Jeff Strachan on Hospitality’s Top Accessibility Challenge

About the episode

In this episode of the Accessibility Champions Podcast, we interview Jeff Strachan of the Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism regarding the initiative to position Dubai as the first Certified Autism Destination™ in the Eastern Hemisphere. We discuss the importance of accessibility in tourism, focusing on hidden disabilities like autism. Jeff shares the DET’s efforts to train tourism staff, provide transparent information for families affected by autism, and create employment opportunities for people of determination. He emphasizes the significance of listening to customer feedback and the power of empathy in driving accessibility progress globally.

Accessibility Champions Cover Artwork

About the show

Accessibility Champions is an educational video podcast series that celebrates the world of accessibility and the inspiring work being done by industry leaders to serve the rapidly growing market of people of determination. Each episode features conversations with prominent figures and community partners across various sectors who go above and beyond to champion accessibility. By exploring their initiatives, strategies, and success stories, we aim to shed light on the incredible impact of their efforts.

About the guest

In September 2015, Jeff Strachan, joined the Dubai College of Tourism, a unique initiative from Dubai Department of Economy & Tourism, designed as the conduit to bring the Dubai brand to life through a number of grass-roots human capital enablement initiatives including the online self-paced learning platforms Dubai Way and Dubai Expert and the campus based vocational curriculum including Tourism, Hospitality, Events and Culinary Arts. The platforms created by Dubai College of Tourism have now welcomed over 150,000 students.

Dr. Geraldine Naidoo, host of the Accessibility Champions Podcast

About the host

Dr. Geraldine Naidoo has a Doctorate and a PhD in Natural Medicine and is a certified Trauma Informed Professional. She is also focused on removing “internal” barriers as  she provides stress relief and wellness solutions for  clients who are dealing with, or have been diagnosed with, Anxiety, Autism, ADHD, depression, pain and other chronic conditions that typically create stress and overwhelm which adds to their existing challenges. She uses a variety of research based techniques to provide impactful solutions that are focused, effective, and non-invasive, with no contra-indications.


Geraldine: Hello and welcome back to the accessibility champions podcast. My name is Geraldine and today it is my pleasure to highlight our honored guest, who is indeed a driving force behind Dubai’s unwavering pursuit of guest excellence. Just over a year ago, Dubai announced an exciting initiative in collaboration with IB CCE s to become the first certified autism destination. Now, one in six people have sensory needs. And with rising global autism diagnosis rates, there is quite a tremendous need for more accessibility options. Here to tell us more about the Dubai department of economy and tourism’s initiative to make Dubai a certified autism destination is today’s accessibility superhero, Jeff Strachan, whose influence and passion has already made made a significant difference. Jeff, Hello, and welcome. 

Jeff: Hi, Geraldine. Nice to be in touch with you and nice to be on the podcast today. It’s great to have you with us today. 

Geraldine: So Jeff, we recognize you as one of the best Hospitality and Tourism leaders in the Middle East. But can you tell us a little more about yourself, please?


Jeff: Well, that’s very kind of you. Thank you. Yes, I’ve been living and working here in Dubai now for the last 24 years. Previous to working at the Department of economy and tourism, I spent 16 years with a global hotel company, looking after all of the Middle East and marketing with the Middle East and Africa with a specific focus on sales and marketing. Obviously, back then, we did not have the volume of hotels, attractions, airlines that we have today. So it has been tremendous to spend so long here in the region and see the exponential growth of tourism and hospitality in the Middle East.


Geradline: Amazing. So it’s quite clear that you are an incredibly motivated and driven individual. And you certainly bring that impressive energy to the tourism market. And please, can you tell us more about the DI T’s specific drive, focus and vision with regards accessibility in the tourism market, and the initiative to make Dubai a certified autism destination? Sure.


Jeff: Look, when you think about accessibility, and in particular autism, and our drive to become a certified autism friendly destination, it’s a component in a much larger vision. And that vision is, is within the Dubai economic agenda, who become one of the top three global cities. And when we quantify that a bit further, we think of that in terms of living, working and visiting, if you want to be one of the top three global cities for living, working and visiting, then, of course, accessibility, and all components of accessibility, of which autism is one are critical to the success, the success factors that we need to be among the top three global cities. And that’s not an easy cop three to break into. The competition for that status is, of course, significant. So we know that over the next 10 years, we have a lot of work to do to become one of those cities, but it’s that aspiration drives us towards putting in place all of the components to reach that goal. And accessibility is one of those key components. And the work that we are doing in tourism accessibility, again, is just a component of the work that the entire city is doing to make that goal a reality.


Geraldine: Thank you. Wow. So um, the IBCCES is is recognized as the international standard for autism training and certification, and millions of families are looking to them for guidance and approval on travel, and destinations and so on. Can you tell me about influence and impact the DI T supports Dubai’s vision to become the world’s best city by promoting diversity and accessibility? What significant developments are taking place with regards training and certification? And how is this contributing to overall improvements in the hospitality sector?


Jeff: That’s a huge question, Geraldine. So I’ll try to break it down into some pieces. Look, when We think of the various facets of accessibility. What we what our research shows us quite clearly is that the peer to peer recommendation from within communities is critical. So if a family have already travelled, and enjoyed a certain destination, a certain hotel, a certain attraction, and they have found that to be suitable for their accessible requirements, it’s likely that another family would seek them out. And that they would know people from within their peer group. And what became very obvious to us is that IBC CES is one of those trusted peer to peer groups that facilitates the exchange of knowledge. Now, obviously, the organization IBCCES is extremely strong. Within North America may not be as strong in places like Southeast Asia, and parts of Europe, but of course, is working to increase their their, I guess, contact within the communities in those markets as well. But for us, it’s important to identify lots of organisations who are talking with communities in various different areas of accessibility, and identify platforms where people are speaking to each other, and making recommendations and endorsements and feedback. And when you think of the area of autism, it’s particularly prevalent that groups of health networks, groups of parents, school teachers, will reach out to each other and cross reference information. And we’ve actually found this to be one of tourism and hospitality is single largest weaknesses is that the lack of clarity, depth and transparency of information is why families refer to each other. It’s why you see huge communities appearing on platforms like Facebook, where people will chart chart within their closed group about hotels, attractions, destinations, transport, but sometimes those transportation providers or hotels, don’t even know that chat is happening about them. And they are not making changes or updates to their own information based on what customers are saying about their product. So obviously, we’re we’re trying to improve upon that here in our market, trying to use organizations like ABC, CBS to make those recommendations to the tourism and hospitality sector, so that they help individuals or families who are desiring and have a goal to travel to try to make that travel easier for them.


Geraldine: Amazing. Can you tell us what that looks like in Dubai, like across the scope of Dubai or across the scope of the Middle East?


Jeff:  It is difficult for me to talk about the broader Middle East, I can talk about what we are trying to do here. We believe that in the first instance, addressing the lack of information starts with improving the knowledge of our tourist facing workforce. So we’re starting with people. And in many cases, many, many cities or attractions or hotels, they would start with physical product. But we are really starting with knowledge. And we believe with improved knowledge becomes improved resourcefulness. And then once people are able to be resourceful, they can address some of the barriers and components that cause trouble for people to travel. So we have put in place in Dubai, a large scale online training platform that we call Dubai way. And within that platform, we provide a number of self paced online training courses that we push to the tourist facing workforce of Dubai. And that workforce is huge. It’s well over 100,000 people. And that platform includes content on what we believe the workforce requires to be no more knowledgeable. So to give you an example, we provide information about Dubai, very obviously so that they can engage with the tourists. We provide information on sustainability. We provide information on different source markets. So for example, we provide training on Chinese customers, and perhaps what their nuances might be. We also provide training on inclusive service. So identifying different people of determination whether that be physical impairments, whether that be hearing or seeing or developmental impairments and disabilities. And then of course, we provide a training, which has been facilitated by IBCCES. Yes, on autism, and sensory awareness. All of those different training programs are designed to improve the knowledge and resourcefulness of the workforce. And that means that they either have the confidence to be able to interact with various different customer types and become more resourceful. Or they can make recommendations provide feedback within their area of work, that might be engaging with their hotel General Manager, you know, their operations director, and actually having the confidence to provide some feedback to make experiential guests experiential changes, or recommendations to the product based on their learning, and then observing customers. So that’s our first port of call providing this huge online training platform. And that’s very unique for a destination to provide a depth of learning for their workforce. Usually, they would leave that to the private sector. To handle that, in our case. The Department of economy and tourism through Dubai College of tourism is making a training platform available to the workforce.


Geraldine: That is amazing. Wow. So, um, what insights have you gained with regards return on investment for businesses that invest in accessibility facilities and training?


Jeff: Yeah, again, so it’s part of a much, much bigger picture, Geraldine. So we measure the satisfaction of visitors to Dubai. Now, if we use the same methodology, which you mentioned right at the top of the podcast, in that a large percentage of travelers are what we would refer to in Dubai, as people have determination, they or someone within their family on the traveling party is a person of determination, then we have to provide excellent service for all visitors. So we are measuring guest satisfaction through our visitor survey for everything from their arrival experience navigation through the airport, through the through the transportation, Johnny could be taxi could be Metro into the hotel, their enjoyment of our malls of our shopping proposition of our attractions, and then they have departure from the city. That means that we want to make sure that every traveler is satisfied. So of course, we’re measuring the uplift of all of those components across all sectors. Whether whether that be a source market coming out of India source market coming out of Europe, or a source market coming out of North America, we’re able to measure the satisfaction levels of all of these. Thankfully, we also have independent measurements as well. So we were just awarded the most recommended destination in the world by TripAdvisor for the third year in a row. No other destination has ever been able to achieve that accolade before. They’ve never been able to achieve it two years in a row, never mind three years in a row. So that independent observation, combined with our own research shows us that we’re making progress. And the best endorsement you can get this recommendation. Any marketeer would tell you that word of mouth and recommendation is worth much more than acquiring a new customer. So that’s essentially the ROI that we’re looking for is that endorsement, repeat visitation on happy customer.


Geraldine: Amazing, someone did share that as something like 96% of repeat visitors because of customer satisfaction. So that’s pretty amazing. We can keep them happy the first time they’re definitely coming back. Absolutely.


Jeff: And it’s very, it’s very difficult to do as a destination as a as a city. Because there are many elements that you don’t necessarily have control over. You know, so for a hotel or an attraction to be able to measure, repeat visitation would be quite straightforward. You know, there are a single entity, they can measure their guests who come back every week. But for a city to be able to get repeat endorsement and repeat visitation is very difficult. So we’re extremely happy to be able to get such high levels of of recommendation.


Geraldine: It certainly must be unusual for an experience to be measured from start to finish. So that’s pretty amazing.


Jeff: Yeah, and that’s really important because you want to figure out where your your issues are, you know, particularly for accessibility, you Want to figure out if the customer is getting the correct information about the airport, about transportation, about hotels, about restaurants, shopping malls. So all of these components, you need to figure out if you’ve got specific challenges, and levels of satisfaction that you need to address. And then of course, have the ability to be able to, to address those and turn them around and prove them and continue to grow guest satisfaction. So of course, looking at the end to end journey is important. And when I mean, end to end, I mean, while the customer is sat at home, researching the destination, are they getting the depth of information, they need to be able to make the decision. And that’s where we still have to do a lot of work when it comes to autism and sensory awareness. Typically, you will find website descriptions and depth of information from the larger brands still has to be improved. Many of them descriptions are generic, they will give you opening hours, but they won’t refer to quiet hours, you know, they will not refer in depth to the information that perhaps a family traveling with an autistic child would require. And they will require a lot of depth. And at the moment, all brands globally, are not providing the amount of depth that a family would require to be able to make an informed decision. And that’s what we need to continue to work on.


Geraldine: Amazing, it’s quite interesting how, when you look at the concept of accessibility, not everything is obvious and in your face. So I love that you’re looking at every tiny bit of information, every nuance, and you’re covering all the corners of the off the topic of accessibility, that’s pretty amazing.


Jeff: You listen to the customer, they will tell you,


Geraldine: I said I’ve heard that you were an extreme cyclist, and you yourself travel all over the world to compete in to compete in races. In your travels, what observations have you made regarding the efforts by different countries to ensure accessibility?


Jeff: Google is obviously your friend, it looks at the range of progress that’s been made across the planet is a huge spread spectrum. I think you see, in places like Europe and North America, lots of strong legislation that’s been put in place, particularly around things like building chords, much more for physical disabilities, to be able to move freely, is quite a part of what you also see is a lot of clear work that’s been done at a design level, around, you know, latest new build hotels, malls, attractions that accommodate, again, I think physical impairments, and those are very obvious things to see, as you travel around, I think what we don’t see, and we don’t read about enough pieces that have been put in place to assist hidden disabilities. And, you know, by its very nature, the disability is hidden, but very often the solution is hidden as well. And we don’t see as travelers enough signage, informing us as travelers to be empathetic towards other travelers. And I would like to see a lot more visible signage, encouraging us to be empathetic towards those around us. Because you can’t see and tell what’s going on with other travelers. So I think, you know, again, those are pieces that can be put in place very easily in airports and in malls and hotels that just encourage us all to act with empathy at all times. And just to remind us to act with empathy at all times. So those are quick wins. But I think, all over the world, all countries are at a different place, when it comes to facilities that they’re providing knowledge that they’re providing. And I think without a shadow of a doubt, there’s not one country that’s stuck its head way above the parapet and said we are outstanding at this as yet. So that that leaves the top spot, well open to be taken. And I think if we aim for the top spot, then you know it will be a great place to be amazing.


Geraldine: Do you perhaps have a special story to share with us with regards improved accessibility and its impact


Jeff: Over the last last couple of years here in Dubai, actually, we have seen a marked increase in people of determination, taking up employment with our industry. And I think this is the best success story. You know, if we’re able to employ people of determination within the workforce, then they can influence so much more. Because that means that the eyes and ears of people of determination are at the boardroom table. You know, they, they can see, they can see what they see what they experience, what they’re going through every day. And I think where we’ve seen the biggest wins is where we’ve seen, particularly hotels and attractions, employ people of determination, they also have the biggest uplift and results in guest satisfaction. And that may sound really obvious. You know, if you want to fix something, then employ someone who is living the experience. And we do read about this a lot. But rarely do we see employers making a concerted effort to employ the usually asked someone who’s a noted expert on the subject. But based on what we’ve seen over the last two years, may make more sense to employ someone who’s very obviously an expert on the subject, as opposed to being a noted expert on the subject. So I think putting people into the, into the workforce, who are living with disability has a huge impact on guest experience. And I would love to see much more of that happening.


Geraldine: Amazing. Wow. And so their personal experience together with the training that you provide, is a win win all around. Yes,


Jeff: It takes a look, it takes lots of ingredients to bake a cake, you know, there is no there is not one magic ingredient that will give you a fruit cake, you know, you need lots of fruit, then you need all the ingredients to make it rise properly. And, you know, this, the same can be said in this case. Training is one piece. Fixing. Marketing is another piece, employing the right people is another piece, having the right attitude is another piece showing empathy is another piece. So there are many key ingredients, which will eventually contribute to, to us reaching the goal. Some of them will play out with different weights at different times. But all of them must be in the cake for the cake to be baked. We wouldn’t we wouldn’t get there unless we put all of these ingredients together, at some point.


Geraldine: Amazing. So you’ve been recognized as one of the best Hospitality and Tourism leaders in the Middle East? What would be one piece of best advice that you would give to the hospitality industry when it comes to international recognition for expertise?


Jeff: It’s a tough one. I mean, I do get asked this question quite a bit now. But my answer is 99%. The same. I always say focus on the future, the past is past, you’re going to spend time talking about the past, you know talking about your stories of the past, it’s not going to change the future, half the focus on the future and what you can do ahead of you. And you may have all of your successes in the past and great stories to tell and you know, revenue and guest satisfaction of the past. Great. They’re my stories to tell. But that’s not the future. How will you shape the future is critical. And we have to keep staying focused on the future, because that’s where we will live. We will not live in the past.


Geraldine: That is amazing advice. Thank you for sharing that. So do you have a favorite quote or a uniquely Jeff Adagio or motto that you’d like to share with this?


Jeff: It’s the same. Yeah, I mean, I, my, my daily work is here in what we call the Dubai College of tourism. And fortunately, I’m surrounded by a lot of energy of young students. So I always ask them every day, and I think now they are avoiding me, but I asked him every day, what’s the news? What’s the news? What’s happening? And usually they’ll answer with the news. And then I asked them, Okay, so what will happen? What’s the future? What do you think about that? Where will it lead you? What’s your takeaway? Because I want them to think again about the future. So my, my my adage, My motto is, you know, try to think of what’s ahead of you. You know, try to see that sight to see what the challenge will be trying to see what the future will hold on. unshaped that make some decisions about the future. The past will not help you.


Geraldine: Amazing. Thank you very much. So it’s quite incredible. You know, we know the world is on fire, but there are definitely people doing beautiful things. And we can believe in the goodness of humanity if you’re a true champion for accessibility and opportunity, and IBCCES is proud to stand alongside people like you in the shared purpose as pioneers of a future where accessibility and life is for everyone. Thank you for making the world a better place.


Jeff: Oh, you’re welcome. I hope we’re all going in the same direction as long as we’re moving forward. Absolutely.


Geraldine: It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you today.


Jeff: Thank you, Geraldine. 


Geraldine: Okay, so we hope you have enjoyed today’s informative session with our special guest and we invite you to share this information so we can create a more accessible and thrilling environment for everyone. Working together is powerful, and we invite you to collaborate with us in forging an environment of equal access, regardless of ability. For more information, go to IBCCES dot o RG that’s May your week be filled with the unwavering spirit of determination. See you next week.

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