Becoming sensory friendly during COVID-19


How investing in accessibility now can pay off in the long run

This is an unprecedented time in global history. The market for travel reached an all-time low, and the future feels incredibly uncertain. But this pandemic has also proven to be the perfect opportunity to reflect and re-learn how to care for our communities, and how to connect with one another when things are difficult and stressful.
Serving and caring for guests is the heart of the hospitality industry. Though business is likely slow right now, this could be the perfect time for you to rethink your approach to how you attract and serve your guests.
By investing in the ability to serve a greater number of guests, use this time to learn how to tap into a brand new market, helping you rebound faster as the appetite for travel gets stronger.
One in every six Americans is affected by a sensory disorder. And sensory sensitivity can be an aspect of other common disabilities as well: Sensory Processing Disorder, autism, dementia, PTSD, ADHD, and more can all have sensory components.
According to Open Doors Organization (ODO), a non-profit dedicated to accessible tourism and travel, the accessible travel market is growing by 22 percent per year, every year.
In 2015, ODO estimates people with disabilities spent $17.3 billion on nearly 37 million trips for business and leisure. Additionally, because disabled people usually travel with families, companions, or partners, the real economic impact is even higher.
In the same study, ODO reports 76 percent of disabled travelers stay in hotels during at least one of their yearly trips, despite nearly half of them experiencing difficulties staying at hotels.
ODO does not break their statistics down based on the type of disability the participants experience. But, it’s safe to assume that a number of these people deal with sensory sensitivity.
That number doesn’t even count adults and families who don’t travel due to sensory issues.
A Family Travel Association and IBCCES study showed that 87 percent of families with one or more autistic children don’t take family vacations at all due to lack of accommodation, and 89 percent of families with autism are not satisfied with current autism-friendly travel options.
However, 93 percent of parents surveyed responded they would be more inclined to travel if autism-certified options were available.
Based on these numbers, Boston-based non-profit Sensory City estimates the potential revenue from tapping into these markets could start at $4 billion.
Once you’ve done the hard work of shifting your expectations and approach toward serving disabled travelers, then it’s time to look at physical accommodations that can help set you apart from your competitors, too.
For example, Sensory City offers virtual “sensory suite” consultations for building sensory-friendly spaces. The custom consultation covers lighting, sound, and furniture choices, along with other central considerations when building a sensory-friendly calming room. (Check out the Calming Room that Kalahari Resorts & Conventions just installed, for instance.)
You could consider introducing sensory-friendly items like weighted blankets, earplugs, fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones or white noise machines, or carrying a selection of snacks free of common allergens and restrictions like dairy, gluten, soy, and sugar.
This is a difficult and strange time for everyone, but you can still make the best of it. Revisit your business’s mission and reflect on how you can take this time to do things differently and more inclusive. Investing now in strategies to better care for underserved guests means setting yourself up for a quicker recovery and setting yourself apart from your competition. ?
Audrey Coble is the content strategist for Sensory City, a Boston-based nonprofit with a mission to promote accessibility in the hospitality industry and beyond. Audrey has worked in hospitality since 2016 and graduated from CUNY in 2019 with a M.A. in Disability Studies.
An Exclusive Opportunity for AAHOA Members
AAHOA, in partnership with Sensory City, is offering AAHOA Members who are interested in Sensory Awareness Training an exclusive 20-percent discount to earn their certification. The training teaches hoteliers and their staff how to best accommodate those with invisible disabilities, how to increase awareness with respect to sensory processing disorders, and how to reduce stigma and judgment — yielding a less stressful and more comfortable experience for all. Use the code AAHOA20 at checkout to claim this discount. Learn more at
Here’s what you can work on as we head toward recovery to better your chances of coming back even stronger than before.

Update your employee handbook: Build your commitment to accessibility right into the employee conduct guidelines of your business. Consider adding a section in your handbook that describes how to approach assisting guests with invisible disabilities. For example, you might create a “call list” of staff members who are familiar with de-escalation strategies for sensory meltdowns, encourage front desk staff to offer/use simple communication boards with nonverbal guests, or prompt staff to offer extra blankets, sheets, and towels to families traveling with sensory-sensitive children.

Participate in a staff training: You might not have a complete staff right now, but your core team could still benefit from taking an industry-specific staff training. Sensory City, for example, offers a 100-percent virtual online training to help staff learn what challenging sensory issues look like, how best to communicate with people who have invisible disabilities, and de-escalation strategies for sensory meltdowns. Your team members may appreciate the professional development opportunity (and the distraction from COVID-19). Once you have the capacity to re-hire again, you’ll have a trusted team to lead the way to an improved experience for disabled guests.

Create a sign or a notice letting guests know what amenities you offer: Granted, this one can’t take place until you’ve got your accommodations in order. But, once you’re confident you can provide accommodations for travelers with sensory issues, let people know! Publicizing all the ways you’ve worked hard to make your business sensory friendly is the only way that guests will learn about what you can offer and decide to stay with you. You might even consider adding an “accessibility” page to your website that lets guests know what sets your location apart from your competitors’.


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