A guest blog contributed by Brian Seaman, who was one of the small team of consultants who helped seven destinations improve their accessibility as part of the Access for All campaign on behalf of VisitEngland
Initial visits to check the accessibility of businesses
Working as part of a small team at the Access New Business consultancy – and on behalf of VisitEngland, in December 2014, my part in the VisitEngland Access For All campaign began by visiting seven destinations to assess the accessibility of businesses who had signed up to become engaged in the EU-funded programme.
Each set of visits at each destination was preceded by a meeting with the local destination organisation and the individual business partners to outline the process they were to be part of in the months ahead.
This also meant that as a team, Access New Business had to gear up to offer support and advice to over 50 business partners by helping them through the course of action they were about to embark on. We did this through regular newsletters and sharing of timelines so that all involved were aware of the deadlines each of us had committed to.
Liaising closely with the local destination management partners, we undertook individual visits to businesses in Northumberland in the depths of winter and continued these in the Peak District and Derbyshire area; Birmingham city centre; Brighton; Margate; Lincoln and Nottingham city centres.
Businesses were provided with items to resolve before the campaign kicked off
All of the visits were completed by the end of February and a report was written up for each business partner by the end of March. This gave each business a list of items to resolve before the Access for All marketing campaign kicked off, plus some longer term adjustments to factor into their action plans for the future.
As part of the process, not only were the individual businesses assessed for physical accessibility but also other associated aspects of their businesses. Guidance was provided on how to go about creating accessible websites and progress in all areas of accessibility were closely monitored throughout the development period.
The production of a detailed Access Statement was also required from each partner describing their accessibility. This was to include details associated with the location; including public transport; parking; Shopmobility outlets; equipment hire; local doctors and hospitals and other elements which might help visitors.
All customer-facing staff had to participate in disability awareness training through other organisations involved with this particular aspect – including DisabledGo; Visits Unlimited, Access Solutions and The Accessible Training Company, which comprised both on-line and face-to-face training.
Accommodation was also inspected by Quality in Tourism
As well as the walk-through assessment carried out by Access New Business, where appropriate, (and if not already assessed), accommodation was inspected by Quality in Tourism for VisitEngland’s National Accessible Scheme (NAS). This added another level of reassurance for disabled guests that places had been reviewed thoroughly under the scheme in order to identify the degree of accessibility on offer. These criteria take away some of the guess work that might otherwise be required by visitors as to whether the accommodation would meet their requirements. The NAS – with its degrees of accessibility – can also be used as an independent marketing tool to assist disabled and older people.
Reasonable physical adjustments were demanded
Additionally, all of the tourism partners were asked to make physical adjustments where reasonable in the run-up to the marketing campaign. Because the dramatic difference in scale of some of the partners (from SMEs such as small cafes up to larger concerns – including Lincoln Cathedral), there was no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but a pragmatic approach was taken to help each of them in turn to identify and meet their project objectives.
Some of the most frequent physical adjustments included: highlighting the nosings of steps; the provision of suitable handrails at steps and ramps; the provision of hearing loops in reception areas; fitting horizontal door bars on the rear of accessible public WCs and bathroom doors in accommodation – to aid closure from within these areas; providing flip-top bins rather than pedal bins in designated accessible WC’s or bathrooms, and the provision of clearer signage and information.
There were however, some aspects that the businesses could not change, for example, the location of facilities for visitors. Several of the destinations have steep hills for all visitors to contend with, including Brighton, Northumberland and the City of Lincoln. At least with an Access Statement on each website, businesses could describe any of the potential issues for disabled guests or visitors, so that individuals would be aware of these before they travelled or booked a stay away.
Additionally each of the destination websites were updated to provide information about accessibility as part of the programme.
Disabled mystery shoppers provided further valuable information about accessibility
From the very outset, we knew VisitEngland needed to involve disabled people in the project. So later on in the Access For All programme, businesses were visited by disabled mystery shoppers to identify any obvious gaps in their provision, the feedback being sent to the businesses for them to review any additional changes that were identified.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the mystery shopper findings included difficulty in trying to locate sufficient accessible parking in some areas. This had been less of an issue in the winter when businesses were initially visited as they were much quieter, than in the summer on warmer days when the mystery shoppers visited.
Also with customer-facing staff having participated in disability awareness training, mystery shoppers were asked how the staff at individual businesses interacted with disabled visitors or guests which is key to providing a welcome for all, and once again feedback on this aspect was provided to each business.
Businesses that completed the programme are being promoted to disabled people
At the end of August businesses that completed the development programme were approved for inclusion in the campaign. Preparations for the Access for All marketing campaign to share information about the destinations were well underway.
The culmination of the Access For All programme is that the successful businesses (who met all of the criteria during the in-depth assessment process) are being promoted during September and early October to disabled people and others with access requirements in the domestic tourism market through The Sunday Express newspaper and magazine; other publications specific to disabled readers, blogs, various websites, radio shows such as BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours, The Guardian, The Telegraph and social media such as Twitter.
We hope that much has been learned by all the business partners and that they can continue to act on the advice and guidance into the future, long after the Access for All campaign has ended.
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