Ask any group tour operator about their business goals and “grow my market share” is probably at the top of most wish lists. If only there was a foolproof way to find more customers and convert them into loyal, longtime travelers. But, it turns out, there just might be. Operators have discovered a “secret sauce” that has been hiding in plain sight—by focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and accessible experiences.

You’ve probably been hearing the term “DEI” more frequently, but if you’re wondering how it plays out in your daily operations, consider these thoughts from Roni Weiss, executive director of Travel Unity, a 501(c)(3) focused on increasing diversity in the travel world through individual and community empowerment. “Anti-discrimination is simply the attitude of ‘We’re not turning you away,’” he explains. “DEI is about making a deliberate effort to be welcoming.”

Inclusion Matters

According to Weiss, many in the travel industry are focusing more on increasing DEI and accessibility efforts. “We’re seeing growing awareness in the tourism industry that paying attention to DEI is simply good customer service,” he says. “When you’re open to understanding where your customers are coming from, you can do more to assist with their specific needs.”

Companies that can, as he says, “understand and assist,” are poised to do well, because the need clearly exists with one in seven people around the world living with a disability. In the United States, 53 million Americans have disabilities.

When the travel industry doesn’t accommodate their needs, disabled individuals and their families often are forced to skip travel altogether. A recent survey by Autism Travel, an offshoot of The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Educational Standards (IBCCES), revealed that 87% of respondents who were parents of an autistic child never take vacations.

Even with those grim statistics, things are changing. “The number of initiatives that we learn of regularly is encouraging,” Weiss says. “More and more destinations, including Visit Greater Palm Springs and Visit Willamette Valley, are becoming Certified Autism Centers. Costa Rica has accessible beaches, Legoland New York has adult changing tables, and Tennessee has colorblind leaf peeping in the fall. Another great example is The Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association in British Columbia,” he adds. “They’re doing great work to build a bridge between the needs of travelers and helping the industry meet those needs with inclusive experiences.

Serving Diverse Populations

A clever understanding of what your customers expect and need just makes good business sense, says Jake Steinman, founder of TravelAbility, which works with the travel industry on becoming more accessible for people with disabilities. “Many group tour operators focus on either younger students or the elderly,” he notes. “For those dealing with an aging client base, there’s an important opportunity to help those prospects and customers with accessibility issues.”

His advice to tour operators: Don’t force your prospects to do detective work in order to understand how your tour will meet their needs. “Let people know how you can make accommodations for those with mobility, vision, or hearing issues, for example. Invite people with disabilities on some of your tours, and then capture still images and video to use as testimonials.”

Alex Stratikis, a 20-something autistic adult, is a travel writer, blogger, and photographer. He founded Autism Adventures Abroad to inspire and encourage autistic young people to travel. “We’re probably one of the largest under-represented sections of society in the travel, tourism, and hospitality sectors,” he says. But there’s good news, too. “I’ve seen a massive change in the industry, and more businesses and organizations are improving accessibility to provide an inclusive environment across the board.”

Getting Started

If you’re looking for a good first step, try conducting a DEI and accessibility audit of your own organization. “Change happens when you look inside and see where your own gaps are,” says Greg DeShields, executive director of Tourism Diversity Matters (TDM), a leading organization for DEI and a resource for the tourism industry. “You need a sense of exactly where you are, and then you need to make a long-term commitment to be more impactful,” he says.

The group tour operators who succeed will be those who act more strategically instead of just “checking the box,” DeShields says. “We’re living in an era of accountability, and people are paying attention. But those who put in the upfront work to be accessible and inclusive are poised to reap the benefits with hiring, and not just with customers. It can also help with hiring employees, especially in a field where the right staff can make all the difference,” he says. “Creating a more positive work environment for employees will allow you to attract top talent in a tight employment market.”

What’s Ahead For Accessible Travel

For many in the industry, these are still early days for creating accessible tours. Stratikis notes that air travel, for example, continues to lag behind other sectors. “It’s surprising how little they’ve moved forward in DEI and accessibility,’” he says. “It’s still at an unacceptable level across the board.” Perhaps the time is right for some positive moves forward. Delta Air Lines recently announced that it is developing a first-of-its-kind airline seat that allows wheelchair users to stay in their chairs while flying.

And, given growing demands from customers, more innovation might be on the way. “Only time will tell, but I expect things to continue progressing in a positive manner toward providing more inclusive and accessible travel environments and spaces for everyone in all areas of tourism,” he says, noting that advocacy, education, and implementation will be key considerations.

“People are seeking more authentic travel experiences, and that’s where a more inclusive operation can make a big difference,” DeShields says. “When you think about it, those of us in the tourism industry aren’t selling a perishable good or something the customer can hold and take home. We sell a memory, and those memories need to be as authentic and as welcoming as they can possibly be.”

Written by Julie Kendrick

Main Image Credit: Adobe/Virina Flora