Can a hotel really be boutique if it fails to anticipate the needs of up to a fifth of the UK population? Properties with inadequate disabled access and facilities are alienating potential guests while those that are well equipped often fail to communicate the fact, says Fiona Jarvis
Many boutique hotels sell themselves on their ability to go above and beyond the requirements of their valued guests, but only those who are able bodied it would appear. Blue Badge Style founder Fiona Jarvis says inadequate facilities are commonplace and she is tired of the excuses.
Go-getter and globetrotter Jarvis first realised she had multiple sclerosis (MS) 20 years ago, but was determined not to let her progressive disability get in the way of her love of travel. After years of struggling to find hotels that could cater to her needs, in 2007, she set up Blue Badge Style — a website dedicated to the discerning, less-able traveller.
The site’s team reviews hotels and gives them a rating out of three based on style, accessibility and facilities. It also produces pictorials designed to help hotels more clearly communicate access and facilities to potential guests via their websites.
The guest experience
Jarvis says most disabled and less-able people gather information about hotels online, but many boutique hotels fail to say what they do and do not offer for these people on their websites.
“You can’t just book online like everyone else. You have to do a lot of questioning on the telephone, you can end up speaking to four different people and even then you can’t rely on what they say. You take a chance and go to the hotel and find problems using the bathrooms, accessing the restaurant and so on,” she says.
“Often friends or family will book on behalf of you, they’ll ask all the right questions and you go there and find an obstacle and feel terrible. We’re just asking to be treated like customers. If you do cater to disabled people, tell us on the website. Show us pictures of the disabled rooms and make a return on your investment.”
However, often hotels that are deemed accessible by their owner or operator prove otherwise upon arrival.
“Hotels will say there’s a disabled bathroom if there’s a bath with a grab rail. Even if you are staying there with a carer, trying to lift someone’s legs over a bath is impossible. It’s a basic human requirement to have a wash in the morning. The ultimate solution would be a walk-in or wheel-in wet room,” says Jarvis.
“A lot of it is common sense,” she adds. “But it does take someone who is disabled to really see the issue”.
The problem could be something as small as a pedal bin in a disabled lavatory, causing embarrassment for the person unable to operate it and showing a lack of thought on the hotel’s part.
“Very often boutique hotels will put rugs down. They’ll trip an able-bodied person up; it’s especially a hazard if you’re walking with sticks. And you can imagine how difficult it is trying to wheel over a thick rug,” she continues.
While Jarvis acknowledges that it is not always viable for B&Bs and guesthouses to invest in these facilities, she says they often do. Meanwhile, excuses from the bigger boutique and lifestyle hotels vary wildly, but one of the most common ones encountered by Jarvis is that “the hotel building is listed”, and therefore they say they are “unable” to make the alterations.
“They’ll say ‘we’ve got steps so we can’t accept anyone who’s disabled’ and they ‘can’t build a ramp because it’s listed’. You can buy a portable ramp and put that down,” asserts Jarvis.
“Some say they can’t even put a disabled loo in, yet they’ve put them in Hampton Court Palace so they can put them anywhere — it is a question of money. If they have to choose, why not just put disabled toilets in over ordinary facilities? Everyone can use those.
“I usually tell these properties that being Grade II listed really doesn’t stop you from putting in disabled facilities, it’s money that stops you putting them in,” she adds.
Opting out of investing in disabled access and facilities could be a false economy, says Jarvis.
“Because of the better survival rates at birth there are a lot more people under 45 who are disabled. Then there’s things like the advent of extreme sports and the number of wars we’ve been involved in that have led to a younger group of disabled people who are employed and have disposable income.
“Then there is my era — the baby boomers — heading towards retirement, they’ve invested well and want to enjoy life,” she explains.
“Up to 19% of the population is disabled, that doesn’t include their friends, family and carers. One in three people in the UK know someone who’s disabled and few disabled people go to hotels alone. It’s a huge amount of the market to exclude.
“Thousands of disabled or less-able people want to maintain their lifestyle and not everyone wants to stay in a Holiday Inn or a big chain. These people have a lot of money to spend and they want to go out and have a good time just as anyone else does, but they want to avoid meeting unforeseen obstacles and being embarrassed everywhere they go,” continues Jarvis.
She says events such as the Paralympics have helped to raise awareness of the issue, but there’s still a long way to go.