The Purple Pound

Valued at £1.8billion per month, the ‘purple pound’ is a lucrative market to target, but all too often businesses fail to properly support guests who are disabled. Deborah Heather, Director of Quality in Tourism talks about catering for clients with disability and getting it right first time.

According to a panel of experts speaking at the Abta Accessible Travel Seminar, guests with disabilities boost the hospitality industry by £1.8billion each month, but too many businesses are letting customers down with inappropriate or inadequate equipment. Dubbed the ‘purple pound’, disability travel has shifted significantly from the provision of wheelchair ramps, to incorporate all kinds of ability and needs and the specialist equipment required. Further research also indicates that despite potential safety and security risks, very few hospitality businesses have invested in creating emergency evacuation procedures, nor installing appropriate facilities, with AccessChamp highlighting that 80% of guests do not receive any information on personal emergency care at check-in.

If you search online for disability travel, there is no shortage of specialist bloggers, articles and forum posts about the very best, and the very worst experiences of travelling with a disability. From inappropriate, untested equipment that has ‘been added as a gesture’, to the fully-kitted bathroom that caters for wheelchair users, but not the hearing impaired, disability provision is a minefield of regulations and inexperience. It is also however a field of opportunity for businesses to capitalise on, as pioneers take on ‘doing things properly’ in a way that supports all their guests, regardless of their ability, visible or otherwise.

Speaking to Howard Brayton, a former education inspector with responsibility for students with special needs, and husband to wheelchair dependent wife Sue, he is full of praise for those who do things right, and clear on the potential traps and pitfalls that many businesses slide into. As he puts it, his wife Sue is an ‘expert on the computer’ and is therefore readily able to book accommodation online, which offer facilities for individuals with disability. They do this fairly regularly, enjoying mini-breaks in their retirement, and so are pro at travel. Describing themselves as ‘amateur experts’ on everything from disabled parking to wheelchair access, toilets to wet-rooms, the couple are really clear on the do’s and do not’s of your provision. Read on to the case studies for information on their personal experiences.

In terms of regulation, equipment provision comes under the Building Regulations Act 2010, where sections M1 and M8 of volume 2 ‘buildings other than dwellings’ serves to detail everything from access to ramps, handrails to showers, with over 70 pages of detailed specification and technical information, including diagrams, of how to cater for guests with a disability and their carers. This should be technically inspected and overseen by the Building Control Department, but their role is often undertaken with new build properties, leaving an inspection gap in the market for retrofit within existing hospitality premises. In addition to Building Regulations, the 2010 Equality Act stipulates that businesses are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate all guests, meaning that ignorance or expense are not reasonable excuses.

So what can you do to be more disability aware?

Much needs to be done to improve provision across the hospitality sector, and for inspection of facilities and clear communication, but there are still plenty of simple things you can do to improve your premises. First and foremost, you need to focus on the customer journey through the hotel; a random grab rail, and a wheelchair ramp aren’t good enough anymore, and you need to think about your guest’s experience end-to-end. Starting before they even arrive, you need to be sure that your communication is clear and realistic and doesn’t oversell what you have on site. This is not an opportunity for positive spin – what you put on your marketing materials will form the basis of a decision to stay, and unlike being excitable in your description of your food, facilities for guests with disability can be the difference between dependence and independence.  It is also advisable to give potential guests who have a disability, a dedicated contact who is available to answer their questions and queries.

Post-arrival, attention should shift to provision and suitability of disabled parking, including the number of spaces available (which should be an appropriate number for the size of the venue), the size of the spaces, and their distance from the entrance. Additional procedures should be in place to prevent abuse of these spaces, perhaps by recording registration numbers and ensuring other guests don’t use them. Next, attention turns to building access, either ensuring it is level, or if it isn’t providing a ramp. Automatic doors are a bonus, but if not available, doors which open outwards to enable easier access for evacuation during a fire and to help to ensure more space to maneuver once inside the entry. Corridors need to be of adequate width for a wheelchair, and if tight should be free of excess furniture and potential snagging options, with a seated-height desk area or reception and if available, a lift of appropriate size. While many of these apply to individuals with an obvious physical disability, and those who travel with a wheelchair, the same improvements also support those with less visible, and even non-visible disabilities.

The list is endless and far too many words for this article, but we are currently producing a guide and an inspection process for disability access facilities. Before I go, it is important to add that businesses must remember these guests are people first and disabled second, which means their experience should be as good as any other guests. On my travels, I have seen disabled facilities which have doubled-up as a store room, while others have been barely big enough to accommodate one person, let alone a carer too. As a business owner, there may also be a point at which you need to be clear that you cannot accommodate all disabilities, if things like listed status on the building, or a city-centre location with no parking prohibit your provision.

Personal Experiences – Howard and Sue Brayton

Former education inspector and retiree Howard Brayton, and his wheelchair dependent wife Sue are avid travelers who spend much of their retirement visiting UK and European destinations. He has shared us with some of the best and worst experiences of the pair over the last few years, as they really put disability provision to the test.

The Castle of Brecon Hotel in Powys, Wales advertised a wet-room, attached to a wheelchair accessible bedroom. On arrival, Howard notes that appropriate parking was right next to the entrance, access was easy and the reception was bright and friendly. Their room was large enough to facilitate easy wheelchair movement, although décor was a little shabby and there was no WiFi. To their surprise on opening the door to the wet-room (outwards of course), they found a state-of-the-art wet room with space enough for a double bed, floor to ceiling natural tiles and recessed LED lighting that was subtle but effective. Despite obvious investment and ample space however, the room layout was clearly untested, with little evidence that an Occupational Therapist had been consulted, or a person using a wheelchair asked for advice. As Howard describes, “the first problem was the sink. It was immediately inside the door at right angles, which meant it was virtually impossible to turn the wheelchair to face it. The toilet was immediately adjacent, which is recommended so that hands can be washed before rising, but having only one drop-down rail, rising from the toilet was impossible without my help. The shower had its own problems; when wet the floor was lethal; a towel had to be laid down to stand on. Although there was a seat attached to the wall, the two vertical grab rails were so far removed from the seat as to be rendered useless so I had to remain on hand to assist.”  

Estuary Lodge in Harlech, Wales was also visited as part of the same trip. The venue, which offers American-style motel chalets, offered designated parking immediately outside the chalet, level access, a beautifully appointed room, with every conceivable luxury, and a sliding door opening to the wet-room. Howard comments “The room had clearly been designed with the help and advice of someone who uses a wheelchair, making it easy for my wife and I to enjoy.

Recalling a variety of their trips away together, Howard observes “Premier Inns are brilliant. Their wet-rooms are superb in terms of access, size, anti-slip floors, layout and importantly the number, choice and positioning of grab and drop-down rails. Of course, they have the benefit of being new builds and not conversions, but they place provision for people with disabilities very high on their specifications.”

He continues “It is clear that every place we stop at has made an effort to comply with the Equality Act 2010, but to varying degrees of success. One of the problems in some places is that available space means the wheelchair user can access to the room, but not at the same time as the carer. Grab and drop-down rails are often in evidence, but not necessarily in the correct positions to be useful. Sometimes space in other rooms is limited by baby-changing facilities, which limits the space to manoeuvre, while others are used as general storage of buckets and boxes. Some required a Radar key, one indeed, a hotel on the square in Caernarvon, required a member of staff to unlock it, and remove the general detritus, including high-chairs. This variance in standards makes it very difficult to make an informed decision prior to visiting, which is hugely frustrating.”

Howard concludes “I must mention a splendid visit to Chatsworth House, where all the rooms on all the floors are accessible to wheelchair users, and the many friendly staff are ready to help with directions and advice; even the loo for disabled users is beautiful, spacious, with appropriate rails, and colourful pictured tiles! The National Trust, to which Chatsworth is not connected, and English Heritage, both publish Access Guides, advising visitors with problems, what is possible, and what is not.”

Above all, it is clear that being well-intentioned is all very well, but only if measures are taken to ensure that the outcomes are suitable and practical.

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