Employee training caters to tour travelers with disabilities

A group in Juneau is doing what it can to make sure everyone gets a chance enjoy the natural beauty of Southeast Alaska.

Southeast Alaska Independent Living Inc., or SAIL, is offering training, equipment and other assistance to tour business owners hoping to make their shops or services more disability friendly with its Accessible Tourism Program.

“Whether a business wants to make a change to the layout of their gift shop to make it more user friendly for someone in a wheelchair, or if they want to train their staff on how to guide someone who’s blind on a hike, we’re happy to help,” SAIL’s Outdoor Recreation and Community Access Program Director Tristan Knutson-Lombardo said.

SAIL began the Accessible Tourism Program with two training sessions in early 2013. About a dozen businesses, museums and public facilities were represented at the first sessions, Knutson-Lombardo said.

This year, the number of training workshops has grown and each of the sessions focuses on a different sector of tourism customer service.

“We’ve kind of catered them to different industry niches,” he said.

In all, six training sessions for guides and outfitters; customer service and “front-line” staff; and lodging and dining businesses are scheduled for late April and early May. The training is geared towards helping individuals with mobility, vision and hearing impairments, Knutson-Lombardo said, but SAIL will do what it can to help anyone with a request.

 “We really want to continue to work with businesses to cater training to their needs — that’s when the training becomes the most successful,” he said.

Principally, the training is the “dos and don’ts” of working with customers with disabilities, but it comes down to simply meeting the needs of a customer with safety in mind, he said, something businesses try to do every day.

The training is part one of a three-pronged approach to making Southeast more accessible to tour consumers with disabilities. Knutson-Lombardo said SAIL also has a separate website for the accessibility program and an information line for visitors or those living in Southeast who want to get out and see the Inside Passage.

Third, SAIL can usually offer equipment ideas and planning for businesses hoping to expand their services to potential customers with disabilities, he said.

Answering a request from one proactive business several years ago helped jumpstart the larger program.

About 15 years ago Allen Marine Tours, which operates charter and tour boats out of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, decided to make its vessels more accessible, company vice president John Dunlap said.

Allen Marine builds its own vessels, and currently about three-quarters of its 25-vessel fleet is “as accessible as we can make them,” Dunlap said — nearly all of Allen Marine’s 100-plus passenger capacity vessels.

The tour boats have wider aisles and doorways and wheelchair accessible bathrooms.

“For many years we had been very dissatisfied with accessibility on passenger boats and we said, ‘Let’s do better; let’s build a better boat.’ There still is no (American’s with Disabilities Act) code as to how a passenger vessel should be built, so we were kind of on our own with that,” he said. “Kind of hand-in-hand with trying to build a better boat, we said, ‘Let’s try and have a better trained crew to handle folks with disabilities.’”

So, Allen Marine reached out so SAIL for assistance in developing service etiquette and proper techniques for serving a customer with a disability, and SAIL responded, he said.

Now, with the help of SAIL, Allen Marine trains about 150 of its shoreside and on-vessel customer service employees every spring on how to best serve customers with disabilities.

Dunlap said the employees learn safe practices on how to best assist a passenger boarding a vessel down a steep ramp to a dock and on the boat, for example.

Other common lessons are to sit at eye level when talking with someone in a wheelchair, ask questions about their preferences, and never assume.

“A lot of our crew are young folks and some of them have only had a couple job experiences — certainly not anything like this — it’s not all intuitive,” Dunlap said.

Once the training is complete every spring, Allen Marine operates a sightseeing tour at each of its three ports set up specifically for the consumers of SAIL, Dunlap said. SAIL sells tickets to Southeast residents and uses the tours as a fundraising opportunity while Allen Marine employees get a chance to put their fresh training to work, he said.

More than 100 people turn out for the tour in Juneau, he said, with slightly smaller groups in Sitka and Ketchikan.

“We’ve had a very good symbiotic relationship (with SAIL),” Dunlap said.

In addition to the modified vessels, he said Allen Marine keeps wheelchairs at all of its dock facilities to meet the needs of customers who might only need the assistance for a short time.

Knutson-Lombardo said increased requests from travelers with disabilities combined with the work with Allen Marine spawned the idea for the Accessible Tourism Program.

Knutson-Lombardo said he hopes to organize a directory of businesses this summer with their specific offerings and capabilities for disabled tour customers. Eventually, he plans on developing a smart phone app as well, something similar organizations in California and New York have done successfully to reach a larger audience.

Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Nancy Woizeschke said she is very excited about the program.

“SAIL does such great work; we’re hoping it will eventually spread to more ports in Southeast,” she said.

As far as he knows, Knutson-Lombardo said SAIL’s training program is unique in Alaska.

Because most of the funding for the program comes from passenger vessel fees in Juneau the program will stick to that city for now he said, but he reiterated that SAIL is eager to help anyone across the state improve their access or that of their customers.

Dunlap said he has been asked to speak about Allen Marine’s vessels and disability training at industry meetings across the country as word has gotten out about what they’re doing in Southeast Alaska.

He also said the cruise operators Allen Marine works with have become aware of the company’s ability to accommodate travelers with special needs and have started sending more business their way.

“Every year there are more people traveling with disabilities,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where doing the right thing and good business intersect.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/21/2016 - 11:01am