Improving Hospitality Services for the Disabled, One Project at a Time

As a former leader in the hospitality industry, Alex Cohen, a second-year marketing PhD candidate in the LeBow College of Business, knows that Philadelphia is a popular tourist destination. Almost every entertainment possibility is covered: hotels, retail and shopping, museums, historical spaces, parks, restaurants, sports arenas and more. But as someone diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment over time, Cohen experiences these attractions in a different way.

“Going into Franklin Institute or the Philadelphia Art Museum and not being able to see, you really have to get a sense of where you are and what you hope to accomplish while you’re there,” he said. “The experience is always looking for entertainment and enjoyment, but also looking at, ‘Okay, well, how could this be improved for someone with a certain disability?’”

His experiences have inspired him to dedicate himself to research that could shed light on how retailers market to the visually impaired. He’s currently working on three projects, including his future dissertation, to investigate this little-explored area of study. With one foot in the business and hospitality communities and one foot in academia, he’s the ideal candidate for the task.

“I think Philadelphia is a perfect place to conduct this research,” Cohen said about the country’s fifth-largest city. “Philadelphia has world-renowned research institutions and medical establishments, particularly for visual impairment, and you have so many disabled coming to Philadelphia for treatment, whether it’s basic treatment or to be part of research studies,” he explained.

Alex Cohen
Alex Cohen uses his background in hospitality and his present PhD work in marketing to work towards a better future for the disabled community.

Cohen hopes to use his connections and knowledge of the visual impairment and disability communities for his work. For one project, Cohen wants to start an accessible city scale that rates businesses and venues so the disability community ahead of time has some sort of mechanism to have more information about what to expect.

Cohen hopes that his work would influence institutions to change their services as well. Recently, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University’s “museum stories” program created for families with a child on the autism perspective, and other venues could do the same with help from Cohen’s findings.

Since people with different disabilities require different accommodations, he hopes to consolidate the list of qualities that will make the experience better for all types of customers. At the same time, he also will investigate which venues are taking those qualities into consideration.

“For example, it’s like you go to a bar and you’re in a wheelchair. Okay, you can get into front door, but the bathrooms are down a flight stairs and there’s no elevator. That would probably be great to know before it was chosen as a meeting place,” Cohen said, giving an example of a problem that a mobility-impaired person would have.

Cohen wants to work with the visually, audio, mobility or cognitively impaired to find want would give them comfortable and equal enjoyment of the goods or services, as according to the third article of the American Disabilities Act. He plans on looking at restaurants, hotels, retail stores and casinos at first, but hopes to expand it to airports, sporting arenas, museums and other attractions.

“The disabled really do require a lot more information to make decisions before they get out in terms of safety and convenience. You need to at least do some planning before you go out,” he said.

For Cohen, such a system will help him have better knowledge about restaurants that he could visit with his wife and two children. Restaurants often use dim lights and tiny candles to create romance and ambiance, but the poor lighting creates difficulty for Cohen. Even when his vision was better, he still had trouble reading menus with a LED light if the contrast of the menu wasn’t strong enough, like light colored writing on a light background. And that’s before the food comes.

“You don’t have the contrast where you can tell what’s really going on. A visually impaired person would have trouble seeing black coffee in a dark mug. Trying to cut a steak on a dark plate is very difficult. You’re just really going off of feel,” he said.

For another project, Cohen will create a comparative study to examine how different atmospheric techniques relating to all senses except sight can lead to satisfaction, informational utility and purchase probability. One question he has is if retailers can understand and promote their business to the visually impaired communities by using smell, sounds, taste and touch.

Another project, which he hopes will lead into his thesis, is a multi-channel study about how a service failure in one channel—like physical location, website, phone number, catalog, social media—could lead to an avoidance in all channels for people with disabilities.

“For example, I’m looking at web accessibility, which impacts more than the visually impaired because it affects anybody who can’t use a mouse. Specifically, if a website is not accessible, will that feeling of inaccessibility create feelings of frustration or anger to the point where the consumer isn’t going to participate in any of the other channels?” he said. “I want to bring awareness to website accessibility and greater awareness of inclusivity of the disabled into the marketplace.”

His last project is a study for the visually impaired to hypothetically react to a range of possible service failures at a variety of venues. The results would be sent as a survey to their family members, friends and coworkers to gauge if word-of-mouth statements about their loved one’s experience would affect their own experience with the venue.

Once the projects are complete, Cohen wants to apply his findings to other major cities to create a better retail experience for the disability community.

“A goal for my work is that it has a great long-lasting impact,” he said.