It doesn’t require a massive financial outlay to make your hospitality business accessible to people with disabilities and you will reap a good return on investment, according to a panel of industry accessibility experts.
The findings emerged at The Caterer‘s roundtable discussion on accessibility, in partnership with the Blue Badge Access Awards, which took place at InterContinental London – the O2 on Monday.
The panel agreed that becoming more accessible is both economically attractive and common sense. According to VisitEngland research, accessible tourism is a £12b a year market and guests requiring accessibility tend to travel with others, take longer trips and be loyal.
Peter Banks (pictured above left), managing director at the 90-bedroom Rudding Park, which won last year’s Accessibility Catey, said: “It is no more expensive to build an accessible room than an ordinary room. We turn over an extra £0.25m a year from our one accessible room. This is good – but it is also the right thing to do.”
Edward Warner, founder and managing director of accessible design company Motionspot, agreed: “The economics and investment ends up not being very expensive when you look at the whole return on investment,” he said.
“Many elements are simple and can be incorporated at design stage. It is about planning. When a hotel is retrofitted it can be harder, but it still shouldn’t be a massive bill – it is just part of the refurbishment bill.”
Crucially, the panel pointed out that accessibility is not just important for wheelchair users. One in five people in the UK have a disability, but only 8%* of disabled people use a wheelchair, with greater numbers having visibility, hearing and mobility problems. Plus, in an ageing population, the less agile elderly are the fastest-growing market, so it makes sense to cater for them.
“We are at the design end, so we look at the environment and come up with hotel principles that deliver accessibility for everybody. We now think about autism and dementia – there are a lot of simple things you can do around space, acoustics and lighting,” said Warner.
Terry Waldron, chief operating officer at caterer CH&Co, added: “The expensive end is wheelchair users, but access design can also mean you don’t have to get your specs out to read the menu because it is a good font size. We need to change the mind-set and think of everybody. Start with the small things.”
Other initiatives include hearing loops in reception, braille signage in lifts, using clear fonts on menus and signage and so on. Most importantly, you can train staff to understand the requirements of disabled guests and empower them to interact.
“With very little investment, just care, you can make a big impact,” said Sally Beck (above, top right), general manager of the 411-room Royal Lancaster London, which added four accessible rooms when it reopened in 2017 following an £85m refurbishment. “Concentrate on the ageing nation, not just on wheelchair users.”
The panel also agreed on the importance of not compromising on style in accessible rooms. “There is a return on investment because able-bodied guests can use accessible rooms. They are often bigger, so you can upsell,” pointed out Robin Sheppard (above, bottom right), chairman of Bespoke Hotels.
• If your business has brilliant facilities for disabled people, enter the 2019 Accessibility Catey, sponsored by Blue Badge Access Awards, here