Best Group Booking Sales Effort
Debra Kerper – Owner
Easy Access Travel
Please describe your group booking sales effort.
A friend of mine is the mother of a 19 y.o. daughter with Spina Bifida and she had a dream…to take a group of young adults with Spina Bifida on a cruise so they could experience travel like their able-bodied peers. She asked me what I thought and my immediate response was, “Let’s do it!”. We thought we would get support from the National Spina Bifida Association but, to our dismay, did not. However, some of the local chapters were willing to post information about the cruise on their websites. So, between the two of us we began work on this in February, 2012. I chose Royal Caribbean due to their commitment and reputation of working with people with special needs. We then chose Independence of The Seas as the perfect ship for these young adults to experience their independence and explore the world of cruising and travel. Marketing was done through both of our websites and monthly newsletters, involvement in disability related organizations and participation at Abilities Expos across the nation. Social Media played a huge role in getting people to sign up and I realized that I better check my FB messages regularly as this is how so many of these young people communicate so we started an event page for the cruise as well. Spina Bifida effects everyone a little differently so I personally spoke with each and every person who signed up, took down all pertinent information including type of mobility equipment used, weight and dimensions of wheelchairs, allergies, etc. On January 7, 2013 we set sail on Independence of The Seas with 58 very excited cruisers.
What kind of challenges did your agency overcome?
The first challenge we faced was finding the right ship and itinerary with enough wheelchair accessible cabins for our proposed group. Our goal was 50 participants. We then had to convince Royal Caribbean to hold those cabins for us while we marketed the cruise. The next biggest challenge was our cruisers….not only had the majority never cruised before, they had never traveled before and most of them had never ventured out without a parent. Due to the nature of Spina Bifida, many of our young adults also dealt with learning disabilities as a result of multiple brain surgeries and mild to severe anxiety when faced with unfamiliar tasks and surroundings. In addition to myself and my group leader, we had a social worker from Children’s Hospital in Chicago come along with us and we had several parents as well. We encouraged the parents to do their “own thing” so that their kids could experience the cruise as independently as possible. Our social worker who was a “transition specialist” did “meet-ups” all over the ship day and night and covered all kinds of topics with our young adults from dating and sex to the latest fashion designs. The third major challenge was getting wheelchair accessible shore excursions including transportation. By working very closely with Shorex Access, we developed custom shore excursions which would still be under the auspices of RCCL but would be for our guests only. We transported 24 guests in wheelchairs in lift equipped vehicles from Falmouth, Jamaica to Dolphin’s Cove near Dunns River where we all swam with the dolphins with the expert assistance of the staff. They pushed wheelchairs, lifted people in and out of the water and made many dreams come true for our cruisers. We also had several lift equipped buses for our day in Grand Cayman where we had a wonderful tour of the Turtle Farm, sampled rum cake and rum and took a trip to Hell and back! The staff in Labadee was amazing and pushed wheelchairs in the sand, carried passengers into the surf and set aside accessible tables in the dining area for us. We definitely overcame any challenges and/or obstacles to achieve a fantastic cruise.
Why do you consider the group booking sales effort a success?
I will let our cruise participants tell you why this group was a success: Jessica (Alex’s mom): “Just want to thank you for the most amazing time! I know you did a lot of work on this cruise and we appreciate it. We did not have one single problem, everyone was so nice, helpful, and the accessibility was amazing. Alex was able to do anything he wanted to without barriers and what an amazing accessible experience he had! Words cannot describe what a wonderful week it has been for him and I. Thank you. Samantha G: “After much reflection it has finally sunk in. I had the most amazing time on the cruise and gained dozens of new friends. I feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to enjoy paradise with friends old and new while bonding over Spina Bifida and beyond. When are we going on the next one? Sarah M: I would like to thank Debra of Easy Access Travel for organizing one of the most fantastic, life-changing trips of my life. I could not have imagined a more flawless, fun & exciting adventure filled with friends both new & old. I am forever grateful! Holly W: I want to give a HUGE shout out to Michell, Debra & Rebecca for putting together the most amazing experience for so many people. I think it’s safe to say that everyone tried something new, stepped a little outside their comfort zone, and made new friends and countless memories. I am so glad that I went on this cruise and cannot wait for the next one! I love you guys!!!! Maria B: Thank you for what you have done! Your passion and commitment to creating this beautiful experience for so many shines through… and we are all truly grateful… thank you, thank you, thank you… And it goes on… However, the true mark of success I believe is that we returned home on Jan. 13 and there was so much exchanging of pictures and comments on Facebook that we were convinced to set up the next cruise. We did and I am happy to report that within three weeks of our return, we had 66 people signed up and fully deposited! Now, that’s a testimonial! We have many repeat cruisers and many new ones as well who will be sailing with us March 23, 2014 on RCCL’s Freedom of The Seas. We learned how to cruise independently on the Independence and now they will enjoy their new found “freedom” to enjoy cruising on the Freedom.
Is there anything else about your group booking sales effort that you would like our editorial staff to know?
Working with this group was truly a one of a kind experience. Being disabled since birth, this group was so unassuming and so happy with everything you did for them. They were very appreciative, kind and polite. The crew and staff on the ship treated them wonderfully and we had no negative incidents from anyone. Being given the opportunity to do the groups I do is truly a blessing and a gift.