Accessibility Awareness Day on 1 October is the perfect chance for hospitality operators to think about how they can improve their business's accessibility provision and capitalise on a market worth almost £2b per year. But don't worry if you don't know where to start. Something as simple as putting on a blindfold or taking a tour of your venue in a wheelchair could ultimately make a big difference to your business, as Elly Earls reports
On 1 October Caterer and Hotelkeeper is holding an Accessibility Awareness Day to provide operators with the opportunity to assess their accessibility level and see their business from a different perspective.
Although operators in the hospitality industry are increasingly coming to realise the business sense in improving access for disabled people, many are still unsure of the most effective - and cost-effective - ways of doing this, and of how to enthuse their staff in order to get the best results.
Our Accessibility Awareness Day is the perfect chance to dedicate some time to thinking about just that, and even start implementing one or two simple changes that could improve the impression your business gives to disabled people and, therefore, help your bottom line.
Don't worry if you're still drawing a blank; we've put together a list of 10 easy-to-implement ideas - from donning a blindfold to rearranging your furniture - that may not seem like much, but could really get your staff involved in thinking about accessibility provision and transform the way disabled people see your business.
Ask a friend Most people know somebody with an accessibility need, whether they're hearing- or visually-impaired, a wheelchair user, or somebody with a food allergy. Ask your staff to find out what would make their friends' visits to your venue easier, or, even better than that, seek advice from a local group of disabled people. Remember, you need to get a variety of views from people with different types of impairment so you don't end up with a distorted view of the situation.
Get together to write your access statement Providing an access statement is one of the best ways to encourage disabled people to visit your business. So get as many staff as possible involved with gathering the information to complete yours. Then, when it has been written, give every staff member a copy so they can familiarise themselves with accessibility across the venue, not just in the area in which they work. You can find a free online tool to guide you through the process of writing an access statement at www.visitengland.org/accessstatements.
Train your staff in disability awareness VisitEngland's Online Disability Awareness Training is a quick and straightforward way of improving your staff's self-confidence. The course consists of six modules, which can be completed online at your team members' convenience in only one or two hours. Jason Parry, general manager of Harbour Hotels, who snapped up a few of the 600 free places currently available on the course for tourism businesses in England, would recommend it to any hospitality operator. "It opened my eyes and helped me understand more about disabled guests," he says. You can find out more at www.disabledgo.com/tourismtraining.
Set up an Accessibility Action Group Give one person - your access champion - overall responsibility for accessibility, and create a series of supporters in other departments. Ask them to develop a plan to improve accessibility and meet every month to discuss new ideas and address any issues highlighted. Remember that the group needs to take into account all the different types of access needs, including, for example, people with special diets.
Think Paralympic The London 2012 Paralympic Games has been a great inspiration to businesses across the UK, and there's no reason it shouldn't continue to be. Ask your staff to choose a Paralympian and think about what their potential access needs might be if they visited your venue. Visually impaired athlete Jason Smyth, for example, would need a large-print menu, clear signage, a familiarisation tour and assistance during a fire alarm.
See your business through the eyes of a disabled person The biggest mistake hospitality operators make is looking at their business through the eyes of an able-bodied person. See what it is like to deprive yourself of sight or hearing in your venue or navigate your way round it in a wheelchair. This could give you some great ideas on how to improve both your facilities and your customer service.
Mind your language One of the main things hospitality staff worry about when interacting with disabled people is saying the wrong thing or offending them. Set up a specific training session to teach your team the correct language and terminology to use.
Emphasise the business case Over a quarter of the UK population has a long-standing health problem or disability and this sector of the population, along with their friends, family and support teams, is worth almost £2b per year just in overnight stays. Moreover, the number of people with access needs is growing year on year: by 2025, more than a third of the UK's population will be over the age of 55. Don't forget to make a point of this as many of your staff may not be aware of just how big an impact catering for disabled people could have on your business's bottom line.
Look at low-cost improvements There are dozens of low-cost improvements that your staff can help implement. These could be things like: putting a table and chair in reception to deal with the arrival of a disabled person, rather than cutting a low access point into the reception desk; making sure disabled guests can state any special requirements on your online booking facility and that your website guides people to your access statement from your home page; and ensuring there is a clear route to the bar and accessible toilets.
Run your own Accessibility Awareness session
An annual accessibility awareness day is a great way to give staff an overview of how to improve your business's accessibility provision.
"Start by looking at the three main impairments - mobility, sight and hearing," advises access trainer and auditor Arnold Fewell, who won the Special Award at the 2012 Cateys. "And remember that wheelchair users are only 7% of the market."
One of the most effective activities for increasing accessibility awareness, according to Fewell, is depriving yourself, and your staff, of mobility, sight and hearing, and trying to carry out simple tasks, while impaired, like being guided and communicating with others. "Ask yourself how these experiences can be applied to the procedures you currently have in your business," he suggests.
It's also important to make sure that your accessibility awareness day is run by someone with first-hand knowledge of disability. "The ideal person to train hotel staff is a disabled person, because they will have so many examples to give," Fewell says.
Another option is to bring in a local group of disabled people, although it's crucial to make sure that the information they give you is not biased towards just one type of impairment.
"There's a danger that sometimes local groups may be all wheelchair users, for example, and it's important to get a balance of people with different impairments," Fewell emphasises.
Finally, don't forget to emphasise that little changes can go a very long way. "After accessibility awareness sessions, people suddenly realise that by making small adjustments they can make a huge difference," Fewell concludes.
E-mail your comments to Caterer News here.
Looking for a new job? Find your next job here with Catererandhotelkeeper.com jobs