A life-changing accident in 2000 left Arnold Fewell a permanent wheelchair user. The former hotelier and marketing expert, who was presented with the Catey Special Award in 2012, tells The Caterer how it has changed his view of hospitality and what the industry can do to improve its accessibility
I fell and broke my knee as I was hailing a cab after the Fellows Dinner of the old HCIMA (now the Institute of Hospitality). At the time I had a middle ear infection that left me with a balance problem - when I turned my head to the side I fell.
It was not a straightforward break as it travelled vertically rather than the more usual horizontal. I was in hospital for many months and complications meant that I had to have an above-knee amputation in 2003. I tried a prosthetic but this resulted in a lot of pain that could not be controlled so I opted for a wheelchair.
How did your life change when you found yourself as a permanent wheelchair user?
You see the world so differently from 3ft high. You take things for granted when you have two legs and suddenly you are using your arms to propel yourself. It took a lot of effort to begin with until I built up my upper body strength. I think I am very lucky that I can self-propel and so I am able to maintain a lot of independence.
There are many people with more disabilities than I have, but being a person with a disability opened my eyes to the situations we all face every day. Many of these are completely unnecessary and could be avoided if non-disabled people had a little more forethought.
How did you manage to keep your business going?
With great difficulty, but it was before the banking crisis and I must admit my bank was very thoughtful and helpful. I did have various insurance plans, which were a great help, and my clients were very understanding and were happy for me to work from home.
I also had fantastic support from my family who all rallied round and Nicola my middle daughter came to work for me. I strongly believe that it is my family who went through much more than I did. Without their constant help, support and care then the situation would have been a lot worse.
This especially applies to my wife, and when we said "in sickness and in health" at our wedding I am certain neither of us expected this to happen.
How did you find the accessibility and service when you stayed in hotels?
Very poor and it has not got a lot better. I fear for the safety of people with disabilities when they stay away from home because of the lack of suitable fire procedures. I also see poor customer service wherever I go and this is despite the Equality Act of 2010.
So many issues can be quickly resolved and could be prevented if the procedure for taking a booking was more comprehensive. For example, a person in a wheelchair needs less furniture in their room so why not ask them what they need and sort it out before they arrive?
This applies to anyone with a disability - they help hotels in the booking process by saying I need an accessible or adapted room.
This should set bells ringing and prompt the thought: "this person needs a little extra help, I need to find out how I can help them before they arrive".
What surprises you most as a former hotel GM and now a permanent wheelchair user about accessibility in hotels?
Hotel GMs do not understand the size of the market and the business opportunity that exists. VisitEngland valued the market for England as £2.7b in 2014. We are living longer and as we get older we are more likely to have some kind of impairment.
One in three of us will have an impairment in our lifetime. Furthermore, 25% of the UK population is either a person with a disability or a carer. A guest with a disability is more likely
to travel at off-peak times and research shows they spend an extra £5 per night. Also, 35% of grandparents take their family away each year.
There are many facts and figures that back up the case for accessible tourism but many hotels have so far not really grasped the issue and I don't understand why.
You regularly undertake research with customers; what do disabled people think of the current service in hotels?
They want more information. In this regard an accessibility statement is a real must for every hotel. It should be treated as a marketing document. The statement must outline any accessibility issues - good and not so good - but also paint a picture of how to get there, what they can find and use in the hotel and where to go in the day that is both reachable and accessible.
Hotels provide this for all their other guests, so why when I go on a website do I often not find any information about the accessible rooms?
What advice would you give to the hotel general managers of today?
Provide training on accessibility to all staff. This is vital because research by BT shows that 65% of the general public would not go to the help of a person with a disability. The reason
for this was fear: fear of doing something wrong; fear of making the situation worse; and fear of being sued afterwards. The only way I know of overcoming this fear is to give hotel staff confidence and that is why I say training is so important.
Another issue is showing people with disabilities that you welcome them. This can be easily done by including people with disabilities in the pictures on your website, having comments about accessibility from people with disabilities that have stayed and show you actually have accessible rooms.
After hotels you moved into school catering. What attracted you to this sector?
I started in 1985 when school meals were at a very low ebb. There were teachers' strikes and in North Yorkshire there was a large deficit because meal numbers were only 21% of pupils. We created a giant carrot called HERBIE that stood for Healthy Eating Really Better In Everyway.
It was described by the chief education officer, Fred Evans, as the most grammatically incorrect carrot he knew of.
What were the results?
We increased meal numbers from 21% to 60% in three years, created about 150 new jobs and saved about half a million pounds.
This all helped me win the Foodservice Catey in 1988 plus other awards like the Daily Telegraph Award for marketing Innovation. However, I think the greatest result was that it re-invigorated all levels of the catering team and they saw there was huge support for what they were doing and how it made a real difference to young families.
What do you think of the School Food Plan that was launched in July 2013?
I am very hopeful for the future of school meals. I believe it is about to enter a golden age where young people learn about food, where it comes from, when it is in season and how to cook it. The School Food Plan played a key role in achieving this and its greatest achievement has been to unite people in the industry to deliver great, healthy food for young people. I look forward to similar success in hospital and care provision.
If you had to write your own epitaph what would it be?
He made a difference. My focus in the last 10 years has been about providing great customer service to people with disabilities. This is not rocket science. This is about making small changes that can make a huge difference to people with an impairment. For example, giving a deaf person an information letter on arrival or putting a dimmer switch in a room for a blind person. This can help them adjust the light to suit their needs. The total cost of these two would be well under £50.
I want to make things better for people with disabilities when they stay away from home. I have tried to do this for the last 10 years since I became a permanent wheelchair user. I will continue to help and work with hoteliers and help them understand the market opportunity and the possible return on investment. If I can achieve that I will die a
very happy man.
Designing the perfect accessible room An issue close to Fewell's heart is that of accessible rooms in hotels, and the fact that often they don't suit either those with particular needs or the able-bodied.
"One of the issues that riles me is the stigma of staying in an accessible room for some people, with highly visible grab rails and support rails," he says.
He points out that there are products available that can be fitted to a room as required. "If nothing is required there will be a blanking plate on the wall, but if it's taken off, grab rails and seats can be fitted," Fewell explains. "So if someone phones up and explains that they need grab rails the room can be created to suit their needs. When the room is let for non-disabled people then the blanking plate can be left in place and nobody will know it is an accessible room."
Although the fittings may cost extra money, it means hoteliers don't have to put everything into every room. "So if you just put the blanking plates in, and decide there are 20 accessible rooms, you might only need 10 grab rails as they won't need to be in use all the time," Fewell adds.
"I have a vision of working with the industry to create the perfect bedroom and bathroom for people with different disabilities. If rooms are designed right now we can design in accessibility features for 50 years, not five minutes."
About Arnold Fewell
•Arnold joined Trusthouse Forte as a graduate trainee, holding a series of line management positions before he became a hotel general manager at three different locations in Chipping Norton, Abergavenny and Ilkley.
•He then made a dramatic career change when he took up the position as manager of education catering at North Yorkshire County Council.
•Since then he has worked for Gardner Merchant (now Sodexo) and since 1990 he has run his own marketing business.
•In 2000 he was left disabled following an accident and is now a permanent wheelchair user.
•His most recent project is www.accesschamp.co.uk, an online training resource for hotels on accessibility.