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“Once I’ve got them, I’ve got them.”
These words from Debra Kerper represent the confidence and tenacity that won her the TravelAge West Trendsetter Award for Best Group Booking Sales Effort. In fact, her expertise and dedication to her demographic have secured her a faithful client base — so faithful, in fact, that many refuse to travel without her.
Kerper, an independent franchise owner for Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel representative, specializes in creating trips for disabled and mature clientele. Her desire to work with people who have special needs is based on her personal experience with illness and being an amputee.
“I had lupus and I was bored,” she said. “I went to Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley, Calif., and I took this class where everyone wanted to be a travel agent. A lightbulb went off in my head and I thought, ‘I can do this!’”
Working with people who have disabilities has been both challenging and rewarding, Kerper says. She has seen the travel industry become increasingly accommodating to people with special needs over the years: Cruise ships have become more accessible, shore excursions for disabled people are becoming more popular and various airlines and cruise lines, such as Virgin Airlines and Royal Caribbean International, have even formed disability advisory committees. But Kerper finds that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Unless you’re living with a disability, it’s very difficult to understand why something is important to have,” she said.
There are many things able-bodied clients and operators take for granted that may be challenging for people with disabilities, Kerper says. Take, for example, hotel bedding.
“One of the biggest things I hear from clients is that most of the nicer hotel properties have upgraded their bedding in the last couple years,” she said. “It looks really beautiful, and it’s all big and froufrou — but clients in a wheelchair can’t lift themselves up into the bed.”
Overall, Kerper wants to see more consistency across hotel chains, whose facilities often range widely in accessibility levels. And while Virgin and Royal Caribbean have disability advisory committees, both of which Kerper is a member, these types of groups aren’t common.
To ensure that she would reach the widest number of clients with disabilities and special needs, Kerper bought into the Cruise Planners franchise three years ago, after 20 years of running Easy Access Travel. She made the choice after talking with friends and colleagues in the travel industry.
“It’s the best business decision I’ve ever made,” Kerper said of joining the Cruise Planners brand. “I have the advantage of being home-based, yet I have people to turn to who are supportive. They also have incredible technology. It’s given me a lot of clout with vendors.”
Over the past two decades, Kerper has built up expertise working within her niche. According to Kerper, the most important step in creating a quality vacation for a client with special needs is to ask the right questions. These include queries about dietary restrictions, bathroom needs and what kind of medical equipment the client uses on a daily basis.
“I usually come at it from the point of view of what they can do, not what they can’t do,” she says.
Kerper focuses mainly on cruises when working with clients with disabilities. Cruises are the most popular vacation packages for this demographic, due in large part to the consistency they provide in contrast to other areas of the travel industry.
“You know exactly what you’re going to get,” Kerper said.
Her go-to brands include Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean, the latter of which she relies on when booking large groups.
So far, Kerper’s itineraries for 2016 include sailings onboard Royal Caribbean ships in March, June and September. These join the remaining two cruises she has scheduled for 2015, as well as various land trips, including one through Israel. In the future, she’d like to get clients to destinations such as Ireland and Hawaii.
One thing is for certain: Kerper works tirelessly to ensure that her clients have quality vacations on par with those of any able-bodied traveler.
“Everybody’s time and money is important, but when you take on people with special needs, they’re dealing with a lot more frustration in their daily life,” she said. “I think they really deserve a well-thought out vacation, so agents need to know that it’s more than just looking for the little wheelchair insignia. One of the first things I was told as I entered this industry was that you have to qualify your clients. Well, I say that you have to super qualify clients with special needs.”