Making Meetings More Accessible

Accessibility is a broad concept. Some aspects are strictly governed by law, such as the number of accessible rooms or roll-in showers a hotel must have on offer. But much of what makes a hotel feel accessible to guests with disabilities is less sharply defined, such as a willingness to go the extra mile.

That’s where Kate Campbell, manager, Global Accounts at Helms Briscoe ( www.helmsbriscoe.com), comes in. Helms Briscoe has legions of experienced associates and proprietary information systems loaded with inside information to help clients find the best sites for their meetings. Campbell says, “There are 1,200 of us in 50 countries around the world, with access to a variety of data, including site inspections and client feedback. Every hotel looks great on the website, but we dig a lot deeper and provide our clients with unbiased information.”

Campbell introduces a disability focus to the search. The mother of four children — including one set of triplets, two of whom have disabilities — Campbell is passionate about accessibility education and awareness. Her value lies in offering meeting planners the opportunity to streamline the logistical search and ease the consuming tasks of identifying and evaluating appropriate sites, receiving proposals and negotiating contracts. That leaves the meeting planners free to concentrate on the strategic objectives of the meeting or event. There are no fees or contracts required to use Campbell’s services — costs are absorbed by the hotels.

While helping planners find venues that satisfy all their meeting needs, Campbell also helps hotels improve their accessibility, often pointing out areas that could use some improvement — information most hotel management seems to welcome. She says, “Most sales managers are thrilled to learn about how the showerheads should be positioned to help seated bathers. Some in sales are less familiar with accessibility issues than those in engineering or housekeeping, who deal with them more often.”

Many hotels embrace diversity, even where it involves deviating from their brand to meet the client’s needs. For example, in facilitating a solution with one hotel, Campbell reports, the hotel responded to the client’s unique needs by creating a task force and offering new diversity training to its employees.

The core competency of HelmsBriscoe is groups of 10 or more. However, recognizing the volume of revenue Helms Briscoe bring to hotels — $800 million in 2011 — hotels often let Campbell know about “hot dates,” which she can pass along to clients.

Travel resources for people with disabilities

In her work, Campbell also teams up with TravelinWheels and the Open Doors Organization

TravelinWheels offers several accessibility guides for U.S. and U.K. cities that examine everything from curb cuts to restaurant layouts, accessible attractions, medical facilities, transportation and lodging accessibility. TravelinWheels also has booking tools, stories and travel tips with detailed instructions on asking for a room with additional accommodations, renting a car or flying with medical equipment. Blogs provide up-to-date information on travel, insights into city accessibility and recommendations for adapted recreation. The site also encourages people with disabilities to “share information about great accessible places around the world.” Registered Ambassadors — who can be anyone — assess places they visit and report their experience.

The Easy Access series published by Open Doors sets a new gold standard for tourism guides for people with disabilities. These guides, available online and in print, are geared to anyone with a functional limitation, from small children to older adults. They cover restaurants and lodgings as well tourism attractions, transportation and other resources important to the disability community. Data are gathered by on-site inspections to ensure reliability. To date, two titles are available, Easy Access Chicago and Easy Access Springfield.

Open Doors has been providing customer service training to Amtrak in a nationwide program. Almost 8,000 frontline staff — from conductors and other train crew to ticket agents and red caps — will receive the training in 2011. The classes, which cover basic sensitivity training as well as Amtrak policies and procedures for passengers with disabilities, are being conducted in 17 cities as part of Amtrak’s annual block training.

As Campbell says, awareness is rising and companies are becoming more sensitive to accessibility issues, especially given the aging baby boom. As many hotels and suppliers move toward a “greener” approach, they are often receptive to making accessibility-related changes as well.