Why hotels need to improve the front-desk experience for disabled guests

(Hotels comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but is that enough? The answer is a resounding "no.")

Accessibility is a major concern for hotel operators, but just because your property is Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant doesn’t mean it’s welcoming to guests with disabilities. For some travelers, the trip from front door to front desk is sometimes a major inconvenience, and something that rests solely on operators to alleviate.

Peter Slatin, founder and president of the Slatin Group, a provider of education and training for communication and interaction with special-needs customers in business, said recognition and ease of communication are the biggest challenges facing front-desk operators when dealing with disabled travelers. Operators can mean well, but talking down to guests or getting flustered during interactions are a major red flag.

Slatin worked directly with the Virgin Hotel Chicago to develop an expanded training program throughout the property, and David Moth, VP of operations at Virgin Hotels, said special attention has been paid to first-time interactions, particularly at the front desk.

“It’s important not to assume anything,” Moth said. “Guests with wheelchairs or service animals are the tip of the iceberg. Guests with dyslexia also need special attention, and in those cases you have to be more verbal.”

Virgin Hotels worked with the Slatin Group to improve its disability practices. 

Moth said that prior to working with Slatin, he thought the hotel business was doing a good job of accommodating disabled travelers, but quickly learned that the community has been overlooked for some time. Christy Pettit, corporate director at Providence Hospitality Partners, similarly said that hotels across the industry could benefit from additional training for interactions with disabled travelers, and that ADA compliance is merely the baseline for success in this area.

“Terminology can be a major point for some guests,” she said. “You want to make sure they don’t feel singled out, but they should also feel like if they need extra assistance they can ask for it.”

One example Pettit gave was in relation to the hotel’s shuttle service and guests in wheelchairs: Operators should have a shuttle on hand with wheelchair accessibility, and if none is on property they need to be prepared to have a company on call to step in and provide one. This bleeds into Pettit’s thesis that all staff need to have proper, up-to-date training to work with disabled guests and should be confident to step in and remedy any negative situation.

In one instance, a Providence property in San Antonio hosted an event with the Wounded Warriors, a charity and service organization for U.S. veterans. While most hotels have the ability to accommodate some disabled guests, preparing for a hotel full of them produced a shortage of ADA-approved room types, causing the property to improvise by offering more seats in guestroom tubs for where roll-in showers were absent, for example.

Slatin also said hotels are missing an opportunity when it comes to data. While hotels and event planners are frequently aware of the number of gluten-free or kosher diets they have to prepare for an event, statistics on disabled travelers are almost nonexistent.

“It may be worth it to closely monitor the percentage of disabled travelers, what kinds of accommodation they have, the hotels they prefer; there is a big opportunity there, and a big a big hole in the data,” Slatin said.