When you’re looking for a place to stay on holiday, what do you look for? Comfy beds? Nice food? Good reviews on TripAdvisor? For me, it’s accessibility – as a disabled person, the last thing I want to worry about on holiday is my impairments. And yet, too often, accessibility is seen as an afterthought, and designed by non-disabled people who have no personal experience of disability. I’m currently training to be a journalist with Ability Today, and when I won their competition to review the 4-star Marsham Court Hotel in Bournemouth, I was keen to see how accessible a hotel could be. My girlfriend Lauren came with me to help me if I needed it, but also because she wanted a minibreak away with me.
Just from browsing Marsham Court’s website, you can see they’ve made it as accessible as possible, thanks to their Welco-me Portal, which allowed me to build an online profile where I could share my access needs with staff members discreetly, and what help I may need during my stay. I later found that staff later received medical information so they were aware of my condition – so they knew I was a wheelchair user, that I wear nappies to manage my incontinence, that I may need to rest in bed longer to manage my fatigue and that I have a gluten allergy. The website also had an Assist ME option to Audio Describe the content for blind and partially sighted people and a 3D model of the hotel helps prospective guests feel more comfortable in their surroundings. So even before we’d arrived, I felt more relaxed than normal because they’d removed so many of the access barriers I usually face.
Marsham Court is not your typical hotel – it’s an independent, family-run establishment that operates out of two old buildings – which doesn’t naturally sound accessible. And yet, to date, it’s the most accessible hotel I’ve ever stayed in – our room had a double adjustable profiling bed and a track hoist, as well as an accessible ensuite toilet and wet room shower. While the track hoist couldn’t extend into the bathroom, due to the age of the building, this could be mitigated with a shower chair. However, not all accessibility features have to be big – they can be as simple as allowing dogs to stay with you – which can make all the difference if you’re travelling with an assistance dog. Another was a connecting door to the next-door room – handy if you’re travelling with a PA but don’t want to share the same room. During the summer months, there is also a fully accessible outdoor swimming pool, complete with an accessible changing cabin and poolside lift.
Over a delicious gluten-free afternoon tea, Lauren and I managed to speak to Jane Swift, Marsham Court’s business development manager, who explained that siblings Rosie, James and Russell who run the hotel have a history of disability in their family; their late mother who passed away from spinal cancer had to use a wheelchair as the disease progressed, while Rosie’s god-daughter was born with Cerebral Palsy. It was these lived experiences that caused the family to realise their accessible facilities needed a serious upgrade.
Beginning in 2020, Marsham Court was the first UK hotel to install a Changing Places toilet, then they converted a storage cupboard into a sensory room. At the same time, two double bedrooms were made uber-accessible with the track hoists, wet rooms and profile beds. This was funded by a £70,000 grant from the local council, but the two accessible bedrooms proved so popular that the hotel is now adapting two further double rooms and a family room to be accessible in 2023.
In total, Marsham Court has now spent close to £300,000 to become more welcoming to disabled guests – because a new market of disabled holidaymakers want to stay here. This investment has paid off in other ways – in 2022, Marsham Court won Catey Awards (the Oscars of hospitality) in accessibility, while renovations were still ongoing.
“We aren’t a charity, but we like to operate as an ethical family business,” Jane explains; giving examples of how the Changing Places toilet is open for community use, not just guests, while the sensory room is available during the daytime for the public for 20-minute sessions, providing they buy a coffee or lunch. Another example of Marsham Court’s policies is not charging extra for adaptations – meaning that both disabled and non-disabled guests pay the same prices per night. The hotel also raised over £25,000 in 2022 for local charities in South Dorset, such as nearby hospices Lewis-Manning and Julia’s House. In turn, the Dorset Children’s Foundation donated a Vipamat Hippocampe beach wheelchair to the hotel for disabled guests to use, as they often send disabled children and their families to Marsham Court for respite breaks – because of how accessible it is.
Marsham Court also has strong community links – it’s part of Lynwood School’s Classroom in the Heart of Industry (CHI) program; providing on-the-job education and training for SEND students in Bournemouth to give them extra support to prepare for “real-world work”, and gain a hospitality qualification through work experience in different parts of the hotel, such as kitchen, house-keeping, front of house and maintenance – some are even offered work afterwards. From these endeavours, the hotel has also attracted more corporate bookings keen to use Marsham Court as a conference venue, because it shows they are being inclusive in their own ethos. As such, accessibility is now starting to be seen as a savvy business investment, rather than an optional extra. “Hoteliers’ attitude needs to change” says Jane, which has been highlighted industry-wide at various award ceremonies.
Speaking of changes, I realised I needed a nappy change, and Lauren suggested we use the Changing Places toilet. I’ve used a number of these super-accessible toilets wherever possible since becoming incontinent, but Marsham Court’s was particularly spacious. As Lauren changed me on the changing table, we both found it surprising that it’s taken this long for any hotel to become this accessible, and that before this, the only way people with more complex disabilities could have a holiday was in respite care, segregated from non-disabled people. Lauren also found it surprising that this had been done in a 110-year-old hotel, in a conservation area, two of the biggest barriers that hoteliers face to make their properties accessible. While not easy, Marsham Court shows that you can protect your heritage while making it more accessible for everyone.
On our way to check out, while waiting for the lift downstairs, I saw a poster that illustrated Marsham Court’s history and how it’s evolved to suit the changing community over the years, and to me, this accessibility drive is the next step forwards. While proud of its past, the hotel is firmly rooted in the present, while actively continuing to grow and develop for the future. Considering the challenges from COVID-19 and a cost-of-living crisis, this independent family-run hotel has found that it pays to become more accessible.