Tourism

Here’s why the industry is missing out by not catering to the special needs market

Ali Coulton

Planning your trip is one of the most exciting parts of going on holiday.

But when you look closer it can also be the most difficult and frustrating things. Think about connecting flights, working out where your accommodation is in relation to public transport, navigating language barriers, making sure all the activities on offer fit your schedule, the list goes on.

It’s enough to give even the most seasoned travellers a migraine.

So imagine what it’s like for those with disabilities.

Issues with accessibility and understanding cause big problems for people with special needs and their families, making trip planning much harder and often more limited than for able-bodied travellers.

Which is a big problem not only for inclusion but for the entire industry when you consider that almost one in five Australians have a disability, 80 per cent of which are physical, and 20 per cent are sensory, mental or intellectual.

That’s why Janeece Keller, CEO and founder of Bound Round, and Julie Jones, founder of Have Wheelchair Will Travel decided to launch Travel with Special Needs (TWSN) earlier this month.

Designed to assist families and carers of passengers with special needs in researching, planning and booking travel, TWSN aims to make travel possible for people of all abilities and needs.

The new platform shares special rates and travel offers for tours and packages designed for guests with special needs and their travelling pals.

The handpicked offers are reviewed by Jones herself, who is a certified accessible travel consultant and also has oodles of know-how in special needs travel from her own experiences travelling with her family including her son Braedon who lives with cerebral palsy.

Her passion for getting the word out about special needs travel started when she launched her blog Have Wheelchair Will Travel, documenting her travels with Braedon and sharing her accessible travel tips with the wider special needs community.

The Jones family on holiday in New York
The Jones family on holiday in New York

We caught up with Jones to find out more about what the industry can do to make travel more accessible for people of all abilities.

Jones told us Have Wheelchair Will Travel came about after she and her family won a trip to Disney Land back in 2011.

“It was just so liberating to be able to actually go on the trip,” she said.

“With my background as a travel consultant, I was able to research all the access and how we’d manage the trip.

“We just had such a seamless trip and it was so fabulous to feel like my son’s disability and the wheelchair weren’t going to hinder us actually doing what we thought we’d always do as a family.

“I was just telling friends about it but it seems like such a waste that I had all this information about how to get in here and where the good access was and what discounts you could get so somebody suggested I should try a blog.”

Jones told us that her son always likes to be on the go, so they had plenty of material to work with.

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“It was just so well received and people were so grateful and started to send me photos of them doing the holidays we had shared.”

Maintaining her blog and interacting with her audience made it clear to Jones that there was a broad spectrum of the community that wasn’t having their needs met.

“I just thought it would be fantastic if somebody would be able to road test packages for people with special needs so the community could have the confidence to book their trips. So that’s where the idea for Travel with Special Needs came from,” she told us.

Jones said the industry needs to focus on having clear messaging when it comes to accessibility, and suppliers need to give more information.

“If I look at a hotel’s website and see an accessibility tab on the front page, immediately I feel much more confident. If I then click on that tab and that hotel has their accessible room with photos, I’m just blown away.”

“The industry sees the special needs community as a niche market so it’s not on their radar to cater to but the actual fact is they’re catering to three major markets if you’re thinking of every family with a pram, every older person who’s now finding stairs more difficult and the disability market, that’s actually quite a good percentage of the market,” Jones told us.

“It becomes a case of people socially wanting to be inclusive but it tends to come down to marketing dollars.

“But if you break it up in that respect and look at it as a dollar amount and what the tourism industry could actually reap as a reward, it’s a good amount to want to capture.”

So what can agents do to help make travel more accessible?

“Agents need to ask questions and be open to what their passenger might need and not be afraid to say that they don’t have experience in that area but they would like to help the person have their trip of a lifetime or whatever it is that they want.”

According to Jones, access to travel has been very important to her family as a way of managing her son’s disability.

Every family is very busy day-to-day but with all the medical appointments and therapy and things like that holidays become more of something to look forward to and a way of reconnecting as a family.”

“Travel is one of those things that takes you out of that world for a while. Even though it’s still there, it just gives you something you can look forward to and look back on.

“I feel really passionate that everyone should have that opportunity.”

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