Janet Lavern & Alex Yates – Expand The World For Special Needs Travellers

Open Jaw Exclusive – Finding Their Niche
by Martha Chapman

Alex Yates & Janet Lavern 

More and more Canadian agents are finding their own niche when it comes to selling travel.  But how small can your niche be – and still earn you a decent living? Open Jaw has discovered 5 agents who are following their passion… professionally.

For many travel agents, the thought of planning a holiday for a client who uses a wheelchair (or is blind, or has a severe food allergy) is daunting.  Not so for Janet Lavern and Alex Yates of Expand Your World Travel.  It’s all part of a day’s work.

The pair, both industry veterans, connected at an agents’ conference several years ago and decided that there was a business opportunity in helping people with special needs and their families see the world together. Alex’s son, now 29, uses a wheelchair and requires 24/7 support, yet has been on 30 cruises.

“Our clientele is very mixed – it’s not just about wheelchair accessibility,” says Ottawa-based Lavern. “They include family members who are deaf, have heart conditions, autism, diabetes – or members of the same family might have different situations. We don’t focus on the ailment or disease, but on the experience for the whole family.  Our role is to remove the challenges.”

One of the most rewarding experiences was liaising with Norwegian Cruise Lines to help a family which included a young man who doesn’t talk or sign, but communicates through pointing. The cruise line developed a pictoral menu for every restaurant on board – which is now available to other non-verbal passengers, stroke recoverers, non-English speakers and so on.

Expand Your World works with Virtuoso partners, especially in Europe, as well as DMOs, local tour operators and transfer companies. “We do a lot of legwork, always calling the hotel directly and, for example, having them send actual photos of the rooms they say are wheelchair accessible.”

The business is quite young and so far they’ve concentrated on cruises but moving forward they are looking at more land product including, for example, condo rentals. And while they started with mainly individual bookings, they see the practicality in promoting group travel (usually 10-12 people) with Lavern or Victoria-based Yates escorting as a Travel Care Host.

Not surprisingly, they see a lot of repeat and referral business and promote the business with lectures to, for example, Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. “We are very immersed in this world. I hear the relief in people’s voices – ‘You understand me!’ They spend so much time explaining the situation, and the terminology, that it becomes very wearing. Just talking to us is a bit of a vacation from that.”

What’s next?  Their group departures are growing apace to exotic destinations such as Panama, Africa and the Med. Long term, Lavern explains that they don’t want a huge company but in the future to perhaps help tour operators develop special departures branded and accompanied by Travel Care Hosts. As she puts it, “I just want to make it so that everyone can do what I can.”

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