Held six months before the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Tourism for All's "A Market to Win" conference spelled out the size of the opportunity for operators who make their business open to all. James Stagg reports
Doing the right thing has never been so good for business. That was the message delegates were left with at Tourism for All's "A Market to Win" conference last week.
Speakers inspiring the audience to deliver greater accessibility in their businesses included Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, TV personality Loyd Grossman, Scandic hotels' disability ambassador Magnus Berglund and Jeremy Brinkworth, director of business development at VisitEngland.
Business and social sense The conference was opened by Dennis Gissing, head of people practices at BT, who set the scene for the day by pointing out the immense opportunity presented by this year's Olympic and Paralympic Games.
"It's a daunting thought that four billion pairs of eyes will be on the country," he said. "This is an exciting time in our history and we want to make sure that everyone is able to enjoy the Games."
Gissing added that the Olympic and Paralympic Games were a chance to change perceptions and address any shortcomings that might exist. "Doing the right thing has never made such sense," he said.
Making the most of an Olympic opportunity One of Britain's most successful paralympic athletes, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson said that the 2012 games were a huge opportunity to drive change. "It's not going to make all accessibility issues fine, or every hotel room fine, but if we can use the Games to drive some change that's really important," she said.
"When lots and lots of disabled people turn up at games time it might not all be sorted but that will still encourage people to think differently about what we can do afterwards."
Thompson said that change didn't have to be physical to make a lasting difference, but that hospitality can make a difference through training, understanding and honesty.
"Much of it is about attitude; asking people what your needs are when you check into a hotel," she added. "Not, ‘what's wrong with you then' as someone asked me in a North-east hotel last year. If we can change people's attitudes it makes more of a difference than physical changes."
Disabled people will only visit or travel somewhere they can be confident they will be looked after and that their access requirements will be met. The key to managing expectations for any business is to be as transparent as possible about its facilities, delegates heard.
"Disabled people make choices every day about how they're going to do something," Thompson said. "It's about presenting the right information to them in a way that is open and honest. I don't get annoyed at all when I go to a hotel that is not accessible, as long as they've told me it's not accessible."
"The reality is that we're not going to make everything perfect, but we can make it so much better than we have it at the moment. It's about giving disabled people better access to the wonderful things we have in this country."
Everyone is a guest "We don't have disabled people in our hotels, we only have guests," explained Magnus Berglund, disability ambassador for Scandic Hotels.
He said that people can be so focused on disability that they forget to see the guest. It was only when Berglund became sick in 1999 and had problems walking he saw the extent of the problem of accessibility in Swedish hotels.
"I realised that we could get more guests if we started working with disability issues," Berglund explained. So he organised for everyone in Scandic hotels' head office to spend two hours in a wheelchair.
"A wheelchair is just one small part of disability but it's an extremely good way to get people to discuss the issues," he said. "For one thing we discovered that you couldn't close the doors on our six handicapped toilets. We didn't realise a £25 bar would have solved it."
There were many little alterations that it was possible to make for little or no cost that would improve the experience for all guests, delegates were told. "In 2003, all our coffee cups were up high so people in wheelchairs couldn't take a cup of coffee. It cost no money to move them," Berglund said.
All team members in the nine countries in which Scandic operates are educated to improve the experience for guests. "Who is the person that decides where a conference will go?" Berglund asked. "Even if it is for 400 people, the one person in a wheelchair will have something to say about the location."
Scandic leases its buildings but whenever it takes a hotel on it goes through an 80-point plan, following the route a guest will take to ensure everything is as accessible as possible. All these points are listed on their website so that every guest knows what to expect.
"We try to design our disabled friendly rooms so that everyone will like them," Berglund said. "In fact people ask for the luxury beds that move up and down. That's exactly what we want. There are so many things that you don't see that are aids. At Scandic we work with smart solutions that are good for everyone."
All of Scandic's investments have been repaid within a year through the increase in business.
"I hope that accessibility is the new sustainability for hotel and catering businesses. The figures are staggering - it's a £2b market. There is the requirement to do it under the equality act and there is the cost of getting it wrong on terms of legal action."
Arnold Fewell, managing director, AVF marketing
"In terms of our bedroom configuration we're not the most family friendly. In terms of our facilities we're not the most children friendly. We're certainly priced higher than most of our family friendly competitors. Yet we are the hotel of choice for many families because we openly welcome children.
"The same applies to our approach to accessibility. We've created one of the most appealing accessible rooms - nothing utilitarian about it. Like the family situation, Chewton Glen is the hotel of choice for many guests with disabilities."
Andrew Stembridge, managing director, Chewton Glen
Heritage attractions access
With a focus on access to heritage attractions through his role as chairman of Heritage Alliance, Loyd Grossman described the importance of making the many historically important sites in the UK as accessible as possible.
"There are a number of different barriers to access," he said. "Not only physical barriers but cultural, intellectual and psychological barriers."
Despite many of the buildings overseen by the Heritage Alliance being Grade I-listed, innovative measures have been taken to open them up to the widest possible audience including virtual tours and clear signage.
champion of rights
Having travelled the world as an elite athlete and in her role as a non-executive director of UK athletics, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has seen what she describes as the good, the bad and the indifferent in terms of people's ideas of accessibility.
"I've been told by airlines I can't fly with my daughter because I'm not a responsible adult. That was an interesting conversation," she explained.
"I've been to countries where their idea of accessibility was to employ four lads round the clock to carry me around the hotel as there were stairs everywhere."
As a champion of the rights of those with accessibility needs, Baroness Grey-Thompson recognised that the UK had made great strides and that compared with other recent Olympic hosts it was streets ahead. But she urged hospitality to make a real effort to ensure the country is as hospitable as possible for London 2012 and beyond.
She said: "It would be great if we could improve what we have and make it better. We don't have many chances to get things right, we have to work together to make a change."
accessibility in numbers
£2b Size of the UK disability market
â- £300m Amount spent by international visitors with a health condition or impairment
â- 11 million People with disabilities in England
â- Over 55 By 2025 more than a third of the UK's population will be over 55