A lone kayak floats on a tranquil lake. Two skiers crest a snow-covered hill. A group of friends raise their glasses under a starlit sky at an outdoor wine tasting.
Beautiful, compelling images of Michigan's many attractions have been a hallmark of the award-winning Pure Michigan tourism promotion campaign since its inception in 2010. But for some would-be travelers with disabilities, those scenic destinations may seem out of reach.
“It was important for
us that every person feels that Michigan is a place they can come to visit.” — Emily
Students in a Central Michigan University Honors Program course, Creating for the Greater Good, took on the task of helping all people see a "purely accessible Michigan."
Accessible for all
For people with disabilities, travel comes with challenges. Finding venues that offer accessible features like designated parking, ramps and paved pathways can be difficult. Although many popular Michigan attractions have transitioned into accessible spaces, it's not often widely advertised or promoted.
"It was important for us that every person feels that Michigan is a place they can come to visit," said 1997 CMU alum Emily Guerrant. She's the senior vice president of marketing, communications and public relations for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the organization behind the Pure Michigan campaign.
"The issue of accessibility was something our travel team had been discussing for a long time but never had enough bandwidth to take on."
Together with Elina Erzikova, faculty member in the journalism department, Guerrant developed the idea for a student project to create a campaign strategy to address accessible travel.
Putting people first
To understand the needs of travelers with disabilities, students conducted interviews, reached out to advocacy organizations and spoke with experts.
"When you think of 'people with disabilities,' you have to look at the first word in that phrase: people," said Joseph Krinke, a junior majoring in statistics.
Several students were surprised to learn how difficult it was to find information about accessible tourism, in Michigan and around the world.
Senior Kaitlyn Bradley, majoring in health administration, said "one of the most interesting findings from our research was that most people do not think about accessibility unless they have a disability or know someone who does. I realized the importance of allowing those with disabilities to feel naturally comfortable, especially when they are traveling."
Once they had a thorough understanding of their audience's needs, students completed an analysis of the Pure Michigan website and social media platforms. They traveled to many of the state's most popular tourist attractions and reviewed marketing materials at several regional visitor centers.
Creating a purely accessible Michigan
The students traveled to Lansing to present a 36-page proposal to a team from the MEDC.
They included recommendations for partnerships with nonprofit organizations, new social media strategies, website improvements and a set of best practices for creating inclusive, accessible communities.
CMU students traveled to Lansing, Michigan, to present
their proposal to the MEDC.
"My favorite part was creating a proposal that Pure Michigan could actually use and incorporate into what they are already doing. We did not just provide hypotheticals. The ideas we developed could potentially lead to tangible results," said Kailie Wielenga, a sophomore studying accounting.
"They blew me away," said Guerrant. "I was proud that my non-CMU alumni teammates seemed as impressed by their presentation as I was."
Many of the suggestions focused on the Pure Michigan website and related social media channels. The students suggested a new tab for the Pure Michigan website that will highlight some of the most accessible sites in the state, as well as an interactive map to help individuals with disabilities plan their trip. Their plan encourages destinations to become not only compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, but universally accessible for people of all needs.
Putting education to work for others
Months after the proposal was delivered, Wielenga reflected on her participation in the class. "It is important to use the education and opportunities afforded to us to make a meaningful difference," she said.
This month, Guerrant and her MEDC team have the students' proposal on the agenda for a meeting with their website vendor. She expects they will incorporate several of the suggestions for making information on accessibility easier to find at Michigan.com.
Jordan Scrimger, a junior Spanish and sociology double major, hopes it will ignite interest for others to continue this kind of work.
"What we were able to do in one semester with the topic of accessible travel in the state of Michigan really was just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more to learn, and it's exciting to think that the Pure Michigan team will take the program we prepared for them and have a great starting point for a future campaign surrounding accessibility," she said. "I hope our work is the catalyst for more conversations in the industry about what accessibility means and how that can be championed in our communities."