By Joan Leotta
Whether travelling for business or pleasure, people with disabilities desire an experience made memorable by ease of access rather than logistical nightmares. This is especially true when it comes to lodging. In the United States, most major hotel chains have rooms designated for people with disabilities, eliminating many concerns of suitable access. Until recently, however, there were no internationally focused, hotel vetting services for the intrepid traveler with an eye toward travel beyond the U.S. Marlies van Sint Annaland, CEO and Founder of Accessible Travel Online (ATO) has changed that. Now, seeking, finding, and booking an accessible hotel is as easy as point and click.
About the Service
It was a new friendship with a kindred spirit that first opened Van Sint Annaland’s eyes to the carefully negotiated worlds of people with disabilities: “About a decade ago, I met a woman in my neighborhood. She was my age, passionate about travel like me, full of energy like me and she was a free bird, a free mind. We drank coffee and connected easily. The world of ‘accessibility’ or ‘disability’ was completely new to me and I had, as many others, until that moment, never realized what it takes to get through the day facing all the obstacles, misunderstandings, prejudice and (sometimes) unwanted help. I decided to do something about it and learned that out-of-the-box thinking was very helpful.”
In search of a practical solution to the problems she saw, Van Sint Annaland decided to focus on travel. “I learned that the biggest obstacle to overcome is that other people just don’t know how to realize accessibility or where to turn to if they want to know. I thought of traveling and wondered what that world would look like, as in an accessible travel world. Being a big hotel fan, I created Hotelaccessibility.com. In the many talks I had with people with disabilities, I heard the same thing over and over. Accessibility was always a promise, (in hotels) but rarely a given.”
Acquiring and Disseminating Reliable Information
ATO’s chief objective is to connect the consumer with accessibility information that is reliable and visible. Van Sint Annaland explains that because “there are many online resources on accessible locations or accommodations — mostly operating locally — it is difficult to find your favorite destination and information about its accessibility. Just like in every world – politics, education, travel – there are a thousand ‘islands’ in the world of accessible travel. I want to be the ‘Bridge Builder’. Helping the tourism business where needed and making sure that people with disabilities can wander along all these beautiful ‘islands’ and travel the world.”
She continues, “Accessible Travel Online’s ultimate goal is to connect people with as many beautiful locations on this planet as possible, creating one big travel platform where people with disabilities will find what they need, and what they want. Let’s travel the world! TOGETHER!”
According to the ATO website, newly vetted hotels are added monthly to an already well-researched and sizeable variety At present, the site offers information on accessible hotels in: Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, the United States and Canada, South America and Southeast Asia: “More countries will be represented on Hotelaccessibility.com every time we set up a new partnership with local travel agents. If you don’t want to miss updates, please subscribe to our news update or follow us on social media via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.”
To properly vet hotels, Van Sint Annaland relies on a small group of advisors and personal contacts who gather the hotel information ultimately appearing on the site. This differs from the model used by most travel rating services that typically list the experiences of travelers who have stayed in a particular hotel. ATO advisors are selected specially to look for ways in which the hotel serves people with disabilities in its hospitality profile.
Becoming an advisor requires more than a keen interest in world travel. Returning to the company objective of providing reliable information to is customers, Van Sint Annaland selects individuals who bring a personal awareness of just how invaluable
reliable information can be. As she explains, “Experienced travelers with a disability themselves, is the basic starting point to join the ATO team. Our motto is not to talk about disabilities, we talk about abilities. I never ask people why they are in a wheelchair for instance. It’s obvious, right? So, we make sure we can take away barriers and focus on the possibilities. Melanie and Mirjam, who coordinate the HotelCheck procedure, are trained experts in hospitality and are very good in motivating others to share their skills in endurance, positive thinking and helping others. Helma singlehandedly changed the law in the Netherlands, making sure assistance dogs are never to be refused on any property. Representation with advisors in the USA is coming soon.
In describing the feel and function of the website, Van Sint Annaland says that ATO is, above all, a community, a platform where people can share information: “Yes, we allow hotels and accommodations who have ‘passed our test’ to promote themselves on our site. We don’t work with reviews (per se), but we use our (in house developed) HotelCheck ratings. These set an international standard and a universal quality label travelers can rely on.”
Hotels also seem to prefer the HotelCheck method with trained advisors. According to Van Sint Annaland, ATO has been “testing hotels in our region for three years and the feedback from the hotels involved was unanimously the same. All hotel managers valued the time spent with a HotelCheck consultant because it created the opportunity to ask questions and learn how to improve or facilitate accessible amenities or services.”
How the Site Works
As Van Sint Annaland discussed earlier, ATO bridges the international hospitality industry and travelers with disabilities. She goes on to describe how ATO facilitates this relationship: “The key to helping clients Find a Room that Fits their needs is the round-up of the varied, small services that operate in Europe. Ours is a one stop shop … for example, The Corendon hotel in the Netherlands has been listed since September 2015 and they won our Accessibility Award 2016 .”
This hotel, whose website is https://www.corendonhotels.com/corendon-vitality-hotel-amsterdam, offers many accessible rooms. She says, “We have worked with the Corendon Vitality Hotel in Amsterdam from the start, before it was built! They have two accessible rooms on each of the seven floors.
She further advises, “Should clients desire hotel reviews, AccessAdvisr.com, is a standard resource. Co-owner and Managing Director Rob Trent provides a service that effectively complements ATO: AccessAdvisr gives disabled people the opportunity to provide a real-world view of how easy-to-access different places and transport stops are for disabled people. If a place gets a poor review, we’ll feed that back and campaign for better accessibility. If it gets a good review, we’ll feed that back too!”
Going forward, ATO plans to focus expansion in areas where they have already made successful inroads. But this does not mean that newer inroads will not also be made. In the spirit of its slogan, “Travel without Limitations,” the company has recently begun a U.S. operation to further ease the paths to worldwide travel. In fulfilling her dream, Van Sint Annaland has helped others fulfill theirs. ATO offers a map of possibility for travelers with disabilities, who are well-accustomed to knowing their limitations and then defying them.