Plan Accessible Meetings in the Southeast

By: Nancy Mann Jackson

You've snagged the best room rates, chosen the tastiest meals, and created an engaging program for your meeting attendee. But are those great offerings accessible to all? Here's how to make sure your next meeting is accessible for members with disabilities.

When he organizes the annual meeting for a group of visually impaired veterans, Bill Grider has some special requirements in mind. The hotels must be accessible for the visually impaired, within close proximity to restaurants and other venues used by the group, and there must be easy access to affordable transportation. As the president of the Southeastern Blind Rehabilitation Center Alumni Association, Grider is himself a visually impaired veteran, and he always finds everything his group needs in Birmingham, Alabama.

"The rehab center for blind veterans is at the VA Hospital in Birmingham, and all of us are graduates of that school," Grider says of the 600 members of his association. "So it makes sense to meet in Birmingham, where we all went to rehab, but the city and the hotels have always offered everything we need."

The downtown hotels used by the group are a few steps from the trolleys and buses that transport the group to various venues throughout the downtown area. And since 2003, two local golf courses have hosted the group's Charley Boswell Memorial Golf Tournament during its annual meeting. Named for Boswell, a blind professional golfer, the tournament features all visually impaired golfers, each working with a team of three sighted coaches, Grider says.

"It is very rewarding to play golf with blind golfers," says Barry Hoehn, director of sales at the Greater Birmingham CVB, who has played in the tournament as a coach. "On one hole, they put glasses on the [sighted] players that block out all the light and we try to hit the ball. It's tough, and to see players who have no vision strike the ball is amazing."

In addition to being equipped for unique events, Birmingham is focused on providing more accommodations for guests with disabilities. A survey of the city's meeting hotels revealed that five percent of guest rooms meet the requirements for guests with hearing impairments; three percent of guest rooms meet the requirements for guests with mobility impairments; and one percent of guest rooms have roll-in showers. Some hotels have constructed special dog-walking areas for service dogs.

"For visually impaired guests, the hotels have all permanent signage in Braille [and] doorbells on handicapped rooms," Hoehn says. "Outside some of the facilities, all the intersections requiring street crossings have a beeper or voice system to announce when it is clear to cross and when danger is present. All associates are trained to assist guests to their rooms and to meeting rooms on request."

A Commitment to Accessibility

Birmingham isn't the only Southeastern city with a commitment to accommodating meeting attendees with special needs. In Virginia Beach, earning a reputation as an accessible destination is an important goal for its convention and visitors' bureau, says Al Hutchinson, vice president of convention sales and marketing at the Virginia Beach CVB. To that end, local facilities and venues are committed to making necessary accommodations for groups of any size. For instance, the Virginia Beach Convention Center offers the ADA-required number of accessible parking spaces, but for some groups with large numbers of elderly or disabled individuals, "the number of spaces isn't large enough to satisfy the demand," Hutchinson says. In those cases, "VBCC cordons off one entire parking lot adjacent to the building and makes it available those who are not able to walk a great distance. Volunteers use wheelchairs and golf carts to retrieve guests from the parking lot to take them to a specially designated seating area."

Throughout Virginia Beach, tourism officials have made accessibility a priority. The local Visitor Information Center offers computer access for the blind, including screen-reading software. A number of the brochures in the racks are available in Braille, and the Visitor vacation guide features a paw print next to the name of each pet-friendly hotel. Several beach resort areas offer free wheelchairs for guests to use to access the water. For the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, which recently held its state convention in Virginia Beach, accessible transportation was a top concern. "Some of our folks arrived by car driven by family or friends," says First Vice President Michael Kasey. "However, it was important that the airport, Amtrak, and bus transportation was available for many." To transport attendees to and from the airport, train, and bus stations, the city offered plenty of private transportation options, Kasey says.

In Orlando, more than 100 attractions and 500 hotels comply with the standards set by the ADA, but many local theme parks are especially creative in finding new ways to make visitors with special needs feel more comfortable. In July 2010, Walt Disney World introduced a new handheld assistive-technology device for visitors with visual disabilities. The device, which was designed and patented by Walt Disney World, uses a wireless signal to gauge where users are located in the park and plays a corresponding audio description of the area's rides, outdoor areas, and even the location of the closest restroom. The device also offers amplified audio for theater-type attractions and handheld captioning that enables guests with hearing loss to read captions while enjoying specific rides.

Nashville's hospitality industry has made efforts to create a highly accessible destination for visiting groups. In 2004 the city created All Access, a training program originally intended to educate local cab drivers about how to better serve passengers with disabilities. Cab drivers are legally mandated to attend the training program, which discusses topics such as people-first language, service-animal conduct, seizure first aid, and tips for serving guests with specific disabilities such as blindness, deafness, short stature, and those in a wheelchair. In 2005, the All Access training program was expanded to include employees across Nashville's entire hospitality industry.

"The entire front-line staff of our major hotels have received the training, as have the staffs of many restaurants and attractions," says Kay Witt, senior vice president of sales at the Nashville CVB. "One in five people in this country have some kind of disability, and we do not want to exclude those people from coming to Nashville." This commitment to accessibility led to Nashville's selection as the host city for the Little People of America convention in July.

Making Accessible Meetings Work

Organizing a successful, accessible meeting may start with selecting the right destination, but there are plenty of other steps planners can take to pull it off. During the site selection process, "meeting planners [should] do their research to include destinations that have demonstrated a successful culture of being open and accessible," says Virginia Beach's Hutchinson. "Additionally, look to destinations and CVBs that have the infrastructure from staff, hotels, and convention centers that are accessible friendly and have an attitude that they truly care about providing accessibility."

Determining exactly what your members need before the meeting is important, as different types of disabilities require different levels of accessibility. For instance, "accessibility requirements in the physical sense are of little concern for the blind," Kasey says. "With proper training a blind person can use a long white cane or guide dog to travel about inside and outside. Therefore, stairs, entranceways, walkways, and specific physical accommodations are not a concern. People who use wheelchairs or other mobility equipment may require such accommodations, but this is not so for the blind. It may be helpful for a hotel to have Braille labels on vending machines, doors, and elevators. If they are not labeled when we arrive, we do that with our own labels. But transportation is a major issue for the blind. It is important that adequate public transportation be available to the [event]."

For guests who do use wheelchairs or other mobility equipment, it's a good idea to request that their hotel rooms be located as close as possible to ramps or elevators or preblock wheelchair-accessible hotel guest rooms that are adjacent to elevators, adds Tammi Runzler, vice president of convention sales and services at the Orlando/Orange County CVB. Make sure that each hotel keeps a master list of these guests and in which rooms they are staying, in case of an event of an emergency that requires evacuation.

And consider hiring extra staff to assist convention attendees with disabilities. In Orlando, for instance, meeting planners sometimes hire convention assistants to help with guests who use wheelchairs when "there is significant ground to be covered at a meeting," Runzler says. "If a venue is particularly large, getting around can be tiring for even the most independent person."

Ongoing communication with both destination executives and attendees is crucial—with attendees to find out their specific needs and with destination personnel to make sure those needs will be met. "The best tip [I] could offer to a planner for an accessible group is to overcommunicate," says Birmingham's Hoehn. "While communication between the CVB, planner, and hotel is critical when planning any event, it becomes more important with groups that require more access. If a planner can identify the specific needs of the attendees and provide that to the CVB representatives and to the hotels, we can ensure we are ready. Not just ready with the physical aspect but the human aspect as well."

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama. Email: [email protected]

Nancy Mann Jackson

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Alabama.