Hotelier Middle East's Josh Corder caught up with Steve Dering of Direct Access on the matter of accessible hotel rooms and tourism in the region.
Direct Access is an advisory company that provides training and event planning for establishments and organisations working to be more accommodating to people of determination. Direct Access also works closely with construction and architectural firms to improve accessible infrastructure.
As head of engagement, part of Dering's job is drafting proposals in accessibility, often following the new Dubai Universal Design Code.
What are the key components of an accessible hotel room in your mind?
What defines an accessible room will be different for people with different impairments. As a deaf person an accessible room will include television with captioned programmes and films, the option to WhatsApp message or video call reception rather than voice only calls, a flashing light/beacon doorbell for someone at the door and a combined flashing light/beacon with vibrating pad to go under the pillow for notification of an emergency or the alarm clock going off. A personal preference as an alternative to the alarm clock is having a television timer so the television comes on at a pre-set time.
As a professional access consultant the key components need to go further. The Dubai Universal Design Code sets out the height and space requirements of the bed and surrounding floor which is essential for people with limited mobility so that they can approach the bed and enter/exit as required. All controls must be within reach of the head of the bed. The bathroom facilities must be accessible to enable people to transfer from wheelchair to toilet and to a shower chair where provided. For someone with a visual impairment a logically laid out room is essential with colour contrasted furniture in the bathroom. Phones to reception should have large buttons.
What are some simple things hotels can do to make a better accessible room?
Offering WhatsApp messages as a solution to contacting reception is a simple solution that instantly makes a room accessible for a deaf person or someone who is non-verbal to be able to send text messages. It can also be useful for visually impaired people who will have their own phone that they are familiar with and which will have been set up with appropriate apps for large text/icons or text to speech software. Another measure is a fire card – this provides reassurance that assistance will be provided if required. One of the most important things however is to provide information – if your room is accessible you need to say so and how it is accessible in information about your hotel. That enables people to make an informed choice about the best place to stay that meets their requirements.
Is infrastructure the only aspect of an accessible room or are there other considerations?
Staff training is critical – from valet to reception to in-room service people need to understand how to engage with people of determination. It is simply about respect – treating the person as an individual and asking if you can assist. Do not make assumptions or do anything without asking in advance. Dubai Tourism operate Dubai Way which is an innovative online training programme for anyone working in the tourism industry. They have a video based course specifically on engaging people of determination.
What are some common mistakes you see in accessible rooms and what are some common things done right?
In the UAE rooms do not have English captions on television – this is more due to the broadcasters rather than the hotel itself. There are not many television channels in the UAE and captions are usually only in Arabic when English is spoken. What UAE is good at is that there is a willingness to help and assist – people are just not sure how.
Would you agree most hotels opt to ‘retrofit’ accessible rooms rather than create dedicated, integrated rooms?
Yes. This is however due to the new nature of the Dubai Universal Design Code which only came out in 2017. Any new build designed after 2017 must comply. Any prior to 2017 only when being refurbished must they look at retrofitting. As time progresses and we see newer hotels come online they should have been designed with the Code incorporated.
Is it always a costly process for hotels to create a suitable accessible room?
No not at all. Physical aspects if done during the construction stage should not be a difference in cost. Retrofitting if done as part of a refurbishment would be similar. It is the ancillary aids which can be the quickest way to make a room accessible that may have a more direct cost. Even then the cost is minimal for the return involved. It is possible to get standalone fire alarms, clocks and equipment that does not require connecting to existing systems.
Do you consider people of determination in the region to be more loyal to hotels than other customers?
Not just the region but the world – if a room is accessible this becomes a great experience so of course people will want to go back. Before I moved to Dubai permanently I would stay at the Sheraton Grand on SZR and return each month due to the level of service.