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Comparing apples to pears still bears fruit for Miles Partnership
By Nancy Baye

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Miles Partnership is an American strategic marketing company focused on travel and tourism, from the point of view of visitors first. They use independent research to inform decisions, shape changes and drive improvements. Two of their executives, Kim Palmer and August Erickson, shared enlightening presentations at the 2023 TravelAbility Summit. Here’s a recap. 

It was amid the gentle southern charm of Savannah, Georgia, that TravelAbility held their annual summit in August 2023. Miles Partnership was there, offering two presentations. The first session, How Has Disability Travel Changed? 2021 vs. 2023: An Apples-to-Apples Comparison, was led by Kim Palmer, Destination Optimization Program Director at Miles Partnership.

Before unpacking research highlights from a recent State of the American Traveler report, she shared that Miles Partnership recently released a Destination Stewardship Model to serve as guiding principles and offer a decision-making filter for destination organizations. Those principles include:

  • Community wellbeing and inclusion
  • Economic value and prosperity
  • Protection of and respect for heritage and culture
  • Environmental preservation and ecological balance

Kim narrowed her focus to community well-being and inclusion in tourism, to ensure equal opportunities, access and benefits for everyone. She posited that this goal will only be achieved through meaningful community participation, understanding biases, eliminating discrimination, promoting diversity, ensuring resident empowerment and elevating minority voices. The bigger aim is to create a vibrant inclusive visitor experience which promotes a sense of belonging for all individuals.

The State of the American Traveler research is conducted by Future Partners (formerly Destination Analysts) in partnership with Miles and began as a quarterly survey more than 15 years ago. It is now a monthly tracking study of demographically and geographically representative group of adult American travellers with more than 4,000 unique completed surveys each month. The most recent Traveler Segments Edition included a segmentation of travellers with disabilities and specific questions asked to this group.

Before Kim could unpack differences between the two studies, 2021 versus 2023, she spoke about how travel issues and concerns evolve over time. And never have these evolved more quickly than post-Covid. Their July 2021 survey, looking specifically at travellers with disabilities, was the first post-Covid summer. Revenge travel was in full swing, and the survey focused on service and safety. The emphasis wasn’t on travel planning resources, but issues such as service, places being open or well-staffed, etc.

However, the next study looking specifically at travellers with disabilities, in July 2023, happened in a time when revenge travel was on the decline, the travel environment had changed, with fewer Covid issues and staggering inflation. This all means that comparing the two sets of data is like comparing apples to pears.

She proceeded to reveal four highlights of the 2023 research:

  • travellers with disabilities are big dreamers but are often more limited by financial concerns and constraints
  • Social acceptance and support was rated as the most difficult travel challenge
  • Although information for travellers with disabilities is perceived as being good, specialized websites have space to grow their reach
  • Travellers with disabilities have much higher reliance on social media and special resources than other travellers

The second presentation, Deep Dive: Research, delved into the 2023 data. Kim began by detailing the survey, The State of the American Traveler, which is a representative sample of adult American travellers in each of the four regions of the U. S. This survey was fielded in July of 2023, rendering 4000 fully completed surveys.

When these participants were asked if there were, “physical, mental or emotional difficulties or issues for yourself or anyone you regularly travel with,” 16% of that group of 4000 replied that they did, amounting to about 670 respondents. Further details on impairments revealed that  47% were for people with mobile and physical impairments, about 34% with psychological issues and 23% had invisible disabilities. She expressed surprise at not seeing more baby boomers in this response, but a higher mix of millennial and Gen Z with a median age of about 44.4, a higher incidence of LGBTQ A plus at 14%, 40% more likely to travel with children, and with a lower household income of around $75,000 versus $80,000 of other travellers.

Participants were asked to assess their most challenging issues when travelling. At the top of the list was visiting attractions or events at 34%, using transportation hubs at 31% and social issues at 30%. But, when asked to rank their top three, 46% said the leading challenge was social issues, stigma and lack of empathy. Empathy remains the biggest challenge, Kim reiterated.

More data showed that these travellers with disabilities reported traveling about as often as the other participants with 3.3 trips on average versus 3.2. Kim also pointed out the 45% incidence that, “traveler travel guides do not reflect people like me,” adding that the sentiment had been voiced a lot during the TravelAbility Summit.

She called travellers with disabilities big dreamers, having daydreamed this week about taking a leisure trip, at 59%, compared to 46% of the others. She contrasted this with the higher cost constraints which create a barrier for these daydreams. The recent rise of inflation and consumer prices was next addressed, with the survey asking if these factors had led anyone to cancel an upcoming trip, 46% of the travellers with disabilities affirmed that, compared to only 30% of all other travellers. When asked whether high travel prices kept anyone from travelling in the past month, 59% of travellers with disabilities agreed, and that is higher than the others.

Travellers with disabilities also had a lower mean budget of $2,957 versus $3,614 mean budget for other travellers. Spending priorities also differed; travellers with disabilities rated travel as a high priority at 47% versus 54% of others. Kim added, “So certainly costs and price are a big factor for our travellers with disabilities.”

Data assessing quality of online information for disabled travellers also had Kim admitting surprise. Where she expected to hear that the quality was lacking, based on, “things that I’ve seen or the lack of detail available on a lot of the major travel planning platforms for travellers with disabilities,” the survey showed that nearly 50% of respondents considered online information to be good or excellent. When drilling down into data about certain accessibility specific websites, asking participants if they used them in travel planning, only 20% or less of respondents had and 58% admitted using none of them. She pointed out that there lies an opportunity for growth in reach for specialty websites.

Kim turned the stage over to her colleague August Erickson, Accessibility Program Manager of Miles Partnership, who said that his job is to ensure websites and digital products the company runs are fully accessible to those with disabilities. This led him to unpack how families with disabilities conduct research citing that today’s travellers are hyper-informed and use many and varied resources to plan their travel. Travellers with disabilities take this to a whole new level across all online resources, with the exception of travel apps. This points to the need for high quality visual content catered to travellers with disabilities.

The fact that this segment also uses traditional media –print, TV and radio more than other travellers suggests, August said, that the travellers with disabilities allocate more time and resources to travel planning than all other travellers. Offline resources such as travel or lifestyle magazines were used by 19% of travellers with disabilities and 13% of others. Free destination guidebooks or pamphlets were used by 16% of travellers with disabilities but only 12% of others.

August noted that, although Facebook, YouTube and Instagram rank as the top three, travellers with disabilities use Facebook at a substantially higher rate than all other travellers, with 36% ranking this their top pick. Nearly the same percentage of others ranked websites found through search engines as their top choice. DMOs in the crowd were pleased to hear that official destination websites are the most used official source for travel planning across both groups. All participants were receptive to the same type of online mediums but ranked them in different order. August said that this is a reminder of the  importance of ensuring all websites and digital materials are accessible to those with disabilities. He reiterated the importance of using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG, unpacking details on all that requires, and showing solid examples.

All in all, the lucky TravelAbility Summit attendees garnered much valuable information from Kim and August of Miles Partnership, and the State of the American Traveler research report, which you can find here.

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