The Most Epic Quest of GenCon: Finding Accessible Hotels

Before I go into what will inevitably become a frustrated rant, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: GenCon staff has been incredibly responsive to my concerns about these issues. They have listened to my insane ranting until I calmed down and explained things rationally, and repeatedly provided as much information as they could to help. I wish I could say the same for their business partners.

Part 0: In Which I Am Already Set Up For Frustration

My wife and I met in March of 2009. In the nearly four years since that time, she has enriched my life indescribably – well, mostly indescribably. One very describable way that she has enriched my life is that where before I met her, I believed strongly in improving accessibility in our society, now I am starting to fully understand how accessibility options don’t just need tweaking, they need a complete overhaul. And we’re lucky – Christine’s able to walk short distances (albeit with crutches), and is capable of accessing many non-accessible areas if she really needs to (like my third-floor walkup apartment from when we first started dating). If we can’t get something accessible, odds are we can overcome it with equipment – but equipment starts to get heavy, especially if it’s equipment that I’m loading in and out of a vehicle on a regular basis (wheelchair and super-old heavy scooter, I’m looking at you). To date, our experiences with accessibility include:
This whole concert ticket fiasco.
• Having a web booking system for America’s Best Value hotels tell us that we booked an ADA room when in fact it had booked us a standard room. Up a flight of stairs. With no elevator. In pouring rain. And the hotel didn’t have any ADA rooms in the first place.
• Being locked out of a music festival because the doors by handicapped parking weren’t supposed to be opened until the festival was half over.
• Being forced to drive to five parking lots at our local baseball stadium for handicapped parking and needing to block the entrance to the VIP lot to get anyone to help us.
• And, most recently, when trying to get accessible tickets for the Detroit Red Wings’ home opener, I was only allowed to buy tickets via phone, during which time, I was hung up on once, redirected to a different ticket agent four times, and eventually was dumped into a voicemail, after which I was unable to reach any human beings at all for four hours until someone finally returned my call.

Basically, there are a lot of things that used to take me all of five minutes to do that now take me anywhere from (if I’m lucky) the same amount of time, but I need to be there an hour sooner to three days of frustrated phone calls and e-mails. And that’s just scheduling and reservations – it doesn’t even go into dealing with actually moving around in crowded or less-than-accessible spaces. The “moving around in crowded spaces” part is what led me to decide that for Christine’s first trip to GenCon, we’d try to get into the VIG program. It provides access to a lounge where she can rest and recharge her batteries (literally – she drives a scooter when significant walking would be needed), eliminates lines, and – perhaps most importantly – gets us into the dealer hall an hour early, which may or may not be necessary for her to move around in the dealer hall at all.

The VIG part of this story is pretty fast – like everyone else who couldn’t get on the site in the first two minutes of badge registration, I got to sit slack-jawed staring at my computer as I saw that the VIG program was sold out. Sadness, but that’s what happens with an extremely popular program. I was more than happy to get on the VIG waitlist and buy normal badges, but this also mean that I had to steel myself for what would surely be a Herculean effort – hotel room reservations.

Despite this being my seventh GenCon, the Hotel Registration Land Rush is something I’ve never had to worry about. Either I was working for Wizards of the Coast/Baldman Games as a DM or I decided to stay far offsite for frugality reasons. I had heard that it was intense, though, so I made it a point to read GenCon’s website before hotel registration opened to look into accessibility concerns. I was surprised to see that none were listed, so I got ready for noon on Tuesday, at which time hotel registration would open and I would book our accessible hotel room downtown.

Part 1: In Which My Patience Grows Thin

Work delayed me somewhat in getting to the site, so I don’t get in until about 12:10. The directly attached hotel rooms are gone. That’s fine – as long as I can get within half a mile, we’ll be ok. Omni Severin is still open, and reasonably priced, so I go to book that. As I’m looking for the list of requested amenities, though, I’m noticing that ADA accessibility isn’t an option. I backtrack to the housing page provided by VisitIndy and see something I hadn’t noticed when I first logged in (and on a page that wasn’t even available when I looked the day before): “Handicap accessible rooms, ADA approved, and suites cannot be booked on line. You need to either e-mail your request to <e-mail> or call the housing bureau at <phone number>”.

Well, shit. Here we go again.

Call the phone number. Busy signal. Call again. Busy signal. Fifteen minutes of busy signal later, I get a recording saying that they’re experiencing high call volume (no shit, it’s the first half hour of the GenCon Hotel Land Rush). Recording wants me to leave a message and they’ll get back to me when they can. My previous experience is that this is usually hours, if not a day or so, at which point the option to get a non-accessible room (difficult, but not impossible for Christine) downtown would be gone. Seeing no choice, however, I leave my information and go to the next listed option: e-mail. I send the e-mail and then, deciding that I have no other recourse at this time, go back to work.

Part 2: In Which I Fly Off The Handle

As it turns out, my appointments that afternoon were cancelled, so I get to go home early. I get home at about 2, and see an e-mail from VisitIndy. It’s very unusual to get a response this early, so I’m pretty excited – until I see the subject: Out of Office. The e-mail goes on to detail that “due to a high volume of e-mails today, there may be some delay in replying to your e-mail. Please expect a reply within 24 to 48 hours.”

VisitIndy wants me to be patient for up to TWO DAYS to see whether I can even get an accessible room? Hell. No.

That’s when I do this:

VisitIndy Tweet

In retrospect, putting GenCon on the spot with this tweet was kind of a dick move on my part. At this point, I hadn’t actually talked to GenCon (although their name was all over the place on the website that wouldn’t let me web register), and I actually know a guy at GenCon who I probably should have contacted first. Thankfully, that guy is a really good guy, and instantly gets ahold of me to see what is going on. After I let him know what’s up and that I don’t really think asking me to wait until all the other rooms are sold to find out if I can get the room I need is reasonable. Some checking with GenCon housing happens, and I’m told pretty quickly that the word from VisitIndy is that there are plenty of accessible rooms available and that they’re just lacking the personnel to process them quickly. Within minutes of being told this privately, the same information shows up on GenCon’s Facebook page. This is not the best news in the world, but at least I know we’ll be able to get a room. Even better, GenCon’s doing a great job trying to communicate known issues to all their fans/customers, not just the ones that complain loudly about things on Twitter.

At about the same time, I get a tweet from VisitIndy asking me to drop them an e-mail with my concerns. I do so, explaining the frustration that we don’t know how long it will be until we get a response by phone, and that two days is really too long to get a response by e-mail.

I take a short break to eat something and try to distract myself with NCIS reruns.

Part 3: In Which VisitIndy Makes It Clear They Have No Idea What They’re Doing

At around 4 PM, I get an e-mail reply from VisitIndy’s digital marketing coordinator: “If there is a handicap accessible room available, the room would have been listed via our online system; however, we’ve already received a record number of reservations, and the downtown accessible rooms are sold out, which is why it is not listed in our system.” This is followed by asking me if I want to be put on a waiting list.

No. I do not want to be put on a waiting list. I want to not hear via e-mail that your website misled me into not booking a non-accessible room. I want to not hear that you told GenCon there were plenty of accessible rooms when that wasn’t the case.

My reply e-mail is a little less friendly than my initial contact. It points out that because of the misleading information on the website, Christine and I have been denied equal access to rooms, because during the delay between trying to book a room and learning that there are no accessible rooms – despite what VisitIndy told GenCon – all the rooms within fifteen miles of the convention center have been sold out. What I don’t mention – because at this point the specifics of my wife’s disability are not any of their damn business – is that now the entire trip may be in jeopardy because the required equipment to access the convention has now gone from us taking a shower transfer chair (which was probably all that was required to access the standard room at the Omni Severin) and a scooter that I transferred out of the car once all convention to needing to load and unload the 100-pound scooter every single day of the convention. In 90-degree heat if last year’s GenCon was any indication. I also indicate that while I have no interest in a waitlist, I would love to talk to a housing director about their accessibility challenges.

This e-mail from VisitIndy was also forwarded to Friend Who Works For GenCon (and while I would love to directly name said friend, I’m trying to avoid attaching any names apart from mine and Christine’s to anything). I get a nearly immediate reply indicating that this is definitely not consistent with what he’s heard, and that he’ll pass it along to the appropriate GenCon folks and figure out what they can determine.

Another couple hours pass. I get a call from VisitIndy (I’m pretty sure from the people I left the initial voicemail with) just before 6 PM. All they have left downtown is a couple rooms at the Crowne Plaza (note: This contradicts their claim to GenCon that there were plenty of rooms AND the e-mail to me that the rooms were sold out). I start asking about specific room accommodations. Is there a roll-in shower? Is there room to store a scooter in the room? If both rooms have a roll-in shower and scooter space, which room has other accommodations, because we only need those two and we’d like to leave the room with a hojillion grab bars open for someone who can’t walk with crutches? They. Don’t. Know.

I’d like to point out here that health privacy laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit businesses from asking about the nature of your disability except to ask what accommodations are needed. In fact, they aren’t even allowed to ask if you have a disability when trying to book an ADA room. Thus, the only benefit to requiring human interaction to book the room is so that someone knowledgeable with the room’s features can confirm that the room meets your accessibility needs. And the person handling this for VisitIndy can’t answer these questions (which, as accessibility questions go, is incredibly basic – someone dealing with accessible rooms should be able to answer questions like “Is there a grab bar at least two feet off the ground on the left side of the toilet?”).
So, being unable to answer questions about accessibility is yet another fail on VisitIndy’s part, but we at least have a room, downtown, that probably has what we need – at least, the reservation says “ADA Wheelchair Access” and “Request for roll-in shower”. I’ll be following up with the hotel as the convention gets closer to confirm exactly what accommodations the room would have (note: this is an incredibly useful idea if you happen to be booking an accessible hotel room for the first time, as doing the double-check sometimes alerts the hotel staff to “oh shit, we need to make sure this person actually gets the accessible room they requested).

The requested phone contact from a VisitIndy housing director happens on Wednesday. The housing director is friendly, listens to my concerns and suggestions, and asks if I would be available at a later date to speak with someone again as they try to improve their accessibility. Then – and I still can’t believe this was done – VisitIndy totally throws GenCon under the bus, claiming that not only should GenCon have had the information about accessible rooms on their website to begin with, but that disallowing booking of accessible rooms through the website was done at the request of GenCon. I express surprise at this, since I had been speaking with employees of GenCon and this all seemed to be a surprise to them. The housing director falters slightly before asking for names. I provide the name of Awesome GenCon Employee Friend and note that I was getting information third hand, so I might have misunderstood something (later contacts with GenCon Friend suggest that the information VisitIndy gave me is not the same as the information GenCon gave him).

Regardless, my hotel room is booked, I’ve actually spoken with someone from VisitIndy, and I figure that all I need to do is debrief Awesome GenCon Employee Friend about the conversation so he can pass the information on to their housing folks. Then, around noon on Friday, I get a reply e-mail from VisitIndy. From the address whose “it may be 48 hours” auto-reply on Tuesday initially set me off. The e-mail confirms that I have a room at the Crowne Plaza (which is, in all honesty, probably the first good move on their part, because the last thing they need is to find out in a month that two different people with my name are trying to book accessible rooms), and to let them know if they can be of further assistance. The problem here is only apparent if you’re looking at a calendar – noon Tuesday to noon Friday? Not within 24 to 48 hours. If I’d used the e-mail system only and not called – probably even if I’d e-mailed when registration first opened – I’d have been totally screwed.

Part 4: In Which I Try To Be Helpful

In the end, while I got what I needed, this was an incredibly frustrating experience, and as I related to Awesome GenCon Employee Friend With Superb Listening Skills And Patience, I’m getting a little tired of something that would take five minutes to do if I was traveling alone take six hours because I’m traveling with my physically impaired wife. As a result, I’m leaving the following take-away for any associated with GenCon or VisitIndy (or who are just interested in accessibility at conventions and hotels):

  1. The reservation timing gap is completely unacceptable from a customer service perspective. If your rooms are going to sell out – and if you’re GenCon, they are – there needs to be a system in place so that people who need accessible rooms can find out if they’re able to get accessible rooms in a timely fashion. In this case, knowing that the accessible rooms are gone at 12:30 means you can book a non-accessible room that is still close and find a way to work things out, but if you don’t find out until 7:00 that they’re gone, you can’t get the close standard rooms anymore.
  2. I am not a lawyer, but what I’ve read about accessibility in the past as well as what I’ve looked up this past week suggests that there may be ADA issues with a system that offers options that are only available to those reserving standard rooms (that is, a website that allows you to purchase standard rooms, but not accessible rooms). Ticketmaster had a huge settlement about a web system that did exactly this (although, to be fair, Ticketmaster had a ton of other accessibility issues as well), so it’s worth making sure those ducks are in a row.
  3. I realize that there’s a concern that some people will be dicks and book accessible rooms when they don’t need them, and that’s what motivates the “talk to a human to book an accessible room” system. But this doesn’t actually stop people from being dicks – you can’t ask someone trying to buy an accessible room (or accessible anything) what their disability is or even if they have a disability. All you can do is ask what accommodations they need (and, again, VisitIndy didn’t even do a good job of that). Yes, the phone-in system makes it harder for people to be dicks, but it also makes it harder for people with actual disabilities to access your convention or hotel.
  4. Because you can’t stop people from being dicks, the main concern with the reservation systems is to stop people from booking accessible rooms by accident. This can be handled (although not necessarily easily – I don’t know what goes into these systems) by setting up a parallel reservation site for accessible rooms. Taking the current reservation site as an example, adding a link that says “click here to reserve an ADA room” followed by a popup saying “ADA rooms are reserved for people who have access needs. Are you sure you want to reserve an ADA room?” is an accessible and certainly legal way to handle this.
  5. I can’t say enough how awesome GenCon has been about this whole process. Every communication I’ve seen from GenCon has been rapid and clear. Even though Awesome GenCon Employee Friend doesn’t work with housing, housing gave him clear answers quickly, and he relayed them to me quickly as well. As the convention grows, issues like accessibility become harder to manage, and I’m glad to see that the convention staff seems ready and willing to reach out to attendees having difficulties, get them information, offer them solutions, and listen to suggestions for improvement.

Epilogue: In Which VisitIndy Starts To Dig Itself Out Of The Hole.

Everything before this point was written while I was at work today (the Monday following the opening of hotel registration). I got home to find a large envelope from VisitIndy in the mail. Included in this envelope was a thoughtfully written letter from VisitIndy’s vice president of marketing and communications, who I believe is someone I haven’t previously interacted with. He specifically apologized for the frustrations we had booking our room for the convention and that they are trying to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that ADA-friendly rooms can be booked through the online system. There was also included an appreciated but totally unnecessary gift certificate to a local dining establishment. To customer service executives: This is the way you do it. Not the gift card (although, again, appreciated), but the follow-up letter specifically addressing the customer’s concerns and planned corrective action. It was the first time I got any indication from VisitIndy that they had a genuine interest in determining and addressing the problem I was having rather than passing the buck on to someone else.

-John

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