The founder of specialist travel agency Designed4Travel tells Charlotte Cullinan how her personal experience fed into her professional aspirations.
A year after launching, Surrey-based Designed4Travel has carved a clear niche by not only booking holidays for disabled travellers but providing them with a wealth of advice.
The agency was set up last February by Karen Layzell-Cianfini, who has first-hand knowledge of the intricacies involved in travelling with a disabled child.
In 2006, she had twins Lauren and Alex. Alex was born with the chronic illness mitochondrial disease, which requires him to have round-the-clock care.
“I’ve travelled extensively with Alex for 10 years, so I know exactly what you need to think about. I’ve learnt a lot and come up against many situations,” she says.
The former Global Travel Group director is also the owner of wholesale ground handling specialist Tour Box, and groups operator My Team Tour. Designed4Travel’s team of agents includes Layzell-Cianfini’s sister Lynne Lewis, who previously ran a nursery that cared for numerous children with special needs. She is joined by her daughter Victoria Lewis, who frequently books trips for customers she helped in her previous role, managing a private medical surgery.
The agents are homeworkers, operating as members of the Global Travel Group, and frequently visit customers at home.
Around 20% of enquiries and bookings now cater for adults and children with disabilities or special needs. Layzell-Cianfini says the issues that concern most parents with a disabled child surround flying.
“Flying can be a very scary thing for them. Parents don’t realise there is an ambulift that takes them right up on to the aircraft, and they board before everyone else. There’s lots of special assistance that we can book, such as aircraft seats with additional support and belts,” she says.
The team often advises on airlines’ service for disabled passengers. “EasyJet is fantastic,” Layzell-Cianfini explains. “They offer you a front- or second-row seat with more room, and the staff are very well equipped. British Airways is amazing, and I’ve flown to Orlando with Alex on Virgin Atlantic and it was a real pleasure.”
She says a key part of the team’s role is offering advice to ensure holidays are as stress-free as possible. They often suggest single parents take an au pair or carer on trips to provide assistance and respite, and advise hiring spares of critical pieces of equipment, such as cochlear implants. Villas are often proposed, to give customers a “home-like environment”, and Layzell-Cianfini says private pools are popular with clients. They also advise delaying travel if a child’s condition means an imminent trip will be highly stressful for the family.
The agents do extensive research for customers before travelling, providing detailed local medical information. “They have our number to call at any time, and if there isn’t a rep on site, we arrange an interpreter, or can contact the British Consulate. Everything we do is geared towards giving travellers security that they will be OK, and if it’s not OK that there’s someone they can contact. It’s about taking the stress away for them.”
Layzell-Cianfini now has a host of ideas to help generate interest in the agency’s specialist services.
An anniversary party is planned for clients to meet key suppliers, including specialist Accessible Travel and Leisure. Layzell-Cianfini is also helping to arrange a local network of parents with disabled children who meet regularly for social events.
The agency is developing a dedicated section on its website about its services for disabled travellers, which will include details of its charity work. It donates 1% of net profits to the Lily Foundation, which supports families affected by mitochondrial disease, and children’s charity Pace.
“For every booking, it could be a £10 or £20 donation. It costs £150 a day to have a support nurse, so it doesn’t take many bookings to make a real difference,” Layzell-Cianfini says.