Tapping into growing travel market

Columbia man operates an agency to serve people with disabilities

April 03, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

It was a drizzly afternoon in London nearly a decade ago when a salesman on a business trip was headed to a lunch meeting. But as he neared the curb to cross over to the restaurant, he hit a snag.

"I could see the sign, but I couldn't cross the street because I couldn't get off the sidewalk," recalled the salesman, Tim Daly, who was in a wheelchair and stuck on a sidewalk without inclines.

Daly, 54, has Fredreich's Ataxia, a muscular disorder that affects his coordination and nervous system, and he knows all too well how frustrating travel can be for the disabled. So when it was time to leave his sales job, Daly tapped into a growing market: He opened a travel agency that caters to disabled travelers.

"This isn't niche, this is mass market," said Paul Alterman, a director at the Society for the Advancement of Travelers with Handicaps (SATH).

In 1995, about 54 million Americans were classified as disabled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those 54 million, about 39 million travel or are potential travelers, said Laurel Van Horn, executive director of SATH.

"You have to figure that these people are not traveling alone," she added. "They're traveling with friends and family. So at a minimum you can double that 39 million."

Daly focuses the marketing for his business, Access Travel, on group trips, because booking a trip for one and a trip for 40 are equally time-consuming. From the office in his Columbia home, Daly often books fund-raising trips for organizations such as the American Parkinson's Disease Association and the National Ataxia Foundation.

"I can do a lot more good with a group than with an individual," he said.

For years, Daly had been speaking to groups such as the Ataxia foundation about living and working with a disability.

But in 1994, his life changed radically.

Daly had a heart attack, and his doctor told him to find a lifestyle more stationary than that of a traveling salesman. Unable to find a job locally, Daly began taking college courses and learned during a travel industry class about the need for agents with a keen perspective on travel for the disabled.

In 1998, Daly opened his agency with the help of the Small Business Development Center in Howard County and a $16,500 state grant that helps disabled people establish and expand businesses.

Now, he has more than 400 clients from the Columbia home where he lives with his wife and one of his four children and stepchildren. His garage has been converted to an office and is decorated with travel posters, awards and a world map.

Despite his desire to book more group trips, about 85 percent of Daly's clients are individuals. He books trips only for disabled and elderly individuals. He still travels and gives motivational speeches, only now his talks are about disabled entrepreneurs and travelers.

"A lot of people in the past thought just because people are disabled they can't do things," he said. "And they can."

To encourage more people like Daly to venture into the travel industry, SATH is initiating a pilot program in Florida to train people with disabilities for jobs such as travel agents, administrators and managers in the business, Alterman said. The society is also starting a program that will certify travel agents and tour companies to correctly serve disabled travelers.

"It's a huge and growing market," said Van Horn.

There are two reasons behind the increasing demand, she said. First, many travelers are taking trips after retirement, when they are more likely to have a disability. Second, more disabled people are working because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990 to prohibit employers from discriminating against people with disabilities. Thus, those workers now have more money to spend on travel, Van Horn said.

The American Society of Travel Agents, which has about 10,000 members, has cataloged 62 agencies that list disabled travelers as one of the areas in which they specialize.

More evidence of the market for disabled travel can be found in the cruise industry.

In November, Royal Caribbean International added to its fleet Voyager of the Seas, equipped with 26 cabins for the disabled and a pool lift that allows disabled swimmers to slip onto a mechanical chair that gently lowers them into a pool, said Charles Newton, cruise access coordinator for Royal Caribbean.

The company, which runs cruises to Bermuda, the Caribbean and Mexican Riviera, had 16,500 disabled guests in 1998, Newton said. In 1999, that number jumped to 22,550.

"There was more of a demand out there," he said. "We have more and more requests that are coming through this office."

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