by Fran Golden, October 31, 2013
Part 3 in a series on cruises for passengers with disabilities.
With the right knowledge, cruise agents can develop a successful business working with travelers with disabilities, according to Debra Kerper of Easy Access Travel/Cruise Planners near Dallas.
She should know. Kerper, herself an amputee (she lost a leg at age 29), is a home-based agent with a mission. She is the official travel person for the Amputee Coalition and has lectured around the country letting people know that yes, you can cruise.
“I speak to consumers on how to travel with special needs. I love the education process. People come in apprehensive and skeptical and when they leave they are like, ‘Where can we go?’” she said.
Kerper has visited 30 countries and taken more than 80 cruises. She sometimes uses a wheelchair or scooter to get around.
Among the lessons she has learned is not all ships are the same in terms of accessibility. “I won’t send a person with disabilities on some lines,” she said frankly.
Still, the industry in general has made great strides in accessibility, she said.
Kerper works with up to 200 clients per year, including organizing group trips for travelers with special needs.
Last year she hosted 112 people in one group. In December, she has 48 amputees going on a cruise on the Navigator of the Seas. She also has reserved 42 accessible cabins on Oasis of the Seas for a January 2015 cruise for young adults with disabilities.
While working with clients with disabilities can be rewarding, agents need to realize that dealing with these clients can be time-intensive and requires a hands-on approach, Kerper said.
“You must be honest and not take on a client that you are not comfortable dealing with. It is extremely important to respect their time, money and memories, when putting together a trip for them,” she said.
She gives clients the facts, but operates on the premise there is a cruise for everyone. “I have a client who is vision- and mobility-impaired, and she is going on cruise,” Kerper said.
Kerper sees a growing need for agents to become adept at serving clients who have disabilities. “Special needs used to be considered a niche, but now it has become mainstream,” she said.
The aging population is one reason agents should become comfortable catering to clients with disabilities.
Another reason is the popularity of multigenerational family travel, she said.
“If a family or group of 10 people want to travel and grandma’s special need isn’t met, guess what? You lost the group.” Plus, she said, “ Grandma is usually the one paying for everyone. “
Before booking cruises for someone with a disability, agents need to do some research, she said.
“Travel agents have to educate themselves on cruise lines. See what accessible rooms are like. Does the cruise line have an access department? Is the shore excursion department able to help people at port?
“The agent needs to understand itinerary and really understand the ports of call,” she advised.
Equipment & assistance
For clients who need equipment, agents can arrange for a wheelchair or scooter or other equipment to be delivered to the cruise ship cabin via companies such as Special Needs at Sea and even get commissioned, Kerper said.
When asking the cruise line to provide assistance for a client onboard, follow-through is crucial, she said.
“The travel agent can email the line and get information, such as whether a table in the dining room is near the entrance [making it more accessible to someone in a wheelchair], but the agent needs to follow through.”
Spreading the word
Kerper markets her agency through her website and via a monthly newsletter. She also writes articles for specialty magazines, blogs and speaks around the country.
“Traveling always has the potential of being a frustrating, stressful situation as it encompasses many variables and unknowns. Add to this mix traveling with a disability and it can appear to be somewhat daunting,” Kerper writes in one post.
“I am here to tell you that this need not be the case and to let you know that there are many ways to maximize the joy of your travel experience while minimizing the angst.”