It was the Mediterranean cruise 86-year-old Walter Dodge had been dreaming about and planning for four years — with stops in Rome, Barcelona and the Grecian isles. But from the start it looked as though Dodge would literally be at sea, stuck aboard the ship, without a way to tour the ports of call.
The problem: His mobility scooter was broken in transit from his home in Washington state to Rome, where he embarked on his three-week Holland America Line cruise in mid-April. From 4,000 miles away came help via Special Needs at Sea, a privately-held Dania Beach-based company.
Special Needs Group, the parent company of Special Needs at Sea, bills itself as the leading provider of wheelchair, scooter, oxygen and other special needs equipment rentals. SNG learned of Dodge’s dilemma on April 22; the following morning, an affiliate in Spain delivered a replacement to Dodge during a port call in Barcelona.
The arrangements were made by Dodge’s son via a travel agent, who contacted SNG.
The company’s owner is Andrew Garnett, 42, a graduate of Miami Beach High School and the University of Florida. After working as a call center recruiter and then with an Internet startup, in 2001 Garnett began working with a travel agent who assisted special needs travelers. With $25,000 in savings, he branched out on his own in 2007, expanding beyond equipment to include training to certify travel agents as Travel Advocates for Special Needs Travelers.
“I started in my bedroom,” Garnett says. He was living in Hallandale at the time and used his personal car to deliver the special equipment to the cruise ships. “I used to wake up at 3 a.m. to go to Port Canaveral and make deliveries there,” he says.
Thanks to additional staffing and cooperative relationships, those early morning hours generally are a bygone. Today Garnett rents equipment to travelers worldwide, servicing 30 countries and 111 cities including Beijing, Dubai, Haifa, Israel and St. Petersburg, Russia. Since taking its first order in June 2007, SNG has made roughly 60,000 deliveries of various pieces of equipment that include wheelchairs and walkers, rollators and bed rails, beach wheelchairs and power chairs, oxygen machines and life vests for service dogs.
Garnett’s latest project provides agents and travelers with details about accessible staterooms and shipboard amenities aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines ships via the Internet. Garnett and Norwegian have work together for five years, said Cathy Vazquez, manager of NCL’s Access Department, in an email; the cruise line recently signed up for SNG’s portal because of the company’s quality service.
“We had used them intermittently to assist us with facilitating guests’ requests for accommodation,” Vazquez said. “These requests were sometimes last minute, and [we] were happy with their service. It was because of this that we signed with them to be our supplier.”
SNG has also signed a contract with Holland America Line and is the preferred vendor with a number of other cruise companies, said Garnett. His company also makes deliveries to hotels, airports and convention centers.
Today, Garnett has 20 employees and runs the business out of a 3,500-square- foot warehouse in Dania Beach. His employees work the phones, keep the books, liaison with travel agents to provide their clients with needed equipment, manage a roster of independent contractors worldwide who provide SNG equipment to travelers in need, and manage his inventory. That includes 5,000 pieces of equipment worldwide, including 1,300 mobility scooters and 1,400 wheelchairs.
SNG’s warehouse abuts the Florida East Coast Railway, making rail deliveries possible, Garnett says. In addition to a call center in the front, the facility includes a storage area in the back that looks like the start of a wheelchair race. Row after row of wheelchairs await, freshly sanitized and ready for transport. Other equipment such as walkers and lift chairs, recliners and oxygen machines, and even doggy life vests for service dogs fill metal shelves along one wall. In the back of the room are several large, heavy-duty wheelchairs, including some that can accommodate individuals weighing up to 700 pounds.
Among SNG’s newest offerings are colorful “Joy on the Beach” two-wheel wheelchair and four-wheel rollators. Their big yellow tires are inflated, making them capable of rolling along the sand without getting stuck.
Such equipment can dramatically improve experiences for special needs travelers.
“It’s amazing the letters we receive,” Garnett says. “People think they cannot travel anymore. A lot of people think that as they get older they just need to stay home and see the world through the television.”
What started as a niche is becoming mainstream. Census figures from 2005, the latest available statistics, indicate 19 percent of the U.S. population lives with some form of disability. That amounts to 47 million people with disabilities in the United States, with more to come, given demographic trends. According to 2010 census data, more than half of Americans over 65 have a disability of some sort.
And with age comes discretionary income, as well as a desire to see the world. Unlike earlier generations, Baby Boomers want to travel, despite their disabilities.
“They are the first generation that views travel as a birthright,” Garnett says. “It’s not necessarily a luxury. The have-it-your-way generation is not ready to slow down. So, getting this type of equipment allows them to still enjoy an active lifestyle.”
The disabled are spending some serious coin on their travel. In 2005, Americans with disabilities spent $13.6 billion on travel, according to the Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based nonprofit that seeks to make goods and services in travel and tourism accessible to people with disabilities. And that spending is increasing at about 3 percent annually, said Eric Lipp, the organization’s director.
Much of that money is going toward cruise vacations. According to a Harris poll conducted for Open Doors, the percentage of disabled cruisers is twice that of the general population.
Thanks to SNG’s services, cruise agent Vicky Garcia of Cruise Planners-American Express Travel has successfully arranged reunions that allow all family members to attend. “Andrew and his company have made us realize that anyone can travel.”