Marc Garcia didn’t realize something was missing from the travel and tourism industry until he looked at it through his own lens. After his son, who is autistic, experienced a “meltdown” while on vacation in San Diego, Garcia knew there was an opportunity for a change that would help families like his feel less ostracized.
“You get these very strange looks from other adults in those situations. It’s uncomfortable. Even worse, you’re made to feel unwelcome,” says Garcia, president and CEO of Visit Mesa. “I’m in this business and I’m in a position where I can do something about it.”
So he did—and now Mesa is well on its way to becoming the first autism-certified destination in the country.
“This is just a start for us, by the way,” Garcia says of the effort, which began with Visit Mesa becoming the first-ever destination marketing organization to become certified. “I can’t believe how quickly this has grown.”
Visit Mesa began the initiative in April, announcing its goal to make Mesa a trailblazer in autism-sensitive hospitality. By August, there was no question the city would achieve its goal.
“We always felt this was a terrific opportunity to be the first and do the proper training. We want to let the world know we are inclusive,” Garcia says. “You’ll feel comfortable coming to Mesa knowing the hotel is trained, the museum is trained, and that we offer great sensory awareness.”
It’s that very specific training that’s pivotal to earning the certification. Before launching the initiative, Garcia researched organizations that could credential a business or destination. He looked into—and eventually had a hand in shaping—the standards that each business or destination would need to meet in order to be certified. Garcia continues by adding,
“I wanted something substantive. Something with meaning, something the autism community would know is legit."
Wanting more than a gold seal of approval. Garcia aimed to have a program that would elevate Mesa’s profile among a very specific demographic, but also encouraged a new level of empathy and understanding about autism and its challenges within the hospitality industry.
“It had to have standards and challenges, but it also had to be realistic,” Garcia says of the certification process.
That sweet spot for Mesa to earn certification requires that 60 of its businesses that are affiliated with Visit Mesa or the Mesa Chamber of Commerce usher 80 percent of their consumer-facing employees through an autism-specific training course. The 30-minute course gives these employees a new perspective on the condition, allowing them to experience what life feels like for someone living with autism.
“It puts the viewer into the world of someone who has autism,” Garcia says of the training course. “If you’re at the front desk of a hotel or in a restaurant, it’s something you may then be able to more readily recognize.”
It’s an important audience to understand. Statistics indicate that autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the U.S., as 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with it every year. Visit Mesa
estimates that 32 million travelers with special needs take vacations every year.
“Yes, it’s personal for me. It’s also the right thing to do,” Garcia says. “And, it’s a great business opportunity.”
Others agree. Mesa Fire and Medical has committed to the certification process, as has Mesa Parks and Recreation, which has already sent 500 employees through the program and has decided to implement certification as part of its ongoing new-hire process. Some hotels in Mesa have completed certification, and a number of corporations and hospitals have shown interest in becoming involved.
Garcia and Visit Mesa are so confident they’ll reach that 60-business threshold for citywide certification, that they’ve already put time into planning when and where they will announce the achievement to the public. And they’re looking at next steps.
As a way to truly embrace its autism certification, Garcia says Visit Mesa is looking to partner with Marc Community Resources to provide certified professionals to visiting moms and dads who may want a little child-free time. And, they’re looking at employment opportunities for those living with autism within the hospitality industry.
And to think this entire travel and tourism effort started with a vacation.
“It’s gratifying,” Garcia says. “Very gratifying.”
Story: Lisa Van Loo
Photos: Mark Lipczynski