Paul Ruby, CMP, is Associate Director of Catering/Convention Services at Sheraton Dallas Hotel and current president of the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA). ESPA is dedicated to elevating the event and convention services profession and to preparing members, through education and networking, for their pivotal role in innovative and successful event execution. For more information, visit www.espaonline.org.
We talk a lot about hospitality in the events industry, but we still have a ways to go. Inclusivity for people with disabilities must encompass more than ensuring a venue has an elevator or a ramp in place of stairs. We need to accommodate people with varying levels of abilities and circumstances and communicate our services to potential event attendees in advance so they can make informed decisions.
“Accessibility is not only about people who are blind or deaf or in wheelchairs. People have all kinds of disabilities and some are invisible to others.”
Our industry has made progress, most notably with the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 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. The law has spurred changes and awareness across the industry.
However, since the ADA was passed, there has only been one book and a subsequent white paper that addressed the issue of accessibility specifically for event planning.
Think about it. Do hotels routinely tell potential groups how many rooms have roll-in showers with built-in benches or if their restaurant offers a Braille menu? Do convention centers publicize how many of their staff know American Sign Language? And let’s be honest — how many of these questions have crossed your mind before now?
Accessibility is not only about people who are blind or deaf or in wheelchairs. People have all kinds of disabilities and some are invisible to others. Others find themselves suddenly needing special accommodations. For example, an attendee who shatters his knee the week before a conference will need unexpected special accommodations.
Members of the Event Service Professionals Association have heard event planners bemoan the lack of information out there about accessibility. We want to help. Event planners need accessibility information early in the process. Having this information readily available will help with site selection and attendee communications.
But where do you find the time? After all, there’s a reason that ‘event planner’ lands in the top five of most stressful jobs year after year — site selections, contract negotiations, budgets, room blocks and the list of goes on and on.
This issue of meeting and event accessibility was so important to us at 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 destinations and venues can customize with their accessibility information and branding to provide to meeting planners.
The checklists are designed sequentially, from a guest’s arrival at a destination airport, to ground transportation, lodging, meeting venues and offsite venues. There also is a resource list that DMOs can customize with state and local agencies.
So much of accessibility is about awareness and asking the right questions. That’s why we involved people at the outset who are involved in not only events and event services, but also accessibility experts and those who face accessibility issues in their daily lives. In order to truly help our industry, we needed to know exactly what information we didn’t know — if that makes sense.
Denise Suttle, CMP, who served as ESPA president when we started working on Project Access in earnest, told me she felt compelled to bring the project to the forefront because she and her team at Visit Albuquerque saw a noticeable 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 renting large quantities of motorized scooters and wheelchairs.
“While ADA has always been important, it seemed like meeting planners were suddenly focused on it and bringing it up more, wanting to know about our city’s vendors and suppliers who could meet their needs,” Suttle said.
Denise decided that Project Access would be a perfect project for ESPA. After all, our organization is dedicated to elevating the event and convention services profession and to preparing members, through education and networking, for their pivotal role in innovative and successful event execution.
“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.”
Project Access was created with the input of ESPA members who work in convention and visitors bureaus, hotels and convention centers, along with contributions from meeting planners.
Most important, we made a decision not to limit this resource to our members. After all, if we’re trying to improve the industry for the benefit of meeting planners and event attendees, we need to share this information as widely as possible. Meeting planners and others may request a copy of the Project Access template by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Project Access is already making a difference. In addition to our own members, we have received more than 100 non-member requests for the toolkit to date. And one of our members at the Tampa Convention Center recently received a list of ADA questions from an event planner. She began to look through the questions, thought they seemed familiar and then realized…they were from ESPA’s Project Access.
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. But what we wanted to do 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 an industry-wide resource. Together we can make a positive change! C&IT