Attendees of the April 28 awards dinner included leaders in the travel industry, members of the press, bloggers, travel enthusiasts, and your favorite representative of wheelchair accessible travel (I hope!). I was able to meet friends, both new and old, while making a lot of great connections in the travel industry.
The host venue was the new T-Mobile Arena, an MGM Resorts property that opened April 6, 2016. The arena will bring music concerts, sporting and other entertainment events to Las Vegas. Many locals hope that it will be the home arena for a NHL expansion team in 2017. The arena is an excellent step forward towards universal design, and I was excited to see wheelchair accessible seating at the lower level of many seating sections. This is a break from traditional design that often forces wheelchair users to the back of each price level.
Winners were selected by travelers, with the following programs taking home the trophies in the Americas:
Program of the Year — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
Best Elite Program — American Airlines – AAdvantage
Best Promotion — Avianca – LifeMiles
Best Customer Service — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
Best Redemption Ability — Avianca – LifeMiles
210 AWARD — Avianca – LifeMiles
Program of the Year — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
Best Elite Program — Hyatt – Gold Passport
Best Promotion — MGM – M life
Best Customer Service — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
Best Redemption Ability — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
210 AWARD — MGM – M life
Wheelchair users will find that a travel provider's greatest value lies in customer service, promotions, and the ease of using the points and miles that are earned. Due to the volume of my travel, I also place importance on the value of elite programs (I currently hold elite status in 8 different travel loyalty programs), but that is always secondary to customer service and convenience.
A big standout to me among airlines was Southwest, which took home Freddies for Airline Program of the Year and Best Customer Service. I haven't flown Southwest as a wheelchair user, due to the lack of assigned seating and their limited route network, but many wheelchair users have applauded Southwest for their treatment of disabled passengers. Given that the largely able-bodied pool of voters also awarded the airline, I might have to give them a try on an upcoming trip.
In the hotel industry, Marriott was the big winner, taking home Freddie Awards for Best Customer Service, Best Redemption Ability, and Program of the Year. The majority of my hotel stays have occurred at Marriott properties, and I cast my ballot for them in all three of the categories they won. While I've had a small number of regrettable experiences at Marriott, I always trust them to take care of me and look after my needs as a disabled guest.
Although there are no major awards given to travel providers for their treatment of the disabled, the Freddie Awards have shone a light on the need for quality customer service and a program that rewards consumers for their business and loyalty. Who knows, in a few years, perhaps WheelchairTravel.org will host an "AccessAbilities Award," or something similar.