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.