningful feedback loops to improve future trips, Visit Florida spoke with travelers like Wiseman about their experiences to gather the following suggestions.
Practice Inclusive and Welcoming Customer Service
As the hotel coordinator for the Florida Council of the Blind, Wiseman quickly learned how to navigate the intricate layers of customer service to voice his accommodations and file complaints about what went wrong during his trips. Like many disabled travelers, whether or not a tourism partner is willing to listen to his feedback for improvement or work to resolve an issue often determines whether or not he will go back to that destination.
“I don’t think you need to wait until something goes wrong,” Wiseman said. “Let individuals know you are welcoming as soon as you book or check in. Ask them, ‘Do you have anyone in your group that has special needs that we may need to provide reasonable accommodations for?’ It’s the inclusive customer service that has made me brand loyal to airlines, hotels and cruises that made me feel welcome and went the extra mile to resolve any issues as soon as they happened. American Airlines even has a button you can click now for additional assistance, where I can select blind or low vision and it follows every segment of my itinerary, so all employees are aware.”
As Wiseman explained, this kind of customer service creates a brand loyalty that makes members of his group want to come back again and again to the same hotels and venues, where they are comfortable, understand how to ask for their accommodations and know their voices are being heard.
Be Proactive on Implementing Changes and Training Staff
One such venue, the Sheraton Orlando North Hotel in Maitland, FL, has hosted conferences and events for the Florida Council of the Blind for nearly five years. The hotel has been proactive in implementing changes and listening to their guests before and after their visit—from attending training sessions with the entire staff on assisting visually impaired travelers to ordering braille toiletries, braille menus, redesigning the breakfast buffet, widening the aisles in the conference hall and creating a service dog relief area outside the hotel.
“I think the tourism industry needs to be more open to suggestions and feedback from guests with disabilities—no matter the request,” Sales and Catering Coordinator Shauna Labbee said. “Some requests may be new to you or for something you’ve never thought of before, like identifying miniature shampoo and conditioner bottles or giving a guest a tour of the hotel so they can learn to navigate it safely on their own, but that’s what those guests need to enjoy their stay, and our job is to make it easier for any traveler.”
Sylvia Longmire, world traveler and author of the award-winning wheelchair accessible travel blog, Spin the Globe, loves cruises because they’re easy, accessibly designed for an overwhelmingly senior population and always receptive to feedback. Longmire has been on more than 30 cruises as a wheelchair user and visited 57 countries, 48 of those as a wheelchair user, primarily traveling alone. She uses her blog to share information about the accessibility of her destinations with fellow wheelchair users around the world, but sometimes there is no accessible information online to be found.
“Recently, I got a free four-night stay on the Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady, but I couldn’t find any photos of their accessible state rooms or any reviews from other wheelchair users,” Longmire said. “Trying to find accessible information was really challenging, and I was apprehensive about going on the trip, but I went anyway, and it turned out to be the best cruise experience of my life. I discovered the accessibility on the ship was phenomenal; the accessibility in the stateroom was some of the best I’ve ever seen. Everything in the room was electronically controlled, so I could take this tablet in bed with me and control the curtains, lights and temperature of the room without hauling myself out of bed in the middle of the night into my wheelchair to change them. I say this all the time, ‘make it accessible and we will come.’”
Longmire stressed the importance of advertising and marketing accessible amenities online and explained that one avenue for developing a direct feedback with the tourism industry about lack of information or inaccessible experiences is through blogs like hers own, reviews and social media.
“In my travel reviews, I try to motivate change as opposed to just slamming on a place for being inaccessible,” she explained. “It’s my job to be as authentic as possible, because I’m an influencer for a reason. People spend their money and go to these places just because I write about them. So, I have to give the good, the bad and the ugly—or somebody could get physically hurt or disappointed when they go. I think disability influencers are important to making a difference within the industry because companies are paying us to go and not only to promote their accessibility, but also to give them direct feedback on where they could make improvements.”
Harness the Power of Social Media and Inclusive Marketing
Visit Tampa Bay has done just that by partnering with disabled social media influencers and an accessible travel ambassador to create a marketing campaign that highlights accessible experiences in Tampa Bay. These campaigns not only show travelers with disabilities the accessible attractions in a city to encourage them to visit, but they also create an on-going dialogue of accessibility and help tourism partners innovate and promote change for the future.
As part of this campaign, Visit Tampa Bay has a dedicated accessibility ambassador, Jamie Santillo, who is the owner of Adventures by Jamie, a travel agency focusing on travelers with special needs and mobility-friendly experiences, and a wheelchair user herself.
“We have to remember that the disability community is not one-size fits all. We all have different needs and different bucket list items. We all travel differently,” Santillo said. “Part of being a liaison with Visit Tampa Bay is to educate through videos, blogs, articles and presentations about how we can do our part in Tampa Bay to continue to accommodate people and be as inclusive as possible. We also get to show people someone like me, a wheelchair user, who is indoor skydiving and doing all of these things that you might not think is possible. Social media is such a powerful form of marketing, and I’m blessed to be a part of accessible tourism campaigns like Visit Tampa Bay’s, which is instrumental and so helpful.”