An accessible hotel with well-informed staff makes disabled customers feel valued and more likely to return, says Elizabeth Mistry
These are not unusual problems for guests checking into many so-called disabled rooms only to find the hospitality tray positioned far from a water source (try self-propelling a wheelchair, filling a kettle and carrying it back on your lap across the room), a power point located too low or a rail positioned too high up in the wardrobe.
As someone who travels frequently with a wheelchair user, the first thing I look for when choosing a hotel is information on accessibility. If there isn't a direct link from the property's homepage - or within two clicks at most - I will almost certainly go elsewhere.
Like anyone else juggling work, family and a heavy mobility aid, I see my time as precious. Regardless of whether my enquiry is online or by phone, if I can't easily find detailed information about an accessible bedroom (and preferably, good-quality pictures too), it is almost certainly a sign that the hotel isn't interested in my business, which often represents a booking of more than one room and a substantial food and beverage spend.
Research by VisitEngland suggests that the 'purple pound' - the spend by disabled guests and their carers, not to mention the senior market - is worth £12b a year in overnight stays to the UK hospitality and leisure sector.
From conversations with hoteliers across the UK it is obvious that the number of people with disabilities requiring accommodation when travelling for both business and leisure is growing - albeit more in the regions than in London where, ironically, some of the best provision is to be found.
Regional operator QHotels has a group-wide commitment to accessibility and comprehensive access statements across its portfolio. At the Nottingham Belfry hotel, sales director Marie Elliott is the hotel's designated 'access champion' - the team member who liaises with guests with extra needs and ensuring adapted bedrooms fit their requirements.
The hotel offers hearing loops, vibrating pads, bed risers and big-button phones on request, and all disabled guests have a PEP (personal evacuation plan) in an emergency.
Elliott has no doubt that a reputation for good facilities and sensitive staff is the reason why the Belfry, one of the shortlisted properties for this year's Catey Accessibility Award, has seen an increase in corporate and leisure bookings from disabled sportspeople this year.
Entrepreneur and former TV presenter James Price would like to see more hotels promote adapted rooms in their inventory in a similarly proactive way. The 39-year-old paraplegic - he lost the use of his legs 10 years ago - spends up to 40 nights a year in UK hotels on business. After his accident, he soon realised how little the hospitality sector knew about marketing accessible rooms.
"Hoteliers are scared of getting it wrong," he says. "But they are missing a trick because it is so easy to get it right - and it doesn't have to cost a fortune.
"Simple things like offering a zip and link bed so the room can be twinned could mean the difference between winning and losing a booking. Guests may need to share a room with a carer or family member, but they don't always want to sleep with them."
Price has launched Access All Rooms, an online portal he describes as the world's first global booking platform for accessible hotel rooms. Hotels don't have to pay for a listing on the site (which grades bedrooms according to the level of access for guests with mobility, auditory and visual impairments), though it does take a commission for bookings.
For guests, the guarantee of an adapted room is reassuring. Travelling with a disability can be stressful and not knowing if there will be a wet room or space for medical necessities can turn a special outing into a bad trip.
Hard to fill?
Hotelier Gareth Banner, general manager at St Pancras Renaissance hotel, faces a daily challenge of selling 16 adapted rooms given that he usually needs far fewer (for large properties the number of adapted rooms legally required is based on the total number of keys). Banner, whose historic property is located on top of one of the busiest rail interchanges in the UK and runs at a very high occupancy, says he is not alone in finding that his property is oversupplied with adapted rooms.
He echoes a concern voiced by many hoteliers that few non-disabled people are happy to accept an adapted room. When an able-bodied client is allocated such a room, says Banner: "I literally count the number of seconds between a customer checking in and the phone ringing to complain."
St Pancras Renaissance
But he has found a novel solution. Before the end of the year, all his roll-in wet rooms will have been refurbished with the latest range of removable grab rails and shower seats, supplied by the Alternative Bathrooms Company at a cost of around £6,000 per bathroom. Removing the supports - leaving only a discreet chrome panel in the wall - is a "disguised solution," says Banner. "It means we can modify the room in a matter of minutes."
In recent years, thanks in part to initiatives such as VisitEngland's Access for All scheme, which has just rolled out a national training programme, many hoteliers are now at least aware of the challenges faced by guests with extra requirements - and the advantages of marketing directly to them.
Wider recognition and awards for best practice can boost occupancy for all properties. Adam Raphael of the Good Hotel Guide believes his readers would welcome more information on facilities and says he "wouldn't rule out including a new category for disabled access in our annual awards at some point".
For hoteliers who want to capture a share of that purple pound, now is the time to set the wheels in motion.
Eight ways to promote an accessible hotel
- Ensure your staff are aware of a broad range of disabilities. It isn't just about wheelchairs and white sticks.
- Review your access statement. Borrow a wheelchair (or a service dog for blind or deaf guests) to find out how guests experience your hotel.
- If you receive an initial enquiry about 'disabled rooms', ask clients if they can give you more details about their specific needs in case you can offer alternatives.
- Make sure front desk and reservations keep a handy list of what you can offer so you can answer promptly without leaving people on hold.
- Offer in-room check-in/out. This avoids stress for guests, especially those who have just arrived, or those facing a long journey with easily agitated members of their group who may suffer with learning disabilities.
- Consider offering room service to guests who may struggle to reach the restaurant.
- Get audited by an accessibility expert for advice on best practice.
- In the wardrobe, add a second set of fixings so the clothing rail can be lowered - and get rid of the security hangers.
Wheelchairs in treehouses
Sprawling country house hotels with acres of grounds (and gravel paths) are not always easy places for anyone with any type of disability. But Andrew Stembridge, managing director of Chewton Glen, believes hoteliers can overcome many obstacles - not only with equipment but by ensuring staff are trained to be proactive when dealing with guests with additional needs.
Several rooms on the ground floor at the Hampshire hotel, winner of the 2012 Accessibility Award Catey, are suitable forâ¨the mobility-impaired. They offer extra turning space, adapted bathrooms and one suite with step-free access â¨to an outside terrace.
Stembridge retains Access Champ founder and marketing guru Arnold Fewell - a former hotelier (and wheelchair user) - to audit the hotel and provide training on a regular basis.
Stembridge says: "Preparation starts at the reservation stage. We make sure staff are aware of any arrivals with extra requirements and we provide assistance to ensure most guests can reach any part of the property.
"We have a stair climber to the spa, buggies for the grounds and we have even had wheelchair users using ramps â¨to reach our new treehouses.
"Winning the Catey was definitely good for business. I would say it helps to the tune of many thousands of pounds. However, you can have all the gizmos in the world, but I think staff attitude is really the key. When we are praised by guests [with disabilities] - many of whom are now repeat customers - I know we have â¨got it right."
Lending a helping ear
It isn't only visitors with a physical disability who are reaping the benefits of investment in staff training at the Sands hotel in Margate, Kent.
Since the Sands opened 18 months ago, owner Nick Connington says that the boutique hotel on the seafront, has about "two requests for a room for a wheelchair user a week".
Earlier this year, all customer-facing staff at the hotel attended a series of workshops with Julie Leggett, co-founder of Access Solutions, a consultancy that specialises in deaf-awareness training for the hospitality industry.
Following the sessions, which were partly funded by VisitEngland under the banner of its Access for All initiative, the team has a better understanding of the challenges that are faced by guests with hearing loss - and more ideas to enable them to enjoy their stay.
The Sands hotel
"There are so many things you don't think about if you're not disabled," says Connington.
"Our eyes have been opened to what you can do to make a guest's stay more enjoyable - like adjusting the background music in the lobby, which is crucial as the hotel's restaurant shares the same open-plan space."
Leggett, who suffers from hearing loss herself, hopes that after the next access audit, the Sands will become the first hotel in Kent to be awarded the Sounds Good charter mark, which demonstrates that a business is hearing-loss friendly.
Connington hopes this will not only bring the hotel more business, but also retain and motivate staff, who will want to work for a caring organisation. "Time will tell," he says. "I just know it is the right thing to do."
The Sands hotel