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Jan 30, 2003
The SATH 7th World Congress and Trade Show for Travelers with Disabilities & the Mature, held January 15-19, 2003 at the Hilton Miami Airport was the setting for almost 300 travel professionals who gathered to learn about the latest information about this important growing market. SATH, Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, founded in 1976, is an educational non profit membership organization whose mission is to educate the tourism industry on how to meet the needs of travelers with disabilities, as well as act as a clearinghouse for consumers who need and want information.

The World Congress was attended by many veteran travel agents, tour operators and suppliers as well as many newcomers. Each year brings more awareness of this “niche” market of 54-60 million Americans, not counting the “mature.” Destinations, cruise lines, attractions, hotels, and airlines are responding to meet the special needs of travelers with hearing, vision, mobility, cognitive, and hidden impairments.

One of the highlights of this 7th World Congress was the results of a survey conducted in the fall by Harris Interactive for Open Doors Organization, in conjunction with SATH and the TIA, examining the spending trends and market scope of U.S. resident travelers with disabilities. The major findings indicated that people with disabilities could spend at least $27 billion a year on airlines and hotels alone if certain needs were met. The top requests were a “meet and greet” at airports and preferred seating for airlines, while lodging issues included rooms close to amenities and staff who go out of their way to accommodate guests with disabilities. People with disabilities spent $13.6 billion on 31.7 million air trips and hotel stays in the past year, and respondents indicated they would double their travels if their needs were better met. These numbers indicate a powerful opportunity for just these segments of the travel and tourism industry.

Among other major announcements was the development of an ICTA educational module on Traveling with Disabilities, authored by SATH World Congress Director of Education, Roberta Schwartz, CTC, MCC, and the upcoming launch of a new interactive web site for SATH.

Each year SATH presents awards to those who have made an impact on making travel more accessible. Recipient of SATH’s highest honor, the Access to Freedom Award, was Pat Gray, Manager of Travel Industry Relations for American Express for her continuing support of SATH and the disability community. Also receiving an award was FAR&WIDE for its innovative technology in offering LOUD&CLEAR, a hearing aid compatible device enabling all guests on escorted tours to easily hear the tour guide. The SATH Media Award was presented to Joel Abels, Editor and Publisher of Travel Trade, for a lifetime of outstanding achievement in reporting travel news and issues, and for his unwavering support of the travel agency community and travelers with disabilities.

This year the Congress offered several pre-conference workshops sponsored by CLIA, ICTA and ARC, offering CLIA credits and ICTA CEUs to those attending. The Congress opening session was highlighted with a keynote address by Bob Sharak, Executive Director of CLIA, who discussed the growth of the cruise industry and its responsiveness to meeting special needs, including ways that travel agents can serve this market. This was followed by the Cruise Panel where special needs managers from Carnival, Holland America and Royal Caribbean discussed current and new accessibility features the lines were providing, including a wheelchair transfer for tenders. Older ships are being retrofitted and new ships are already designed with access enhancements. Cruise lines are reporting great increases in the number of guests with disabilities, especially in group travel, where often only one group member has a disability.

Peter Greenberg, Travel Editor of NBC’s Today Show was also a keynote presenter. Greenberg focused on the progress which has been made in meeting the needs of disabled travelers, but also how many times their needs are not met. He also stressed that travel agents need to be “counselors” to this market in particular, to provide something the traveler cannot get elsewhere. He praised those companies that are making great strides in being accessible and wondered why more businesses weren’t creating “universal design” where accessibility is available to all.

For the first time, SATH presented an Attractions Panel, featuring Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, Miami’s Parrot Jungle Island and the Seminole Casinos of Florida, where panelists offered the many ways guests with disabilities could enjoy their experiences at the attractions.

Airline executives participated in a lively panel where each discussed important issues facing disabled travelers and how the airlines are responding, including rules for service animals, accommodations for the hearing impaired and the growing market for oxygen users. Lifts and ramps for passengers using wheelchairs when boarding from the tarmac were viewed, as well as discussing issues regarding service contractors and employees.

Other panels included Destinations America, where representatives from Canada, Toronto, San Diego and Miami discussed accessibility issues, and Making $$, focusing on how travel agents and others can make money by providing services for travelers with disabilities through technology, and selling value-added services including various types of insurance and baggage shipping. The Hotel Panel examined current issues facing guests and the changes being made.

A highlight of the Congress each year is a trip off-site. This year delegates attended a workshop on inspecting cruise ships, then boarded accessible motorcoaches and vans and were transported to the nearby Port of Miami for a tour of the Carnival Triumph, which had recently undergone a retrofitting to upgrade its accessibility. After a thorough tour and delightful lunch, the consensus was an impressive respect for Carnival’s role in moving to become more responsive to the needs of guests with disabilities. The Carnival Triumph recently hosted a cruise with 70 blind guests and 20 service dogs, and the agency has booked that group again next year.

An impressive Trade Show featured a wide variety of vendors who reported great interest in their offerings ranging from cruise lines, resorts, attractions and destinations to wheelchair, scooter and medical equipment rentals, and to accessible tours of Alaska. Additional workshops provided attendees with the “10 Commandments of Disability Etiquette,” how to market on the internet, an introduction to wholesalers who can provide trips for agency clients, and how to inspect a cruise ship for accessibility.

Comments from attendees were full of praise. “We came home empowered to work!” stated Linda Marshall, CTC of Group Travel. First timer Dawn Easton said “What a wonderful conference, wonderful people, I really desire to serve, support and develop further with SATH.” Anna Fesmire, CTC who led the ICTA workshop said “Thanks for allowing us to be part of SATH. I enjoyed meeting everyone and learning so much about this very significant market.” Another first timer, Jackie Hull of Outta Sight Travel in Port St. Lucie, Florida commented that “we met some fantastic people and learned many interesting things…I have been to many conventions and trade shows but never have I come across so many caring and compassionate professionals at the same place and time.”

The 8th SATH World Congress will be held January 14-18, 2004 once again at the Hilton Miami Airport and registrations are already coming in.