Twelve years ago, Jonathan Turman of Glen Cove was lying in bed wondering if he would ever get the chance to cruise again. He had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was worried the disease would put an end to his favorite pastime.
He started calling travel agents and cruise lines to find out what kinds of accommodations the ships made for people with disabilities. What he found was "no one had a clue," he said. That discovery eventually led to a new business: a cruise travel agency with a focus on people with disabilities.
Last November, with his disease making it difficult to continue helping his wife, Beth, at the child care center they founded in 1998, Turman, 54, started Come Sail Away Ltd., a franchisee of CruiseOne, a national travel agency.
More people with disabilities are taking cruises. In 2013, Americans with disabilities are expected to spend $15 billion on travel, a significant portion of that on cruises, said Laurel Van Horn, research director at the Open Doors Organization, a Chicago nonprofit that works to make travel accessible to people with disabilities. That's up from $13.6 billion in 2005. Also, with baby boomers reaching the ages when disability rises, demand for services will likely continue to grow.
Turman's challenge now is how to tap into the market.
Cruises are a great way for people with disabilities to travel, said Turman, who has been on 40 cruises himself. In addition to having MS, he is legally blind. Ships are now required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so hallways are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, there are ramps as alternatives to stairs, and there is a set number of handicapped-accessible cabins.
"I love cruises, because I can get around easily and still see the world," Turman said.
Besides providing all clients with critical cruise information like "which ships have the best food and which ones are horrible," he said he provides specialized services for clients with disabilities. Certified as an "accessible travel advocate" by the Special Needs Group in Florida, he can arrange for wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, scooters or any other equipment clients may need.
In its first year of operation, Turman's company, which does business as CruiseOne, booked 35 trips and generated $100,000 in sales. He hopes to double that in the coming year and hit $3 million in sales in 10 years. But a key hurdle is getting the word out to people about his specialized services.
Reaching a target market is a common business challenge, noted Paul Gittemeier, CEO of Tic Toc, a marketing and motivational services firm in Dallas. But this market is particularly challenging, according to Turman. Getting email lists from charitable organizations is like "getting gold out of Fort Knox," he said.
The ODO's Van Horn has several suggestions. Every year, there's a trade show for consumers with disabilities called The Abilities Expo at the New Jersey Convention Center. "You get a booth, and people from New York and New Jersey bring their families. It's a great way to meet the community," she said.
There's a Long Island-based newspaper focused on people with disabilities called Able. Turman should consider pitching a travel-related column to the paper, said Van Horn. There's also a LinkedIn group, Accessible Travel for People with Disabilities, she noted.
If Turman wants to reach his ambitious long-term goals, he needs to focus on business organizations.
"Corporate America is valiantly seeking to step up engagement with the disabled community," said Gittemeier, whose Tic Toc business is certified by the U.S. Business Leadership Network in Alexandria, Va. The network links disabled-owned businesses with corporations looking for such vendors.
Certification costs $200 a year. A corporation, for example, may consider using a firm like Turman's to book a cruise for a sales meeting. "We're talking about selling cruises to a whole department versus individuals," noted Gittemeier. "It only takes one or two corporations to take your business to a new level."
Turman said he thinks joining something like the network would be worth the expense. "These days, $200 a year is less than going to a gym," he said. "I'm willing to make that kind of investment in my business."
AT A GLANCE
Name: Come Sail Away Ltd., dba CruiseOne
Owners, founders: Jonathan and Beth Turman