A Burgeoning Market Waiting to be Tapped

Now that spring may have actually sprung, thoughts turn to the great outdoors and the few precious months when loons […]

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Now that spring may have actually sprung, thoughts turn to the great outdoors and the few precious months when loons and sunsets can be enjoyed lakeside.  As Minnesotans, we have a multitude of outdoor recreation options to choose from and for that we should be thankful.

Going outside and going to the lake are as Minnesotan as hot dish and “you betcha.”  The same weather that drives us to cocoon for a majority of the year pulls us outward to the elements between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  And the presence or absence of a disability makes no difference when it comes to the desire to participate in summertime recreation.

During my childhood, my family always enjoyed a good stretch of time “up north” at the cabin. We didn’t own, we rented crisscrossing from Brainerd to Alexandria, up to Pequot and over to Fergus, depending on the year.  I loved those weeks of catching frogs, swimming, and fishing with my grandfather.

Looking back, not a single one of those resorts was disability friendly.  I never once recall encountering a fellow camper or resort-mate with a disability mobility impairment or otherwise.

Today, those with disabilities have more options.  And while some segments of the hospitality industry have been slow to realize the untapped market of disability dollars, there are plenty of choices for food, fun, and lodging.

The Wall Street Journal has tagged it “handicapitalism”:  the targeting of potential customers with discretionary dollars who happen to have disabilities.  Some proprietors within our borders realize there’s more to this market than medical supplies and support hose.  We buy clothes, cars, homes, and deodorant, too.  How much?  Nationwide, those discretionary dollars for people with disabilities total $176 billion, according to the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality. That, my friends, is a lot of deodorant.

Of course, people with disabilities don’t exist in a vacuum. We have spouses, children, and extended families.  And, of course, there are spouses and children and extended families who have disabilities as well.  Each of these bodies is a mouth to feed, a body to clothe, and a potential paying customer.  “Corporate America can’t afford to ignore or stereotype this market,” Fortune magazine wrote in 1998.  And while we aren’t being ignored, there are segments of the industry that have been a mite slow on the uptake.

The state of Minnesota (with the assistance of Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to getting all people, regardless of ability, to experience the natural world) has done an admirable job making its state parks and programming more accessible to all types of disabilities.

But there’s always room for improvement.  In a 2001 survey conducted by Wilderness Inquiry, many organizations that host or plan outdoor recreation activities need a little help to better serve the disability community.  One-third of those surveyed do nothing to facilitate participation for the disabled.  One in five have no idea how many customers with disabilities they serve.  And a full 50 percent believe they have a very small customer base composed of those with disabilities.

Facilities that are unfriendly to those with disabilities either in topography, doorway width, alternative formats, or employee attitudes will not see repeat customers with disabilities.  Word of mouth spreads like wildfire throughout this segment of the population.  The gems are rooted out and bouquets are thrown.  The duds are vilified and subject to brickbats.  The problem lies in the duds who are content in their failure to accommodate.

So how do we know where the five-star outdoor hot spots are located so those of us with disabilities can enjoy the great outdoors?

That’s a question Mike Chevrette wanted to answer.  Unfortunately, no single guidebook exists to let people know how disability friendly the state’s tourism hot spots really are.  Instead, a crazy quilt of websites, from the State Tourism Office to the Minnesota Resort Association to Hospitality Minnesota, carry snippets of information.  But there’s no common reporting system and very little detail as to how those with a variety of disabilities may encounter them.  Rather than complain about it, Chevrette founded Access For All, a nonprofit dedicated to putting good information in the hands of people with disabilities.  His organization isn’t about blame, but about informed choices.  “Whether a tourist
site is accessible or not, people should be able to find that out and plan accordingly,” he says.  He’s right.

Chevrette mailed 10,000 surveys statewide to get his guide up and running at www.accessminnesota.org.  To date he’s gotten 250 responses.  “It’s just the beginning,” he said. “Many businesses still don’t see the huge potential for this market.”

But positive signs are out there.  Fifteen miles east of Waubun, Minnesota, Rainbow Resort sits on the shores of Little Bemidji Lake.  There, the owners built eight cottages in the 1940s.  One by one, they’re replacing those musty one-bedroom, inaccessible shells with beautiful three-bedroom, two-bath cabins with ramps, decks, roll-in showers, and low countertops.  The lodge and restaurant are ramped, as is the game room, and the trails, and the laundry room.  The owners say they did it for business reasons.  We, the untapped market, need to thank them and urge others to follow their lead.

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