The Future of Access in Hotels Is in the Design

Access and inclusion for hotel and lodging changed forever in 2010. That year proved to be a very defining year for hotels and accessibility for people with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Justice issued new standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) These new standards were not an attempt to over regulate the hotel industry but rather to guide them in their quest for full inclusion. One of the main highlights from the regulation states that all public spaces in large hotels be accessible to people with disabilities but this didn't mean "give good customer service".

It also stated that websites needed to be more informative and equal with pricing. September 15, 2010 marked a much more detailed "how to" for hoteliers. While these changes were more detailed they still left room for more regulation if necessary. Now, it's 2015 and there's a couple interesting things which have come from these new regulations.

Hotels and Inns needed a way to learn about these regulations and then how to make the necessary changes, which left the door open for dozens of piranha type law and design firms.

These firms had an amazing way of making it look expensive to make these changes, unless you white out their fees as a line item. Also keep in mind there are no degrees in college for "Inclusive Design" so no designer is formally trained. Making it worse the American Hotel Lodging Association (AHLA) has been funding an already federal funded group to hold online dry, boring webinars to persuade hotels into making these changes and teach them "all about access".

Abusing the system by marginalizing the regulations importance and claiming "partnership with the community" rather than making solid industry changes and weaving access into the "normal" way of business at AHLA. This has to be done with real investments in design, websites, mobile apps and capital expenditures. So now most hotels simply ask their employees to take this online course, and "you're qualified!" Why are tax dollars going to help the AHLA? Who by the way basically said in 2010 that they disagreed with most everything set forth in the ADA changes (AHLA press release) based on an in-house market research which "proved" they have too many accessible rooms and nobody uses the web. The USTravel Associations (Formerly Travel Industry Association of America) retired Research Director Dr. Suzanne Cook really understood the need for inclusion and by making access a place at the associations table there was some success but the battle proved too large for even her. What I do think she and I accomplished was the awareness for good design.

Here's what the future really looks like. I am at an Embassy Suites in Puerto Rico and there are automatic doors to the pool, lowered counters and ramps to everything from the toilets to the bar. The rooms all have tactile/Braille numbering and there are strobe fire alarms on every wall. But one of the coolest things is, because I am a Hilton Honors member, I got to choose the exact room I desired before I even arrived and if the hotel were to have the proper access information on their website and mobile app a person would be able to book the exact accessible room they want (accessible rooms come in different shapes, sizes and with different modifications), or need, instead of potluck at the counter or via a call center in India nowhere near the actual property.

The web and the apps that support the hotel industry are really promising. It's true that not everyone has a smart phone but most people know someone who does or they have access to the internet. In fact, the Open Doors Organization (ODO) Market Study on Travelers with Disabilities showed that over 86 percent of people with disabilities consult the web for travel needs and more interesting is that 51 percent in 2005 actually booked online, that was greater than the general population. The smart phone will one day, thanks in part to companies like IBM and Apple, allow people who are blind or have low vision to actually wayfind inside a hotel. Think about the Embassy Suites again, they have large atriums with landscaped waterfalls and winding rivers, but if you're a person who is blind or has low vision how would you find anything and what happens when a branch brushes up to their shoulder or a bridge is approaching? Another hot topic addressed in the 2002 and 2005 ODO Market Studies showed that no one with a disability really cared about the pool lifts but it was all over the media. Literally it was near the bottom of a multiple choice question with over 20 choices of things people want at a hotel. There is also a pool lift at the hotel in Puerto Rico and after 4 days a of sitting by the pool a wheelchair user, with very little lower body movement, arrived at the hotel and sure enough he "bumped" ("bump" is basically when you go unassisted from your chair to another location by sitting on your rear, on the ground and moving to another location without help) himself into the pool rather than use the lift. Pool lifts are ugly, unused and poorly designed, what about moveable lifts or level entry into the pool and an accessible pool chair? The people at U.S. Access Board made this regulation without thinking of future design and now all hotels are stuck with pool lifts that the people don't even want or use. They are even hosting webinars solely on pools, the time and money to do this should be in the industry hands not the taxpayers. Proving increased regulation is not always the answer.

How about installing proper door handles? Who even uses a "door knob" any longer? Lever handles are easy and equal in cost. Using an accessible key card system (think of those who are blind or have low-vision) is easier than you think and so is a quick audit of your property. Design reigned when ODO did the market studies in 2002 & 2005. 2002 was highlighted by people requesting rooms near hotel elevators and near amenities, easily fixed with design. Think of the suites different shapes and how the accessible room may fit next to those rooms, near the elevators. Some of the most recognized Las Vegas hotels placed the accessible rooms furthest from the elevators and the halls are all carpeted, making wheelchair pushing strenuous and with the padding some older adults may have trouble with their feet dragging. Here's a great savings, try little or no padding in the carpeted public areas and accessible rooms. Ring that up. The 2005 ODO research showed the number one physical obstacle for people with disabilities was that doors were too heavy or hard to open (ODO 2005 Study). If the doors were made easier to open, with less tension, how much would that cost? Finally, emergency preparedness (evacuation planning) is a topic where the hotel industry should consult the cruise industry. They have some similarities in business models and cruise companies really "get it", ask Royal Caribbean. They even have emergency procedure videos for crew on how to help people with disabilities. While the future looks great for access in hotels I believe that it will come to fruition via good design not around some table in DC.