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Tall towers that appear to be flowers rise behind a large pong with lilypads

The Singapore Experience: Making Singapore Accessible

Singapore:  multicultural country, island of adventure, city of man-made waterfalls, home of the Chili Crab, and Wheel the World’s next accessible destination. 

At Wheel the World, we had begun our search to open new destinations around the world. Southeast Asia and Singapore, with more than 19.11 million international visitors a year, seemed like a great starting point. 

In 2019 we applied for the Singapore Tourism Accelerator program (STA), a highly-selective, equity-free 6-month program for the world’s most promising technology startups in the travel and tourism industry. The STA is organised by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and its appointed corporate innovation partner, Ravel Innovation.

How does that involve me?

To start, my name is Lorena and I am Customer Experience Manager at Wheel the World. Our COO, Camilo, called me and shared the news about how we had applied and were selected for this amazing program. Out of 133 applications from 33 different countries, only 10 companies were picked. Wheel the World was one of them.

A woman in a Wheel the World shirt smiles, with green vegetation and the ocean in the background
Lorena smiles on a WTW trip in Costa Rica

I had been chosen from our team to lead our participation in this program. And surprise surprise, to move for 6 months to Singapore to be able to complete the accelerator. 

As with everything in WTW this was exciting, a great adventure always with a greater purpose of making the world accessible, so I said “count me in”.  I was ready for the experience and to represent this company that I love in the most amazing destination. Singapore had created this specific program to support and bring the very best in innovation in the tourism industry.  I was ready, with my ticket in hand, bags packed and then came COVID. 

As we all know, COVID came to put a stop to many plans, many industries and has affected lives, businesses, and our health. With this turn of events, I thought the program wouldn’t continue, but we were happily surprised by how Ravel Innovation and STB worked together to bring us an online version of this program. 

They knew that it was a time where the tourism industry needed this program to come up with solutions and ideas to keep the industry up. It was not easy for them to manage the different time zones, but with great leadership skills, they made this experience totally worth it. 

We had the mission of making Singapore accessible. We faced a great challenge of not being able to physically be in Singapore, yet we had to find how to map its accessibility, train their staff, generate content, and create the most amazing experiences in Singapore.

Two bikers, a woman in a wheelchair and two pedestrians on a waterfront pathway with modern buildings in the background
Mapping Singapore’s accessibility

The Remote Experience

From day one of the cohort the “new normal” became this routine: connecting at Singapore time (a 11 hour difference from Mexico, where I am based) to participate in our almost daily STA sessions. 

In these sessions, we were introduced to and mentored by various gamechangers in the tourism industry, like Jeff Archambault, former Vice President  of The Walt Disney Company; Patrick Imbardelli, former Chief Executive of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) for Asia Pacific, Chi Chan Poh, Acting CTO at Singapore Tourism Board (STB), and many more. They all had been in top positions when other recessions happened, and they kept us all in great spirit and with the hope that soon we would all travel again.

These sessions aimed at preparing us to enter the Southeast Asian market, and to be able to make it pass the second part of the cohort.  Only 8 out of the 10 companies that entered would be allowed to continue . The second part consisted of being introduced to big stakeholders in Singapore’s tourism industry, and pitching partnerships to accomplish great things in Singapore. 

After 2 months of preparing, we had our Internal Demo Day to pitch to all the industry partners. We told them what Wheel the World is all about, how millions of people with disabilities are not considered in the industry, and how they are being deprived of the most amazing experiences. We told them how their population will soon face new accessibility challenges due to the aging and how Singapore could be the world’s next accessible destination.

Thankfully, our cause resonated with many, and we not only got one, but two industry partners that wanted to work with us to make Singapore accessible. 

Our first partner was the Shangri La Hotel. They have more than 100 hotels and resorts in over 22 countries, regions and 76 destinationsWith our help, they wanted to show how their Singapore hotel was accessible and most importantly, they were ready to learn more about people with disabilities and how Shangri La could make a difference for them while traveling.

A woman in a wheelchair in front of a large hotel pool
Mapping the accessibility at the Shangri La Hotel

Our second partner was Sentosa Development Corporation. They are owners and managers of a 500 hectare resort Island home of luxury resorts, many top attractions, beautiful beaches, spas, casinos, and much more. Together we would assess their accessibility, train their staff and give feedback on how the Island could become more accessible. We worked together to create a Day in Sentosa tour. Find out more here.

WTW Accessibility Ambassadors

As I mentioned, one of the biggest challenges was doing it all remotely. To do, we work hard on developing the tools needed to assess the accessibility of facilities from a distance. We created an easy to use and self explaining tool that would guide people on how to map accessibility of different places, then all this information would be processed and organized in order to become a product on our website. For this task we needed help from almost all of our team members at Wheel the World.

Now with the technology, we needed people to become our eyes and ears in Singapore, people passionate about the cause and ready to make a change. So we started our WTW Accessibility Ambassador program. We launched campaigns on our network about  how we were looking for locals in Singapore that would help us out with this amazing cause, and we found 3 perfect ambassadors for our brand. I got to interview them and work with them for 3 months. 

On our team we had Jane, a new mother of a gorgeous baby, she was an auditor for certain companies and wanted to help. Her experience in a wheelchair and having the structural thinking of an auditor made her an amazing ambassador.

A woman in a wheelchair posing with her arms up in the middle of a garden in front of a small clock tower
Jane poses in Singapore’s National Orchard Garden

Apple also came along for the project. A young paralympic athlete on the Singapore National Sailing team, her energy and strength fit perfectly with what we wanted for the project.

A woman in a wheelchair smiles in front of a brightly colored wall
Apple pauses to smile while mapping Little India

Lastly Ephraim, an adventurous husband and father who has traveled all over the world with his wheelchair, and we always have space in our team for adventurous souls. 

A man in a wheelchair sits in front of modern green vertical gardens planted on tree shaped towers
Ephraim in Singapore’s famous Gardens by the Bay

With the help of Jane, Apple, Ephraim, and 2 great photographers, we were able to map more than 18 places in 2 weeks. Places as iconic as the Singapore Flyer and Merlion Park, as adventurous as a sky bridge in Sentosa and as historical as Little India and China Town. 

We also created the Wheel the World Academy, an online learning journey created to provide training to our industry partners in order to understand more about people with disabilities and accessibility. We aimed to educate tourism professionals, so that they can be more aware of accessible tourism and create high quality experiences for people with disabilities. Thanks to the great support of our industry partners, we managed to have 70 students and 70% finished the training and are now certified by us. You’ll read more about WTW Academy in a later blog article. 

Finally, with all this effort we managed to create 6 amazing travel experiences for people with disabilities to enjoy Singapore. You can explore these experiences, and other tours and accommodations here. It was truly an amazing experience and a lesson on how even if circumstances are against you, even if plans don’t turn out, there are always people that want to help you, and with a great team and determination you can be unstoppable.

Singapore: multicultural country, island of adventure, city of man made waterfalls, home of the Chili Crab, and now a certified accessible destination.

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