According to a panel of hospitality accessibility experts, the industry must seize the initiative and create better environments for the growing number of guests with disabilities. Rosalind Mullen listened in on The Caterer’s roundtable on accessibility, in partnership with the Blue Badge Access Awards, held at InterContinental London – O2
Robin, you have long-campaigned for those with disabilities to receive the same level of service and facilities. Why is this necessary?
Robin Sheppard (RS): It goes back to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which forced hotels to be compliant in a blunt-instrument, unimaginative way. As a byproduct of that, people felt it was a bit of a penance and there was never a sense of putting in attractive facilities, so Paul Vaughan and I set up Blue Badge Access Awards, as a carrot rather than stick, to inspire people to take accessibility more seriously. I bet every one of us in the room has a relation or friend with a disability, so you realise the scale of the subject.
We discovered: there are a huge number of worthy, but disconnected efforts out there; a big gap in the confidence of staff in knowing how to handle people with disabilities; and an utter void in the design and aesthetic of disabled accommodation and facilities.
We can’t wait for government – we need to do it for ourselves. We need to change the mindset of how we design for the disabled community and how we serve, listen to and interact with them in a confident way. The difficulty is that there is a stigma around it. Nirvana would be a universe in which you say to guests: “I can offer you an upgrade to an accessible room” or to that particular type of room, because the word “accessible” has disappeared altogether.
How is the industry doing?
Paul Vaughan (PV): There is a long way to go. Just because you are disabled, it doesn’t mean you have lost your sense of style.
Who is doing it well and where can inspiration be found?
RS: Companies such as Wetherspoons, EasyHotels, Edwardian Hotels and Stonegate Pubs have agreed to join forces to make it a cultural topic, so there is momentum there.
Why is being accessible so important to business?
PV: The Purple Pound is worth £12b in the hospitality market – disabled people tend to stay longer, spend more and bring more people with them, so there are also economic reasons for doing it. You will get a bigger return on investment if you invest in the right facilities. But it is not just about that. If you ring hotels to ask about their facilities, you will get vague answers, so training staff is important.
Peter Banks (P Banks): The heart and soul of hospitality is to have empathy for your guest and understand what they need. After hotel consultant Arnold Fewell’s accident [which left him a wheelchair user], I thought “what should we do for Arnold?”.
Accessible bedrooms and bathrooms are the “hardware”, but the “software” includes the website and staff training. Two of my staff are accessibility champions, who can answer enquiries about disability provisions. All staff have been through Arnold’s training, which includes pushing each other around in a wheelchair to check routes and wearing goggles to see how it might work for a visually impaired person.
Why do we do it? We turn over an extra £250,000 a year from our one accessible room. The turnover is good, but it is just the right thing to do.
All good hotels are based on empathy, so why is there an empathy gap?
PV: Empathy is important, but a number of businesses are afraid of disability and won’t talk to anyone or try to understand it. We must persuade people to change the way they think.
What level of investment is required?
Edward Warner (EW): Hoteliers are often concerned that becoming more accessible is expensive, but there is a return on investment. 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 cost – it is just part of the refurbishment bill.
Axel Krueger (AK): We have recently refurbished our Sherlock Holmes hotel [which is an older property], allocating different room types and moving accessible rooms to a better position. The cost was budgeted from the beginning, so it was never a conversation point.
P Banks: It is no more expensive to build an accessible room than a regular bedroom.
RS: There is a return on investment because able-bodied guests can use accessible rooms. The rooms are often bigger, so you can upsell.
So that is why good design is important?
Sally Beck (SB): Yes. Our accessible rooms are stunning and beautifully designed and nine out of 10 bookings are sold to leisure or corporate business. The showers have flexible seats that flip down – that is a benefit – and a handrail that fits on the wall and pops out when needed, as well as sinks with moveable heights that are there whether you are a kid or disabled. The removable headboards are more expensive, but otherwise it isn’t more costly. We saved on buying a sofa in that room to allow space for a wheelchair, so there’s not much difference in cost. Our accessible rooms are also the largest, so people really do get upgraded into them.
Paul Bayliss (PBayliss): Some 10% of rooms in our Manchester hotel are adapted and they are the largest, so there is an opportunity to make an upgrade and turn over more in rates. It is about design and engineering and about making a room that is all things to all people. It is also an opportunity to make a positive impact on business. If a group comes because they have one disabled child it is more heads on pillows.
What have you done to go the extra mile?
SB: The £85m refurbishment of the Royal Lancaster gave us 411 rooms and four are accessible – that is just 1%. When we were creating the four rooms I approached the building regulations guy for the ideal room and was given a bog-standard, inflexible template. I have a tetraplegic friend and am aware of her needs, so I brought in Fewell and we threw away the building regulations and started again. We now have beds that can be moved or split so the hoist can be on either side. But we had to get the building regulations guy in at the end to sign off, even though he had no knowledge. We need to go to government and get them updated on their approach.
Adam Hamadache (AH): We run a small property, so we bought an old building at the back and that is now our accessible suite. We have not had any major issues where guests feel they have not been provided for, but I think we should do better.
Terry, in contract catering is accessibility a factor in the tender process?
Terry Waldron (TW): We don’t own our premises, so we have little influence over the design process unless we can work with the client at an early stage. I still see serveries designed without a dropped counter or coffee dispensers that wheelchair users cannot reach – I’m staggered.
What other USPs can you offer people who are disabled and why is this crucial for your bottom line?
TW: It is not just about the more expensive hardware for wheelchair users. Access design can also mean you don’t have to get your specs out to read the menu because it is a clear font size. We need to change the mindset. Start with the small things and think of everybody.
EW: We are at the design end and we are seeing a step-change around hard services and soft services. We look at the environment and come up with hotel principles that deliver accessibility for everybody and beautiful hotels. We are not simply focusing on the 6% of people in a wheelchair, which a lot of hoteliers get fixated around. We now think about autism and dementia. There are a lot of simple things you can do around space and acoustics and lighting. However, if staff are not aware of what is being designed, the building won’t respond. You need passionate staff who can answer questions about provisions.
SB: We get hung up on the bedroom and toilet, but the whole building needs to be accessible. We do events, conferences and weddings, so accessibility is not confined to the bedrooms. We cannot run a business if it is not accessible to the whole market. We have an ageing nation – probably 25% of people have vision or mobility problems and are living longer and have a more disposable income. If you are not caring for these guests you are crazy. With very little investment, just care, you can make a big impact.
P Banks: Absolutely. We have a blind lady who visits and she likes to use the pool. There are health and safety issues, but because we have a culture of helping people, the spa manager will swim with her. At our quarterly staff conference, I used this as an example of good service. It is about instilling the right culture so everyone does it naturally.
TW: It is not just about catering for people with physical disabilities. At contracts such as Kew Gardens, our staff are aware of the needs of regular customers. If an autistic child has an episode, the staff know what to do. It is about common sense and doing the right thing. And the economics are there, too.
How do you get the message about accessible facilities out on your website in a tactful, appealing way?
P Banks: Don’t be ashamed of it. If your able-bodied guest doesn’t like it, tough.
RS: We have been party to surveys of 3,000 people and some 43% of able-bodied guests didn’t want accessible rooms. It is a sad indictment of human nature. But it is a design issue – if the design of the room is attractive, you have no problem.
EW: The real expert is the person with the disability. Use photography on your website to demonstrate what you have so the guest can make a decision about whether you are the right hotel for them.
What is holding the industry back from maximising this market?
AH: Disability is not trendy. For instance, it is now trendy to support the LGBT market and people are aware of any discrimination. Accessibility doesn’t have that same appeal. We need to get it to the point where it is trendy, because then it is harder to ignore. For instance, there was an uproar about discrimination when Hull’s Royal Hotel cancelled bookings for homeless people. Cleverly, Doubletree by Hilton stepped in to offer them rooms and made national news. We may need something of that ilk. Perhaps it would make hoteliers more mindful about the potential bad press of not getting it right.
James Hiley-Jones (JH-J): We need to harness the vision of our staff. For instance, a member of staff drew our notice to the fact that we needed to upgrade our facilities, so we put in some smart cloakrooms and the employee insisted on an opening ceremony and invited the local papers.
RS: Either we wait for statute or we get on with it and design better. I would urge you all to share your excellence and achievements and get a movement going.
Younger generations are much more inclusive about differences, so why is training still so crucial?
Sam Sheppard (SS): Young employees have empathy, but are not confident and have a fear of getting it wrong. It is about training and empowerment and making it part of customer service.
AK: Our young receptionists can struggle with how to approach customers with a disability. To train them, we invite people from the local community who are autistic or disabled. This method of coaching has a positive impact on staff confidence, because instead of sit-down training they are dealing with people.
What can we learn from other industries?
TW: I spent 10 years at Barclays and its approach was to design for full accessibility. This also helps mothers with pushchairs, the elderly and people who have limited mobility, who might not consider themselves disabled. They listened to customer groups to create buildings that met the needs of all and that went beyond the building regulations
SS: Museums have changed a lot in terms of culture too. Nowadays, they provide accessible elements such as braille signage and ramps and it is seamless. They have also done a huge amount of work in giving staff the resources and confidence to deal with children and with people who have disabilities. The V&A offers huge access resources and lists them on its website. It gives carers confidence. Hotels can do that, too.
EW: New retirement home providers are looking at advancements in smart home technology, passive monitoring and use of sensors. So, instead of pull-cords or lanyards there are smart systems to detect if a resident has had a fall. Hotels could draw on this sort of invisible technology.
Would an audit process help?
SS: It would be good to have the same aspirational system as Green Tourism, where you are audited and they point out what you are doing well and how you can improve. People now see they can run a Green business profitably.
EW: You need to be careful with stars and ratings, though. There is such a broad spectrum of disabilities that it would be hard to deliver for everybody, so if a guest with particular disability says you are not delivering for their needs you are letting yourself be shot down. But you could say you have signed up to standards and there are organisations that will come in and advise.
PV: You have to decide what you want to achieve before you approach them. The Shankly hotel in Liverpool set out in 2016 that they are autism friendly so staff are trained. It is an interesting way of doing it.
What about facilities for employees as well as guests?
AH: At our Westminster hotel we have a member of staff who is in a wheelchair, but initially he had to come to the main door. We have now adapted back of house so he is part of the team. He has been there for 10 years and small changes have made his life better.
TW: It is about making adjustments, engaging and having the confidence to discuss what will make it easier for the employee.
What is the way forward?
RS: There is a disconnect in government, I see self-regulation and self-inspection as the way forward.
PV: We can use government to our advantage. Lord Borwick was chief executive of the company that made black cabs, and when the government wanted to introduce regulations to make cabs accessible he persuaded them to allow his company to redesign them to ensure the result was practical. The government then drew up the regulations around that.
RS: There may be a lesson for us there. Adopt, design and then ask the government to legislate for us.
EW: And use feedback from customers because our frustration with legislation out there is that it is not based on meaningful user feedback.
• If your business has brilliant facilities for disabled people, enter the 2019 Accessibility Catey, sponsored by the Blue Badge Access Awards, here
About our sponsor
The Blue Badge Access Awards (BBAA) is a joint initiative between Bespoke Hotels, Blue Badge Style, and Leonard Cheshire Disability. It aims to promote better design for those with disability, by focusing on the design and facilities of hotels, bars, and restaurants. BBAA is a worldwide challenge with an associated annual competition, aimed at championing accessible design, celebrating style, and rewarding businesses with a focus on accessibility and conscientious, welcoming service.
The objectives are threefold: to inspire better design; celebrate exceptional venues; and improve accessibility for all.
Find out more and enter at www.bluebadgeaccessawards.com