Amy Cabe is director of convention and visitor services at Visit Spokane and current president of the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA). ESPA is dedicated to elevating the event and convention services profession by preparing members through education and networking for their pivotal role in innovative and successful event execution. For more information, visit www.espaonline.org.
Education and networking meetings are the lifeblood of any association. We put meticulous thought into choosing the right city, the right hotel and the right educational offerings. What we may overlook in this process is accessibility.
Because many members of nonprofit associations pay their own way to an event, our industry must be proactive in providing useful information so that attendees can make informed decisions and have a clear understanding of the resources available. Inclusivity for people with disabilities is so much more than ensuring a hotel or convention center has an elevator or a ramp in place of stairs. It is incumbent on us to be prepared for a variety of circumstances and communicate our offerings to meeting planners well in advance.
The bottom line is we talk a lot about hospitality in the association and events industry, but we need to be more hospitable.
Do you know which all-night pharmacy is closest to your hotel? Does your convention center have an emergency EpiPen and someone who knows how to use it? How do you make your event accessible to all?
This issue of accessibility is of such importance to the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA) that we created “Project Access: Accessible Meetings FAQs,” a downloadable resource form that hotels, convention centers, CVBs and other DMOs can customize and share with meeting planners.
The document includes checklists designed sequentially from a guest’s arrival at a destination airport to ground transportation, lodging, meeting venues and offsite venues. It also includes a resource list that DMOs can customize by listing contacts for state and local agencies.
What venues have staff members who know American Sign Language? Does the hotel restaurant offer a menu in Braille? Do the hotel guest rooms have roll-in showers or built-in benches? These questions may not apply to you, but they may help individuals decide whether to attend a convention.
As director of convention and visitor services at Visit Spokane, I’ve seen the importance of planning and understanding accessibility issues. When the world’s largest annual wheelchair sporting event rolled into our city nine years ago, participants benefited from months of preparation from our hospitality community, officials and citizenry. We had time to plan the logistics of transporting and hosting 630 athletes. Most of these athletes traveled with two wheelchairs, their coaches and entourages from the airport, to hotels to 17 separate sporting events in our region.
Visit Spokane worked closely with our transportation partners, venues and merchants to ensure we were a good host to everyone visiting for the 29th National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
We purchased and customized yardsticks and invited our partners to walk around their businesses to measure the distance between shelves, tables, chairs and walls. We invited merchants to situate products at arm’s length and avoid clutter. Understand what customers can see from a wheelchair at eye level, we advised.
I’m pleased to say that the Games provided Spokane with an opportunity to learn, to shine and to enjoy the pleasure of watching this unique event unfold. Planning for such an event requires a thorough process. There are many things to consider.
Accessibility involves more than mobility. Some needs are hard to predict. Some spring up quickly and require immediate assistance. For example, an attendee who shatters his knee the week before a conference may need help finding the resources necessary to comfortably participate. He even may need help predicting what he needs!
Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. It was the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities. The law prohibits discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunication. Since then, however, there has only been one book and a subsequent white paper that addressed the issue of accessibility specifically for event planning.
When it comes to accessibility, a lot of it involves awareness and asking the right questions. That’s why when we created our Accessible Meetings FAQs, we included event service professionals, as well as those who face accessibility challenges in their daily lives. To truly help our industry, we needed to get input from all the stakeholders.
Former ESPA President Denise Suttle, CMP, fast-tracked the Project Access initiative after she and her team at Visit Albuquerque noticed an uptick in the number of questions that event planners were asking about accessibility — from how many roll-in showers hotels had on the property to the availability of rentable motorized scooters and wheelchairs.
“It occurred to me that ESPA should be at the forefront of this issue,” Suttle said. “We’re the people tasked with getting the answers — that’s our job. So why not do some homework up front and get this information? It’s to our benefit and to our client’s benefit to stop doing it piecemeal and to make sure the process is more comprehensive and inclusive.”
ESPA is pleased to make this accessibility resource free to anyone who requests it. We need to share this information as widely as possible. Meeting planners and others may request a copy of the Accessible Meetings FAQs by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our toolkit is an excellent starting kit for venues, but we realize we couldn’t possibly cover every possible situation or circumstance the first time around. Our goal is to provide a framework and let venues figure out what additional services or concerns will be applicable to their potential attendees.
Please join us in making Project Access: Accessible Meetings FAQs an industry-wide resource. Together we can make a positive change!