‘Accessible and Inclusive’ more than buzzwords at this conference

A panel session at AITCAP 2023.

The Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Conference (AITCAP) held its inaugural in person event on the Gold Coast in May at Sea World Resort’s Conference Centre. CIM spoke with Julia Svaganovic, Accessible & Inclusive Tourism Conference in the Asia-Pacific’s Coordinator for GetAboutAble, about how the conference encouraged its delegates to start thinking of people with disabilities as assets to their business or organisation. 

What sparked AITCAP? The Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Conference in the Asia-Pacific was created by GetAboutAble to create awareness of the size of the accessible tourism market, for travel and leisure businesses, destinations, as well as local, federal and regional governments and tourism bodies.

Imagine if you didn’t know where to get ideas for accessible places to go, things to see or things to do. Imagine if you couldn’t find accurate venue information online or by phone. Imagine that you or one of your travelling companions couldn’t use the shower at a hotel, or the toilet at a restaurant.

Unfortunately, these are just many of the problems faced by people with a disability almost every time they want to go somewhere they are not familiar with. One in five of the population has a disability and they want to get out and about with their families and friends, but often the barriers can be too difficult and they end up staying at home to avoid the frustration.

Accessibility and inclusion are popular buzzwords – but what does it actually mean in practice? The Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Conference in the Asia-Pacific, and all the work done by GetAboutAble for the past eight years, is possible because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants who started advocating for accessibility and inclusivity in tourism and events decades ago. It might look like a buzzword now but this is the result of years of work to have the voice of the community heard.

There are many definitions of “accessibility” and “inclusion” but essentially, it boils down to making sure that everybody can participate and engage in tourism, events and travel activities. That is as much about infrastructure accessibility as it is about inclusive customer service.

At an event, for example, for one person, accessibility might mean a ramp to access the stage; for another, it might be a quiet room; for a third one, it might be audio loops; for a fourth one, it might be better colour-contrast on your website to be able to read your event’s program. So, from an organiser’s point of view, it all starts with asking what people need and committing to cater for those needs.

What is certain is that investing in access and inclusion will greatly benefit your organisation, it’s not only the right thing to do for the community, it’s the best thing to do for your business. A study by Accenture demonstrated that organisations that prioritise people with disabilities get a 28% increase in revenue.

Do organisers need to think differently about their events and where do they begin? Accessibility and inclusion should be viewed from the perspective of customer service, it’s simply another aspect of what is at the core of the tourism and event industry. In the same way that the industry has learned to cater to all dietary requirements, it needs to learn to cater to a diverse range of access requirements, getting to a point where it’s not an option anymore but part of the standard offering.

So start with three simple steps. Include a question in your registration form asking if they have any access requirements. Budget for accessibility from the start of the project and commit to doing the best you can to cater to access needs. Share information well in advance and in detail about what features contribute to the accessibility and inclusivity of your event, and make sure someone is available to answer additional questions.

What elements did you put into practice for your conference? The Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Conference has been running as a virtual event for two years and for the first time as a hybrid event this year. GetAboutAble has a strong expertise on access and inclusion but we also learned much in the process and we adjusted to what our audience required. The key factor is that we integrated accessibility to every step of the visitor experience, from our ticketing platform to the event itself and the recordings afterwards.

This year, we offered a wide range of accessibility features including Auslan interpretation, live-captioning for in-person talks and subtitles for recordings, stage ramps, quiet room, multiple formats for our program and documentation (including simplified English), a hoist and accessible and gender-neutral bathrooms.

Throughout the organising of the Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Conference, accessibility was always a deciding factor. We worked closely with a local accessible travel specialist, Amplify Travel to provide us with local knowledge and work on site inspections. For instance, we chose our venue – Sea World Resort Conference Centre – because it was step free, offered more wheelchair-accessible accommodations than other options on the Gold Coast and offered an adequate setting for the other accessibility features we wanted to include. 

Why did you choose the Gold Coast? AITCAP 2023 benefited from an amazing partnership with our host destination, the City of Gold Coast. The City has been working hard to become a destination that welcomes everyone and they are conscious of the benefits it has on both their community and their economy. We’ve had multiple opportunities to celebrate their achievements this year, including with side events during the Conference and as part of our webinar series “AITCAP Conversation” with an episode dedicated to showcasing accessible destinations on the Gold Coast – such as iFLY, Adventures 2 Access or the Gold Coast Performance Centre.

As Mayor Tom Tate said in the partnership announcement “As a city and as a region, we want to ensure the memories and experiences people have of the coast are enriching. At the heart of this is our desire to create an inclusive environment for not only our 13 million annual visitors but for the city’s 660,000 residents.”

With Queensland set to host the 2032 Olympics and Victoria the 2026 Commonwealth Games – how do these huge events become truly accessible? The Queensland Government was a Major Event Partner of the 2023 Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Conference, as part of its great “Year of Accessible Tourism” initiative. It is amazing to see a State committing resources and energy to make a lasting impact. That’s how big events become truly accessible: they plan ahead and with a long-term perspective.

For big international events, such as the Olympics and Paralympics Games or the Commonwealth Games, destinations need to work on end-to-end accessibility. That means looking beyond the specific location and time of the events and considering accommodation options, transportation, restaurants, etc.

We were honoured to have Ileana Rodriguez, from I Design Access, speak at AITCAP 2023. She has been working with the Olympic and Paralympic Games organisers for multiple years and across multiple countries, on how to design accessible and inclusive infrastructure for their events. She shared the secret to any kind of event truly becoming accessible “You should consider providing for people with disability as an asset, not just as a requirement.”