Feisty, persistent, passionate, resourceful—all character traits key to being a successful travel agent, but especially critical for agents serving clients with disabilities.
Nanaimo, British Columbia-based agent Tarita Davenock has these traits in spades—and requires all of them on a daily basis to deal with the challenges of booking travel for her disabled clients.
An independent contractor with Flight Centre Associates, Davencock herself has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), diagnosed at the age of 29. Being in a wheelchair changed life for the mother of two—including where she travels and how she travels. And it has given her first-hand knowledge on what her clientele must deal with when they travel.
Prior to becoming a travel agent in 1999, Davenock was a social worker who earned a master’s degree in Behavioral Psychology. Those skills too have served her well in dealing with disabled clients.
Travel Market Report spoke with Davenock about how the industry can make travel more accessible for the increasing number of disabled travelers.
What challenges have you faced traveling since you’ve had MS?
Davenock: I have encountered stairs at destinations, in my cabin on a cruise; my shower chair did not sit properly in the bathtub; my room was too far away from the elevator, and a resort had stairs to gain access to the beach.
Is your clientele primarily people with disabilities? What's the ratio? Has your business grown?
Davenock: My clientele is a mixture of able bodied people and disabled people. The ratio is probably 60% able and 40% disabled, however, the disabled traveler clientele is steadily growing.
Do you think the average travel agent is educated about accessible travel?
Davenock: No, most travel agents only know the basics, for example ‘wheelchair assist’ at airports, accessible cabin or room at a resort. However, what about ensuring that the cruise line you book has accessible shore excursions, a mechanism to lower wheelchairs into a tender, and the resort has a clear and accessible path to the beach?
Did you arrange for beach wheelchairs at the resort, an accessible vehicle to transfer them to the destination? Do they use medication that requires refrigeration, a sharps container, a special diet or a doctor’s letter? I could list many more things.
What do you think are the top three issues facing travelers with disabilities?
Davenock: The top three are information, accommodation and access. Have the travel suppliers actually investigated the destination’s accessibility?
I had a client that booked an “accessible room” at an all-inclusive [resort] in Mexico. I received a phone call from her at the destination and the room was not accessible. There was a lip outside the shower which was impossible to use with a wheelchair and the bed was too high to safely transfer in a chair.
What are some of the changes you’d like to see implemented?
Davenock: I think that the three things [overall] are accommodation, information for this demographic and inclusion [for example, tours that allow scooters].
Travel agents and suppliers should be educated on the needs of the disabled traveler; spend the day in a wheelchair and see first-hand the challenges they face. I think that it is necessary to get rid of the “Ken & Barbie” imagery in flyers and begin showing the true picture of what today’s family may look like: in a wheelchair, Seeing Eye dog and with a cane.
What would be your ultimate goal for those traveling with a disability?
Davenock: To know that the phrase, “I can’t go there,” has been changed to “I went there.” It is such a blessing to know that the term, ‘bucket list,’ is applicable to all.
Have you seen any progress over the years by suppliers?
Davenock: It is still not there yet. I just asked a large, well-known tour provider what it offers clients in wheelchairs and its response was that it may or may not be able to assist someone in a wheelchair and it does not allow power scooters on any trip. How crazy is that? People in wheelchairs often use their power scooter when traveling.
Are there any hotel brands that "get it" when it comes to true accessibility?
Davenock: I would say that the major chains like Fairmont, Hilton, Sheraton, and Holiday Inn do a fairly good job at having accessible rooms and they will assist the disabled traveler in any way that they can. Sandals Resorts also will assist any way it can.
What are best destinations for travelers with disabilities?
Davenock: North America is probably the best as there are laws that govern accessibility, however, Europe and in particular Germany, Sweden and Copenhagen are great spots.