The founder of brettapproved.com talks to Pamela Whitby about his determination to address a real need
“I’m just the same as everybody else, I just navigate the world from a chair,” says says Brett Heising who back in 2012 left his job in corporate America to launch brettapproved.com, a travel and entertainment site for people with disabilities.
Heising has been in a wheel chair since the age of six, and although he has always been able to use crutches, says that after just a 50-yard walk he’d need to take a two-hour nap.
“These stamina issues weren’t great for productivity,” he says.
While some people may view a wheelchair as a hindrance, Heisig saw it as something that helped him get around. What he quickly realised, however, is that some places made getting around easier than others.
This became increasingly clear in his work as a journalist and later as a PR for crisis communications when he travelled regularly. His personal assistant and corporate travel manger knew he needed a roll-in shower but 80% of the time he would arrive at his hotel to find that this wasn’t available. To complicate matters further, many of the people he was meeting had never dealt with a person in a wheelchair.
“I’d arrive in my chair, not having showered, in disheveled state to help an organisation in the middle of a communications crisis. It wasn’t a good look,” he says.
Heisig is able to laugh about this now, but after one shower-less hotel room too many he decided that enough was enough. So he flew home to tell his wife that he planned to quit his job and launch a start up that could help fix things.
“She said show me the market, show me the numbers. I did the research and the rest my friend, is history,” he says.
What he quickly established was that in his US market there was a real need for a service that reviewed and rated hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues for people with disability or mobility challenges. Here are some numbers to back this up:
54 million – the number of people with a permanent physical disability or mobility challenges
40 million – the trips they take each year and spend around
$13.6 billion – the amount they spend each year on travel and entertainment
Source: Disability Statistics, Harris Interactive Market Study on Traveler with Disabilities
Aiming to turn the typical review site on its head, Heisig says it’s about celebrating the places that work for people with disability or mobility issues and sharing details of those places, so they are able to make informed decisions.
At Heisig’s favourite hotel in London, the Dorchester, for example, it helps to know that while the rooms are big, the elevator is small. “If you have a compact, manual wheel chair like I do that is okay,” he says.
By harnessing user-generated content from the right people, this is the level of information that Brettapproved.com community aims to deliver so that people are able to travel more confidently.
So far it raised half a million dollars and, using the lean-start up approach, has built to date a cross-platform community of 24,000 people engaging through the website, twice-monthly newsletter and Facebook. For people who sometimes feel isolated and challenged, the brettapproved Facebook community works to help people feel less alone.
brettapproved has recently hired its first full-time employee. Next steps are to build a Twitter following, launch an app for iOS and Android (to make reviewing even easier), and towards the end of the second quarter of this year pilot test a booking engine.
“This will make us the only travel site that caters for folks with disabilities where you can find an accessible room, take a look at the roll-in shower and other facilities and book the room right there and then,” Heisig explains.
If you are in a chair you simply don’t have the time or inclination to visit ten restaurants or to turn up at a hotel where you can’t take a shower.
While many people may think they are not affected by disability, “a huge secondary market” for Brettapproved is America’s 72 million baby boomers, 50% of which are already mobility challenged.
“Every day we get older and at some point, everybody is affected,” he says.
Some of the best companies are born out of a need, and Heisig is single-minded in his determination to deliver a solution for people with disability and mobility challenges.
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May 2016, Miami