News Article Details

Mesa tourism agency now autism certified

Tribune - 5/10/2019

May 09-- May 9--Visit Mesa is officially the country's first ever destination marketing organization to become autism certified -- meaning its staff is fully equipped to help those on the spectrum plan for a fun-packed vacation in the city.

The organization, which promotes, markets and sells Mesa as a premiere destination for business and leisure travel, was recently certified by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IDCCES).

Visit Mesa President/CEO Marc Garcia said his staff and governing board underwent more than 100 hours of specialized training to learn the ins and outs of how to best cater to those who have the sensory disorder.

"We feel Mesa is the perfect place to make this history," he said. "Mesa has always been known as a family-friendly destination and I think it fits perfectly with who we are and the fabric of this community."

The recognition enables Visit Mesa to tap into a market with 32 million annual travelers, according to IBCCES data, while more than $262 billion is spent on autism-related services each year.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 59 children will be diagnosed with autism.

"This is an extremely loyal customer base -- the autism community is an army, and they communicate and they are powerful," said Garcia. "They find out through that network very quickly who is autism-friendly, and then everyone frequents those places."

Not only is the certification beneficial from a business standpoint, he added, but it's also the "right thing to do."

Garcia was inspired to kick-start the initiative at Visit Mesa through personal experience -- his 5-year-old son was diagnosed on the spectrum at 14 months old.

"When we travel it can be a challenge sometimes -- you get looks when your child acts up like you're not doing your job as a parent. Sometimes you're made to feel a little uncomfortable and not necessarily invited or welcomed," he told the East Valley Tribune.

"Because of that, and after digging into research, we realized that there aren't many places you can go as a family that might make you feel welcome," he added.

After talking with his leadership staff for the last couple of years, he decided to finally hit the start button by reaching out to IBCCES.

IBCCES provides a series of certifications in the realm of autism and other cognitive disorders that "empower professionals to be leaders in their field and improve the outcomes for the individuals they serve," according to its website.

The Florida-based company has been spearheading autism training for licensed healthcare professionals and educators around the world for almost 20 years -- and as of late, has seen an uptick of travel-affiliated companies seeking certification.

"Historically, there has not been a lot of options for these families [who have children with autism] to travel, but we've had big rush lately on travel-related companies -- they see their customers changing and want to be able to serve them," said Myron Pincomb, board chairman and CEO of IBCCES.

Now, Visit Mesa is encouraging other businesses in the city to get onboard.

The organization is requesting that partner businesses in Mesa's hospitality community encourage their guest-facing staff to complete the autism sensitivity and awareness training within the next six months.

Sheraton Mesa Hotel, 860 N. Riverview, is among the mix.

"My biggest takeaway from the training is that they want to be treated like everybody else," said hotel General Manager Chuck Barron. "If a kid is throwing a temper tantrum, they just want people to have more understanding."

Participating businesses will also be included in Visit Mesa marketing opportunities, such as a National awareness campaign that features new advertising themes promoting travel for people with autism.

Once 60 businesses get certified, the city can then be considered an autism certified "travel destination," said Garcia.

"I knew that when I wanted to do this, I wanted it to be substantive. I wanted it to be meaningful and I wanted it to have teeth," he said.

Garcia's end goal though, would be to see Mesa as a city become autism certified -- which would require schools and other city departments to undergo the training.

Currently, no such city in the country exists.

"The response we've received from city departments to other non-hospitality-related businesses that are interested in going through this has been great," said Garcia. "We may achieve what we hope sooner rather than later."

The Mesa Chamber of Commerce's staff and Board have already completed the IBCCES training, while the Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department is currently in the process of training its nearly 500 employees.

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(c)2019 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)

Visit East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.) at www.eastvalleytribune.com

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