Tapping Into the Special Needs Travel Market



 Tapping Into the Special Needs Travel Market


By Andrew Garnett, Founder Special Needs at Sea SNG_color-logo.jpg


A wedding or conference at sea.  A multi-generational family reunion. On these landmark travel occasions it’s important to have everyone booked and onboard.  Leaving a loved one at home because he/she uses a wheelchair can spoil a trip for your clients and lose revenues for your agency if the entire group cancels.



There are an estimated 53 million Americans with disabilities.  According to an independent survey conducted by the Open Doors Organization in partnership with TIA (Travel Industry Association) and SATH (Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality), adults with disabilities account for twenty percent of the population.  A large and underserved market segment, persons with special needs want to travel. They spend $13.5 billion in travel annually and take 68 million trips a year.


Special needs travel is an excellent specialty to develop to help grow your agency. Special needs travel can also boost earnings for general travel agents who understand and service this niche because persons with special needs almost always travel with others, giving you access to exponentially increased bookings. How can you tap into this ready and waiting market?


Know your products


The basics still apply. You have to know your products and destinations thoroughly, adding the element of accessibility.  For those who sell cruises, the cruise lines are making it easier with each new ship. The industry as a whole has invested substantially in ensuring accessibility features and programs onboard. Almost every line has special needs cabins and features fleet-wide and many have taken extra steps adding pool and spa lifts. Royal Caribbean even has a lift onto the ice rink on its Freedom class ships, while Holland America Line has a tender lift system on 13 of its 14 ships to assist guests in getting ashore when the ships must anchor in the harbor of a port of call.

Travelers with disabilities ask a lot of questions, so you need to be prepared to provide the answers.  You’ll need to know facts about the number and location of accessible cabins on specific ships and details such as doorway widths for wheelchairs, whether or not the ship allows companion animals, the height of tables in the dining room and casino, availability of audio aides in theatres—and more. The information is readily available from the cruise lines and is often in their brochure or on their website.  In fact, most lines have a designate accessibility department. Request special needs brochures from your suppliers.

CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) is an excellent resource. They have a Special Interest Guide for Wheelchair Travelers on the website (www.clia.org) detailing ship information including the number of wheelchair-accessible staterooms, number of decks with ramps, whether the elevators accommodate full-size wheelchairs and whether a traveler with a disability must be accompanied by a companion. Keep in mind that accessible travel includes accommodating persons with “invisible” disabilities such as hearing loss, diabetes and blindness.


Ask the right questions


Take time to verify what’s needed.  Ask questions about travel goals and expectations as well as each person’s specific requirements. Do they require a connecting cabin for family members or companions?  Does the handrail in the bathroom need to be on the right or left?  Will they be able to transfer to a tender if the ship anchors off-shore, or do they need itineraries that ensure pier side docking at destinations?  What type of special needs equipment do they depend on at home?


Many people who do not use wheelchairs or walkers at home often feel more comfortable with these mobility aides at sea. In fact, most of our wheelchair and scooter rentals are to cruisers who only use such aides when traveling. As ships grow larger in size, many individuals are concerned about navigating the long corridors and multiple decks as well as walking long distances on shore excursions.


Integrate special needs travel in your marketing


As with any segment you are targeting, be sure that segment is represented in the images in your brochures and mailers, and on your website. One image can send a powerful message that you’re ready—and willing—to do business with special needs travelers. And remember, a large number of persons with disabilities are children and young people.  Images should reflect multiple age groups.


Enhance your on-line marketing strategies


According to the National Organization on Disability, four out of ten people with disabilities conduct business and personal activities online and spend twice the amount of time logged on than their counterparts without disabilities. People with disabilities are online researching agents, travel locations, and getting tips. Because of this, make sure your website has a separate link for special needs to demonstrate your commitment to servicing special needs clients. Create blogs that provide unique travel recommendations and tips. And look into advertising on sites aimed at travelers with special needs.


Make your place of business accessible


Validate your interest in special needs travelers by adapting your agency or office to ensure it’s accessible.  The “talk” will seem half-hearted if you aren’t prepared to “walk the walk” with elements such as audio-tape brochures, TDY/TDD phone capabilities and wheelchair ramps where needed. Subscribe to disability publications such as “Emerging Horizons” and keep these visible on coffee tables or display racks.  Be sure you and your staff read them.


Connect to your market


Affiliate your company with a disability organization. Companies such as SATH (Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality) and related organizations serve as advocates and portals for accessible travel. 


Partner with the right suppliers


Special Needs at Sea/Special Needs Group, Inc. (www.specialneedsatsea.com) is a one-stop resource for all the special needs equipment your customers might need, from wheelchairs and scooters to oxygen and hospital beds.  We deliver directly to staterooms worldwide and are available to handle all equipment arrangements, leaving you free to do what you do best—sell travel.  Our new commission structure for qualified travel agents represents another profit opportunity for your agency. You can call us to reserve the equipment your clients need. We also deliver to hotels, resorts and convention centers for pre and post cruise stays.


If you’re ready, there is a large, vital pool of potential travelers waiting to be tapped. And with multi-generational travel a growing trend, there’s no need to cancel a family trip or leave anyone out because of a special need or physical limitation.



Andrew J. Garnett is the founder and CEO of Special Needs at Sea/Special
Needs Group., Inc. He is passionate about dissolving barriers and dedicated
to helping persons with disabilities travel the world.

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