Travel agents need to “super-qualify” clients with special needs. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Families with kids with special needs often share information with each other, including the name of a good travel agent. // © 2016 Thinkstock
After 30 years of teaching children with special needs, Ida Keiper can attest to the rich benefits of travel.
“It makes them feel more alive,” Keiper said. “It makes them feel like they belong instead of being isolated. It empowers them. It makes them feel better about themselves, and it motivates them socially.”
There is a certain magic in creating these kinds of experiences for families, which is why Keiper teamed up with colleague Jesemine Jones, also a special education teacher, to start Abeon Travel. Their agency specializes in travel solutions for families with children who have special needs.
Booking vacations for these families presents an enormous opportunity for travel advisors. Not only is it a niche with potential for strong customer loyalty, but it also provides an avenue for agents to create life-changing experiences for families.
“If you build it, they will come,” Keiper said. “The special needs community is very close-knit. Parent support groups talk all the time. They share their successes.”
Although planning accessible travel involves considerable preparation and foresight, the rewards and opportunities are immense. Here are a few ways that travel agents can better prepare to plan experiences for families with special needs.
Listen Carefully to Find the Perfect Fit
Just like you would with any other client, actively listen to the family’s hopes for the trip: Where do they want to go, and what are their top priorities? Keep an open mind — some requested travel experiences might seem impossible at first, but they may work if the agent allocates plenty of extra time and resources for transportation, slow-paced tours and rest.
“We plan trips to places where an able-bodied person would come back and say a person with special needs could never go there,” said Debra Kerper, founder of Easy Access Travel, a Cruise Planners agency. “That’s because, to the eyes of just an average person, they’re not seeing where we’re going and how we get into places.”
It’s all about finding suppliers you trust. For wheelchair users, Kerper recommends Accessible Travel Solutions for Caribbean and European tours. Tours with multisensory approaches tend to be great picks for families, too.
Diana Saint James, co-owner of Dimensions in Travel, a member of the Ensemble Travel Group, works with many travelers who are blind. She has had great success with headset-equipped narrated walking tours, as well as culinary tours and tastings.
“Your vendor can be super helpful in customizing the trip to make it meaningful for people in a way that you might not have expected,” Saint James said.
She recalls a tour in Alaska years ago: A wildlife-watching cruise company, when notified that a group of blind travelers would be onboard, provided recordings of whale sounds to hear; fur from otters and seals to touch; and scale-model whales to compare the size and shape of different species.
Learn the Right Questions to Ask — and Ask a Lot of Them
Each family’s needs are different, and you’ll find that each area of special needs has its own unique set of details and challenges to master. Don’t be afraid to ask personal questions about the traveler’s conditions and limitations. Families are used to fielding these questions, and the answers will certainly impact their trip design.
“The person with special needs in the group is my VIP,” Easy Access Travel’s Kerper said. “I make the trip work for them, and it’s going to work for everybody. We’re always told as travel agents that we need to qualify our clients. I tell agents that you need to ‘super-qualify’ when you’re dealing with special needs, and you need to know how to ask a lot of questions. There are also a lot of personal questions you have to ask.”
Agents also need to examine each individual step of the trip ahead of time, from the viewpoint of the traveler’s unique experience. Mobility equipment, airport security, transportation between locations (including tender ports on cruises), shower and toilet facilities, bed height, meal times and ingredients — all of these are important elements to consider.
Abeon Travel’s Keiper recommends getting on the phone with the right people to confirm hotel room details: Just because a room is listed as ADA-compliant does not mean that it will meet the specific needs of the traveler, for example.
“By just making a phone call, you’ll probably get what you need,” Keiper said. “But be sure to speak with someone on-site who can check the room in person. It’s also a good idea to call back the day before a trip to confirm all accommodation and transportation details.”
Keiper and Jones have parlayed their 50-plus years of combined experience in education and social work into authoring three books on travel with special needs. Their first book, Starbrite Traveler: A Travel Resource for Parents of Children With Special Needs, is a strong primer for both parents and travel professionals.
Plan Vacation Experiences With Plenty of Support
While agents can plan extraordinary land-based trips for families with special needs, there are many details to consider, plan for and confirm. Cruises, however, offer the built-in support that many clients and agents need.
“We have plenty of tools to help travel agents plan accessible cruise vacations,” said Ron Pettit, senior manager of disability inclusion and ADA compliance and trade support and service for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. In addition to Royal Caribbean’s University of Wow! online courses on accessible travel, the cruise line also has a designated access department to support agents who plan trips for passengers with special needs.
“If an agent doesn’t feel 100 percent confident, they can say, ‘Let me check into it, and I’ll let you know.’ We want to help people with disabilities enjoy every facet of their cruise vacation experience,” Pettit said.
When it comes to families with autism, Royal Caribbean is a pioneer: It is the first cruise line to receive Autism Friendly Certification by Autism on the Seas, and its programs allow families to enjoy everything from “social stories” that prepare children for a trip, to early check-in and autism-friendly movie nights (when there are at least five passengers with autism onboard). Royal Caribbean also accommodates most food allergies and dietary restrictions with advance notice.
Families and agents alike are responding with tremendous positive feedback. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, these programs have led Royal Caribbean to a 35 percent increase in the number of guests with autism.
Choose an Area of Focus
Begin by building your knowledge in a certain field, such as wheelchair accessibility, autism spectrum disorders or guide-dog teams. Start with something close to home — perhaps you have a client who uses a wheelchair, a brother with Asperger syndrome or a friend who is deaf or hard of hearing. Each condition has its own set of needs and concerns, so don’t be afraid to start slowly.
“It has taken us 12 years of daily work to get to the level of expertise and service that we offer to our clients,” Saint James said of her agency’s work with guide-dog teams. “One way you could improve your expertise is to do volunteer work for an organization where people have those special needs. That way, you’re working with individuals on a daily basis, and you could ask them lots of questions about how they like to travel and what they have learned. They can be a tremendous resource for you. A number of our staff members volunteer at Guide Dogs for the Blind, and that’s helped perfect our expertise.”
Get Comfortable With the Lingo
Finally, it’s important to use proper terminology with your clients to convey your understanding of their needs. As a rule of thumb, refer to the person first, not the person’s condition. Instead of saying “special-needs child,” say “child with special needs.” Instead of “the disabled,” say “people with disabilities.” Other terms to avoid: “wheelchair-bound,” or “wheelchair-confined,” which imply a feeling of being imprisoned, or referring to a power chair as an “electric chair,” which doesn’t have a pleasant connotation. Instead, try “wheelchair user” and “power chair” — or whatever your client prefers.
“It’s important to learn the lingo,” Kerper said. “I personally think that’s one of the reasons I’m so successful in my business. My clients hear how I’m speaking to them, and they are confident that I understand and that I’m not just pretending to know what I’m doing.”
In her 20 years of business in accessible travel, Kerper has built an incredibly loyal and engaged client base.
“I don’t deal with people checking my prices against the Internet,” Kerper said. “If you learn this business, and you do it right, you’re not going to have that extra competition that so many agents deal with daily.”
Kerper communicates with her clients via Facebook groups and email, prompting enthusiastic responses. She recently announced an upcoming Scandinavia cruise on Facebook, and within less than a week, she had sold 14 staterooms.
“They don’t even ask me how much it is,” Kerper said. “They just say, ‘I want a balcony.’”