In this Bulletin we reproduce an interview with Magnus Berglund, the Scandic Hotels disability ambassador, which is appearing in the July edition of EP Magazine.
Tiny gestures make all the difference
Planning for how best to accommodate disabled customers in a hotel or restaurant is often assumed to include such time consuming and laborious measures as widening doorways, abolishing stairways, incorporating specialist beds, installing independent alarm systems and more. In the UK, where so many buildings are converted from their original purpose to hotels, and many more are Grade Listed, the process can seem particularly daunting. However, the smallest of tweaks can make a big difference, says Magnus Berglund.
“It doesn’t always have to be that disabled rooms are on the ground floor and that there’s not a single step anywhere in the hotel – but a ramp might be useful and hearing loops are not prohibitively expensive.”
Magnus Berglund is a former chef with 12 years’ experience in the hospitality industry and now disability ambassador for Scandic Hotels. Diagnosed in 1998 with a muscle disease, Magnus chooses not to focus on his illness but rather the task at hand and how his unique background and experiences can be put to best use to improve the experience for all Scandic guests. He observes, “We don’t have disabled guests and regular guests – we have only guests.”
Meeting Magnus was an interesting and eye-opening experience. He is a thoughtful man, who clearly enjoys his role as disability ambassador and gets great pleasure from helping others. His demeanour is confident, amenable and welcoming and he determinedly goes about his daily life not as a disabled man, but rather as a person for whom circumstances have changed a little. When I meet him he is travelling without the beloved Scandic corporate dog, Ada, who assists him and is herself a Star Alliance member due to all of the travelling the duo complete!
Following his diagnosis and subsequent rehabilitation, Magnus planned to travel around the world and it was his experiences as a disabled guest which led him to return to former employers, Scandic Hotels, and put forth his case for improving its offering to disabled customers. The CEO at the time, Frank Fiskers, was quick to see the value of his argument, and to appreciate that dedicating time and resources to such a programme could in fact increase revenue and profitability as well as adding to the company’s positive corporate image. Magnus was duly installed as “disability ambassador” – and that was when the work started.
Spending months travelling around all hotels, Magnus stayed anonymously as a guest in each. He spent this time observing and quietly making notes – the orange juice on the breakfast buffet was on a high shelf; there was no alarm facility for deaf guests who could not hear the phone ring; the ‘peep hole’ in the bedroom door was too high for a shorter person to see through; there were steps but no ramp at the front entrance to a hotel. The list of challenges was seemingly endless, but Magnus was determined that Scandic should be seen as one of the best hotel chains in the world for accommodating disabled guests. And so he set about creating Check Points, a system that would eventually become standard operating procedure in all properties.
What started off as a list of 93 checkpoints, 70 of which were mandatory, quickly grew to 110 points, 81 of which are mandatory for established hotels. New builds must adhere to all 110 points. This could seem like a daunting catalogue, but in fact most of the checkpoints are relatively simple to incorporate and the returns on investment can be significant.
“In today’s world, one person in a wheelchair can dictate the venue choice for 400-plus delegates. It is a good, sound business decision to accommodate that one person.”
The next step was to convince every staff member that the initiative was a necessity and that Scandic employees would benefit from a small change in ethos. So a training programme like no other was created. This time each employee had to spend a minimum of two hours of a shift in a wheelchair – to get a taste of what it was like for the guest. For Magnus, the reports back were illuminating.
“People complained about having to use the wheelchair during the lunch hour rush and how inconvenient it was – but when I asked them ‘How was it for the guest, then?’ they quickly understood the value of the experience.
“Education is such an important part of the programme. Everyone needs to understand what it is like for a guest with a disability but they must also understand that a different disability means different requirements.”
Magnus has established partnerships with many disability associations in the Nordic countries as this initiative has proven profitable. A mere year after he instigated the checkpoints, Scandic reported an increase of 15,000 room nights from disabled guest packages alone. The message is getting out as Magnus has been profiled in various international media outlets, including CNN, and last year was invited to speak at the United Nations on accessibility.
‘Design for all’ is a theory introduced by Magnus and has subsequently become a key design focus on all aspects of Scandic Hotels. The concept is to incorporate “practical solutions which go almost unnoticed, except by those who really need them”. Height adjustable beds and more spacious bathrooms are appreciated by all guests, but perhaps more useful to those with leg or back problems. Walking stick catches at reception are inconsequential to someone who walks without need for a stick, but are welcome relief to a person used to seeing their stick crash to the floor as they let go to sign the guest registry. Meeting rooms without carpets are modern and inviting to the average delegate, but to someone in a wheelchair they are blessed relief from thick carpets. Providing information on a hotel’s website such as how many steps there are from the front door to the reception desk and where the lifts are located in terms of the breakfast room can enable a guest to decide in advance whether a wheelchair is needed for their journey or if a walking stick will suffice. Guest information in Braille is enormously useful to a partially sighted person, and alarm clocks which pulse vibrations through the bed mattress can relieve tension when considering fire evacuations or getting out of bed in time to catch a flight. Small changes, huge impact.
According to the National Prosthetic and Wheelchair Service, there are circa 750,000 wheelchair users in the UK which equates to about 1.5 percent of the population. There are anywhere between 50 to 65 million people in the EU with a recognised disability; however this figure does not take into consideration the elderly, the hard of hearing as opposed to the profoundly deaf or the partially sighted as opposed to the blind. Where wheelchair users and the blind population are generally the first to come to mind in considering disabilities, there are other groups to think of too. Changing demographics of the international traveller show that older generations are travelling further, and for longer periods. They do and will have different needs which don’t necessarily stretch to wheelchairs or guide dogs, but perhaps they would appreciate seats in the shower and
allergen-free bedding. Magnus says, “There’s a perception that unless someone is in a wheelchair, then they are not disabled and therefore they need no assistance. But almost everyone needs just a little bit of help.”
Anders Ehrling took on the mantle of President and CEO of Scandic Hotels in late 2010 and, like Frank Fiskers, he too has thrown his full support behind Magnus and his role. He is keen to point out that he doesn’t do so for any sort of feel-good factor, but rather as a sound and economical business decision.
“Accessibility is a characteristic of a hotel chain with ambitions. We are not a charity, but we have looked at the figures and the forecasts and they make sense. We have to act now, or we risk letting our competitors have an advantage.”