It’s time to change the narrative from ‘accessibility’ to ‘inclusion’, says Inclu Travel founder Richard Thompson
Q. Why did you leave Travel Counsellors and set up Inclu Travel?
A. I was at Travel Counsellors for 12 years but I’d started to think about where I was going with my business. I’d spoken to lots of travel counsellors around the world about accessible travel and done training at lots of events but nothing had changed in the sector apart from what had been driven by legislation.
We’ve got changes to the physical environment, but the industry has not embraced it. I’ve been in travel for 43 years and I thought, ‘If I’m going to make a difference I need to rethink this’. I was approached by 360 Private Travel, the luxury travel network, and I set up Inclu Travel with them in March. The idea of putting disability and luxury travel into the same sentence has not happened. It’s been good timing because I’ve achieved an awful lot in these past six months.
“I’d spoken to lots of travel counsellors around the world about accessible travel and done training at lots of events but nothing had changed in the sector apart from what had been driven by legislation.”
Q. What difference does it make working in the luxury travel market instead of mainstream travel as regards booking holidays for disabled clients?
A. With luxury accommodation you already have space and privacy and level-access showers. In a way, that box is ticked. Most hotels have dedicated, accessible rooms and the service levels mean everyone is a VIP. In the mass market, being disabled and a VIP is impossible.
Q. Instead of selling traditional operator packages, you work directly with destination management companies and hotels. How are you influencing what they offer disabled clients?
A. Being part of 360 Private Travel and a member of Virtuoso [a network of luxury agents], I’m able to get to people with the right mindset to have the right conversation. I’ve spoken to people I would never usually have access to: the decision-makers. It took me two minutes to get them switched on. I never thought I’d hear someone say “disabled customers are our priority”.
That best practice will then cascade down [to the mass market]. Being part of 360 means I’m now having conversations with DMCs and hotels. I’m working with the 96 DMCs in 360. I’m starting from scratch, giving them Zoom training and telling them what we need from hotels. Tour operators cannot fufil what we need.
“Being part of 360 Private Travel and a member of Virtuoso, I’m able to get to people with the right mindset to have the right conversation.”
Q. You’ve also set up Inclu Consulting with board members from the disabled market. Why?
A. I’ve pulled together consultants who can provide the solutions that a hotel or supplier might need. We’ve developed an audit for hotels to self-audit themselves. We can identify gaps and help with training. We have set up solutions. We can collaborate with hotels; for example, to have a pool hoist put in.
The goal is to give the supply chain customers. The first hotel in Bali to put a pool hoist in will get our customers. It costs the same as putting a coffee machine in a bar, and the cost of one family [staying at the hotel] will cover that. Money is not the barrier; the barrier has always been ‘why should we do this?’
Q. Did you think as an agent you could encourage suppliers to make these sort of changes?
A. I have always wanted to change the landscape of opportunity for disabled people. The industry needs to recognise once and for all that this is not a niche market. I have never been so upbeat.
“The first hotel in Bali to put a pool hoist in will get our customers. It costs the same as putting a coffee machine in a bar, and the cost of one family [staying at the hotel] will cover that.”
Q. How has your personal experience driven your desire to change the market for disabled travellers?
A. I broke my neck in a car accident when working in the French Alps. I hit some black ice. I came out of hospital in a wheelchair. I have incomplete tetraplegia; I can walk but my hands don’t work. I cannot drive. I cannot pick up a bag. But I don’t identify as disabled. I’ve learnt how to control my body. I was one of the early Club 18-30 reps; I had some fun. I still go into spinal units to give talks. There is nothing more transformational after a catastrophic accident than travel. That’s why I’m so passionate about it. I still don’t see us as a disability business. We trade in destinations. Our first question is not ‘what is your disability?’ but ‘where do you want to go?’
What needs to change for the industry to take the disabled travel market seriously?
Most people who are disabled do not identify as disabled. The industry has chosen to pay lip service [to this market] but make no changes. [Hotels] still won’t guarantee accessible rooms; you still can’t get an accessible pool or beach; children cannot go to kids’ clubs if they are disabled.
“People immediately default to the wheelchair and associate it with cost and problems. Now is the time to change the narrative, and that has to be to ‘inclusion’.”
In setting up Inclu Travel, I realised we needed to move away from the tag ‘accessibility’. People immediately default to the wheelchair and associate it with cost and problems. Now is the time to change the narrative, and that has to be to ‘inclusion’. It’s gaining traction in a way accessibility never did.
When I say to hoteliers, ‘how do you feel about clients coming to your hotel but not being able to get into your pool?’, it’s a game changer. If people cannot get into the pool, or deaf people cannot hear the hotel alarms, this is not fair. It’s not acceptable, and it’s not an attractive proposal.
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