Christmas is over and the holiday booking season is about to go into full swing. But for some travellers – disabled people – this time of anticipation can also be a source of apprehension. Will their tour operator be able to meet their particular requirements and make their holiday care-free?
It's a question which is asked more often than the average tourist might think. One in four UK households contains a disabled person, according to the Disability Rights Commission. Around 9.8 million people are covered by the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act.
One travel agency is doing its best to ensure that the question has positive answers for its clients.
Walking into Travel Options' premises in Glasgow's bustling Trongate, at first glance you could be visiting any mainstream travel agent. And that's because you are. For although Travel Options offers a specialised service for disabled people, it can only do so by being a first class professional travel agency.
Look a little more closely, however, and there are clues to show that Travel Options do things a bit differently.
There's more space than usual at the consultants' desks, giving plenty of room for a wheelchair user and their carer to manoevre comfortably. Brochures are on low racks. The floor covering is colour-coded to make it easier for visually impaired people to find their way around.
For those with a hearing impairment, there's a loop system. And all of Travel Options' consultants have email – the communication method of choice for many disabled people.
But Travel Options' greatest asset is their staff. Travel manager Clare Doherty and her three travel consultants – Michael Bennett, Pauline Murray and Jean Pollock – have a total of 80 years experience in the business.
Clare joined Travel Options in October 2002 after working for agencies like AT Mays, Portman Travel and Carlson World Choice, plus tour operators specialising in long haul. When the job was advertised she decided to take her career in a new direction.
"Our maxim is promoting independent travel," she says. "I have experienced being at the other end of the phone making holidays, doing everything from creating itineraries to putting brochure packs together.
"So have my colleagues, so when we act as advocates for our clients we know exactly what we're dealing with."
The critical difference in Travel Options' approach is its focus on the individual customer – disabled or otherwise - rather than the sale. And central to this approach is its status as an independent agency.
"Most high street agents are geared towards their branded products," Clare explains, "whereas we can choose from more than 1,000 ABTA operators in finding the right holiday."
That might mean booking with a household name like Thomson, Airtours or Thomas Cook, or a specialised operator such as Libra or Jewel in the Crown. Long haul companies are also available, like Travel2 and Gold Medal.
There are the niche operators who provide unusual holidays such as Journeys Latin America, the top-drawer company Abercromby & Kent, and Bac Sport, purveyors of group holidays at the rugby and cricket World Cups as well as Premiership football weekends.
"From Blackpool to Bali" is Clare's informal summing up of the variety of destinations available, and off the top of her head she can quote holidays ranging from parties of elderly ladies going on pilgrimage to Lourdes, to arranging for a couple to be married by 'Elvis' in Las Vegas.
Complementing this core activity is the Travel Options mission to ensure that disabled people are treated no differently from anyone else.
This might mean making sure that people's mobility needs are suitably accommodated on planes, buses and taxis. Wheelchair users and other travellers who want special seating - with destinations ranging from visiting family members in Canada to a clubbing holiday in Ibiza - form a large proportion of Travel Options' disabled clientele.
Other requirements met recently have involved advising airlines that diabetic travellers will be taking needles on board their planes, that some clients will need special medication during their flight, and that others may have special dietary requirements or need assistance in cutting food.
All this is handled in a matter of fact fashion at the Trongate agency. "We take time to talk with clients," says Clare Doherty.
"We don't want to categorise individuals, so it's about prompting and getting a rapport with the client, being open so that they don't feel embarassed and are able to tell us what they need."
So rather than run through a checklist of disabilities, Travel Options' consultants will make sure that the elements of the forthcoming holiday are discussed to find out where the customer's requirements lie.
For the typical foreign holiday this will usually cover time spent passing through the airport terminal, boarding the plane, the flight itself, transfer to accommodation, excursions, dietary and other support needs.
Similar stages apply to cruise holidays, which are increasingly popular with disabled people because they provide a relatively secure environment.
Staff will then talk to the tour operator and then confirm that requirements are going to be met by dealing direct with hoteliers and airlines.
In general, travel companies are happy to comply with clients' requests. But Clare stresses: "There have been occasions when we have withdrawn brochures when an operator has not come up with the service the client was expecting."
And on one occasion Travel Options fought long and hard with a cruise operator who refused to take a disabled person on a cruise to New York. Travel Options prevailed, the client duly had a ball in the Big Apple, and the operator has changed its ways.
Travellers need have no fear that booking a holiday through Travel Options will cost more because of this personal service. Clare Doherty gives the assurance: "We receive a standard rate of commission from tour operators, the same as the rest of the industry."
The philosophy of inclusiveness which is the public face of Travel Options also underpins its operation behind the scenes.
For the business is part of the Unity Enterprise Group, an ecumenical Christian organisation and registered charity founded in 1989 and committed to promoting the ability of people for full cultural, social and economic inclusion in their community.
Travel Options was set up in 1993 with European funding to provide training for people with disabilities.
"We thought hard about the appropriate vehicle for what we wanted to achieve," says Unity Enterprise chief executive George McSorley. "And we concluded that a travel agency had all the elements we were looking for … new technology which our clients could be trained in, plus plenty of social interaction to help break down barriers and create an inclusive environment."
So in addition to established travel consultants, Travel Options customers are likely to meet travel training officer Jim Kilpatrick and some of his team of six trainees who are going through the life-changing process of real work experience and training, with a strong emphasis on life skills and customer service.
At the end of their time in Trongate, the trainees will have developed valuable core capabilities to help them overcome barriers to workplace inclusion.
For further information, contact:
Group Chief Executive
Glasgow G1 5ES
Tel: 0141 – 552 – 2611
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