Gary Noakes outlines the opportunity cost to companies and services that fail to meet the needs of disabled travellers
There are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK, according to the latest government statistics: that’s eight per cent of children; 19 per cent of working-age adults; and 45 per cent of pension-age adults. And it’s likely that all of us will, at some point in our lives, have additional needs, whether that’s temporary or otherwise.
But despite this, many companies and public services are failing to cater to the needs of disabled customers – according to the charity Purple, 75 per cent of disabled people and their families have walked away from a UK business because of poor accessibility or customer service.
Aside from failing to meet a duty of care, it’s also a missed opportunity: the ‘Purple Pound’, as it has been labelled, is worth £249 billion to UK business as a whole, and Barclays estimates disabled people contributed £12 billion to the UK tourism industry in 2015. Further research found disabled travellers and their companions stayed 3.3 days longer on average and spent an average £210 per domestic overnight trip, ten per cent more than able-bodied travellers.
Chris Veitch, the UK government’s disability champion for the tourism sector, believes that as the population ages, how we handle accessibility in travel will become an increasingly hot topic.
“There’s the perspective of how we see accessibility; it involves everyone at some point,” he says. “It’s much wider than just disabled people. It also includes older people and anyone with a temporary impairment, like a broken arm. I don’t talk about accessibility and disability; I think about customers and what they want.”
An example of the wider market is the growing trend towards 3G (three generation) holidays. The grandparents will not label themselves as disabled, but might have a bad hip or knees or impaired hearing and eyesight, and would appreciate subtle changes to help them, such as larger menu text or strategically placed handrails.
It’s a big and diverse picture; VisitEngland estimates 4.9 million people have a long-term illness, 2.6 million have a mobility impairment and the same figure are deaf or have partial hearing loss. There are a range of disabilities, some more visible than others; there are nine million people with arthritis and 850,000 dementia sufferers, plus those with conditions like autism and learning difficulties.
“We need to get away from this sense of compliance,” says Veitch. “There’s not really an understanding of the business opportunities or return on investment, but this sector is one of the most exciting developments out there.”
He points out that one person in a group with a disability effectively dictates where the entire group goes, which means disability-friendly properties attract repeat bookings and high occupancy rates, as many adapted UK properties have found.
Holidaying outside the UK presents bigger challenges, but there is evidence that the primary steps – usually at the airport – are getting easier. Gatwick’s Special Assistance Services helped more than 615,000 passengers last year – a number growing by around ten per cent each year. The airport pioneered the now UK-wide hidden disability lanyard scheme and has the UK’s first airport sensory room, while Stansted has trained 400 staff as Dementia Friends.
Jeremy Cooper, head of marketing at specialist operator Enable Holidays, says a watershed moment, in terms of visibility and efforts to improve accessibility, was the London Paralympics in 2012.
“When we started Enable in 2004 we did some research and the vast majority said they daren’t go abroad. That’s why holiday homes and caravans were popular. We’ve seen our customers’ aspirations change dramatically over the past four to five years. We focused on the Med, but now clients want Thailand, Vietnam, India and Africa. It’s a big change for us because each holiday has to be tailor-made.”
Cooper believes the airport experience is getting better, but abroad, there still needs to be investment from the hotel sector. “The percentage of adapted hotel rooms is not enough. A lot of hotels have the percentage to tick the boxes, but it’s not enough to meet demand. We’re not just fighting for disabled Britons – other nations are clamouring for a limited number of resorts and facilities.”
His advice for agents working with disabled clients is to have “patience, empathy and don’t be patronising”.
ABTA has a checklist for agents to use when making disabled bookings and provides guidance for operators on how to cater for this sector. ABTA’s senior destinations and sustainability manager Clare Jenkinson says: “Helping the travel industry to offer holidays that are accessible is an essential part of ABTA’s work and this goes hand-in-hand with creating confident customers.”
Whether it’s a life-changing condition or otherwise, accessibility and disability will be an issue that touches us all at some point. Moreover, with an ageing population and an increase in non-visible disabilities, demand for accessible travel will only increase further. It’s an area the industry cannot ignore.