Friday, 20 January 2012

Review & Familiarisation Tours

As a wheelchair user, I love travel, and working for Tourism for All UK (TFA) is my dream job.

As I have a disability and a fondness for travel, I have empathy with others who may have experienced difficulty in finding suitable facilities and services.
I undertake review and familiarisation tours, which have previously included Scotland and Blackpool.  This usually involves staying at one or two accessible hotels, and visiting a number of attractions, places of interest and restaurants.  If at all possible I try to use public transport, or local accessible transport operators.
My favourite mode of accessible transport is the Metrolink tram in Manchester.  The first time I used it I was unsure what to expect, but their website had promised full accessibility. I was certainly not disappointed! The tram was completely level with the platform, with no gap at all, and inside there was a wheelchair space, similar to the ones provided on buses.  It was so refreshing to be able to get on the same way as everyone else, without waiting for a ramp or a member of staff to push me on.
I am able then to give feedback to the tourism authority and the venues, and generate publicity for the destination.  Sometimes this means encouraging venues to make improvements, or perhaps shouting about somewhere that is doing access particularly well that may have gone under the radar. 
Staff attitude and awareness can make a huge difference to how an attraction is enjoyed by a disabled person.  When I visited Sandcastle WaterPark in Blackpool, I was met by the Water Ambassadors on arrival. These are qualified lifeguards who have close contact with guests in the water, and they are trained to assist disabled guests. The first thing I noticed was the heat – it really is tropical!  Sandcastle is very spacious throughout, and there is huge importance placed on staff training. The staff are bubbly, fun and enthusiastic, and nothing is too much trouble. They offer out of hours sessions for groups that will benefit, such as autistic children or those with a visual impairment, and recognise that building confidence is a huge factor to disabled people enjoying the attraction. Sadly, I didn’t have time for a swim, but hope to return soon!
After the tour has taken place, I write articles for Tourism for All's new magazine Open Britain, and this blog . My articles receive good feedback from Tourism for All's individual members, who say that they give them the confidence to visit new places.  I think that half of the battle travelling as a disabled person is obtaining the correct information before you go!
Judith Sleigh, of Tourism Scotland, organised some of these information tours:
"On behalf of VisitScotland, I organised three information tours for Carrie-Ann to Edinburgh and Glasgow, to Stirling and to Dundee. The aim was to have Carrie-Ann become familiar with the cities and to have publicity in the TFA newsletter and on their website. We were really happy with the outcome and also appreciated the very useful feedback she gave the hotels and the visitor attractions - as did they."
A short extract from my Edinburgh article is as follows:
"We were staying at the Express by Holiday Inn Edinburgh City Centre. The room was very comfortable; we were impressed with the use they had made of a relatively small space, especially the ‘wet room' style bathroom. The accessible entrance wasn't the best, down a cobbled lane (which I certainly wouldn't have wanted to use on my own at night) but as it's a listed building I guess this is the only solution.
The hotel had arranged a dinner reservation for us at Howies restaurant, which is set within a 200-year-old gorgeous Georgian building and serves excellent local produce at an affordable price. The restaurant is spacious and airy, with plenty of space to manoeuvre a wheelchair, and great food.
After a light breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we headed off to Edinburgh Castle. This was the highlight of our trip. The staff are probably the most helpful that I have encountered. Although the abundance of cobbles makes things uncomfortable, it's worth it. I was told that they are re-pointing all of the cobbled areas to make them more accessible - what a huge job! We were really impressed with the accessible picnic benches outside the cafe. These had half of the bench missing, enabling me to wheel up to the table..."
I have recently lined up my next tour, to Corfe Castle in Dorset.  This is a part of the country that I’ve never visited, so I’m really looking forward to seeing something new.
If you are interested in having Carrie-Ann visit and review your destination, please call 0303 303 0146 or email info@tourismforall.org.uk.

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