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Podcast Transcript: Vacations And Beyond

Posted in Blind Travel, Career, Disability, Guide Dog Travel, Personal Finance, Podcast Episodes, Podcast Transcripts, and Travel

Chris: Welcome to “Target Your Goals,” a podcast by Penny Forward. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their family, and friends who share a common interest in financial independence. Join us, via our Facebook group, and we will work together to avoid financial obstacles and target our goals. The purpose of this podcast is to introduce you to people who have set interesting goals, and are succeeding in accomplishing them. Join us as we meet these people, and cheer them on, as they work towards their own success.

Chris: Our guest today is Melvin Reynolds. Melvin is a certified travel advisor, a certified accessible travel advocate, and an Alaskan certified expert.

Chris: Melvin, thanks for being here.

Melvin: Thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris: So, you are a certified travel advocate, and an accessible … a travel accessible, uh, what do you call that again?

Melvin: I am a certified travel agent, and a certified accessible travel advocate.

Chris: All right, and tell me a little bit about what that means.

Melvin: “Certified travel agent” is, I have taken quite a few courses through the travel institute, and through a local university, and have gotten a certification as a travel agent. And “a certified accessible travel advocate” means that if someone is traveling and they need wheelchairs, or they need braille, or they need things for hearing adaptive equipment, I can get that for them, I can get oxygen, I can work with the cruise lines, and have their adaptable equipment delivered directly to the cruise line, or even to a hotel, if they’re staying at a hotel, or a resort if they’re staying at a resort.

Chris: That sounds pretty involved. How did you get started?

Melvin: I actually got started quite a few years ago. Back in 1997, I graduated from Youngstown State University with a Batcheler’s in geography, and at the time, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with that degree, and in 1999, I earned my travel agent certification, and this past year, I started working for Cruise Brothers as an affiliate agent, and one of the courses I had taken mentioned “Special Needs Group.” And so I went and checked them out, and they offered this training, and I took it. It was a three-hour training all about the equipment that they offered and how I could better serve special needs clients.

Chris: And you yourself are a special needs client?

Melvin: I am. I am totally blind, have been for 18, will be 18 years this year.

Chris: How do you go about getting a geography degree as a totally blind person?

Melvin: I was actually sighted at the time.

Chris: Ah.

Melvin: I was sighted when I got the geography degree, I was sighted when I got my initial travel agent certification. I’m in the process of recertifying, which is a little different now that I’ve lost my sight. Some of the geography courses are a little tougher than what they were when I was sighted, but being I have the basic understanding from when I was sighted, it’s not as hard, I don’t think, as it would be to go at it if I had never taken those courses when I was sighted.

Chris: And are you a traveler yourself?

Melvin: I am. I travel quite frequently. I love to cruise. I’ve been on four cruises so far, two to the Southern Caribbean, one to the western Caribbean, and one to Alaska. I have two more planned this year, that we hopefully will go off without a hitch, and then I have one planned for next January as well.

Chris: And how many of them were after you lost your sight?

Melvin: All of them. All of the cruises have been after, since I’ve lost my sight. I’ve traveled extensively within the United States. I’ve been to thirty-six of the fifty states, and the majority of those have also been after I lost my sight.

Chris: Very cool. So tell me about what it was like to take the courses that you needed to take in order to become an agent with Cruise Brothers.

Melvin: Um, the courses were quite extensive. The cruise lines each offer their own course work to become certified to sell their particular cruises. Some are longer, some are more involved, some are accessible, some are not. I found quite a few of the course work that was not accessible, so I had to come up with a work around for those, and I got my mother to help. She has spent hours upon hours reading page after page of material for me, and with her help, I’ve been able to do all the course work for the different cruise lines, even some of the land venders that we use.

Chris: What were some of the accessibility challenges you ran into?

Melvin: There would be slides, and within the slides, there would be numbers that you had to click on to expand a certain area of that slide, and VoiceOver just would not read those for me at all. And others were that instead of being like a PDF form to read, it was a JPEG.

Chris: Mhm.

Melvin: And so there was no way that VoiceOver would pick up the graphics or the print on those at all.

Chris: Were there any tests?

Melvin: There were. There were tests at the end of each chapter that you did. They would have been accessible had they been in a different format. Again, they were done JPEG, and you had to click the correct answer within the JPEG. But had they been in a different format, there were none that said, you know, “Match this picture to that picture,” or anything like that. They were all multiple choice. So had they been done in a different format, they would have been accessible.

Chris: Did you know that they were going to be inaccessible going into it?

Melvin: I did not. I did not. No. No. At the time, I had not talked to any other visually impaired travel agents to figure out, you know, that some of this stuff wasn’t accessible. It wasn’t till after I got started in it that I’ve met several other visually impaired travel agents, and they said, “Oh yeah. You know, this company or that company is really bad about accessibility.” But others, I Have contacted a couple of the cruise lines and said, “You know, I’ve been working on taking your courses, and they’re really inaccessible for me as a blind travel agent,” and they have said, “Thanks for the feedback, we will get our accessibility team working on that.” So, who knows? In the next couple months, things may change. So, …

Chris: Will you know if things change?

Melvin: I will.

Chris: Do you have to recertify or anything?

Melvin: Yes. They’re only good for so many months and then you have to go back and take refresher courses, every, like every twelve months, so a lot of them I will know if things have changed. Yes.

Chris: I’m curious to know if the accessibility of a cruise line’s courses has anything to say about the accessibility of their cruises from a … a traveler’s perspective.

Melvin: No. I can verify that. (Chuckle.) One of the cruise lines that has some of the worst accessibility on their training site, their ships are some of the most accessible that I have been on. Braille on doors, talking elevators, they work wonderful with my guide dog, they make sure that they have the relief area set up for him, if it’s not right, they’ll change it, they’ll move it, whatever I need them to do. They’re really good about working with me, as far as making sure that I have the paperwork I need to get the dog off the ship on different excursions, that kind of thing, so they’re really good. It’s just that their training isn’t accessible.

Chris: I’m sure that many of us can relate to stuff like that.

Melvin: Yes.

Chris: So talk to me about what it’s like to be a blind traveler.

Melvin: It’s totally different for me, having been sighted, and then, you know, now traveling as a totally blind person. To me, it’s a little more complicated, I guess, just because I wasn’t used to traveling that way. You know, like a meet and greet at the airport. Or making sure that I have all the paperwork for the dog. And that kind of thing. If I’m going to a foreign country, making sure that the cruise line or the airlines know that I’m traveling as a totally blind person. So there’s a little more work involved, I think, than traveling as a sighted person. Although, it’s just as enriching for me traveling now as I did when I was sighted. I seem to maybe even get a little more out of it, ’cause I pay more attention to what’s being said in the excursions, and I’ve even had opportunities to touch things, and be able to handle things that normal, sighted people don’t get to handle. On some of the excursions and some of the tours I’ve been on at museums and stuff. So, it’s been … it’s been quite an experience.

Chris: Tell me about what it’s like to go on a cruise with a guide dog.

Melvin: It’s … It’s fun. I love it. Just be prepared to be the center of attention, ’cause there are not many dogs onboard ships. A couple years ago, two years ago, actually, we went on a cruise to the southern Caribbean, and the captain fell in love with my guide dog. At the time, I had a black and tan Doberman named Shammy, and he absolutely fell in love with her. And every time he would see me in one of the passage ways, or out on deck, or whatever, he would always come over and talk to me, people would pass me in the passage ways or be in the elevator with me and they always commented on the dog, and how nice it was to see a dog onboard the ship, and how much they missed their own dogs and stuff at home, and the captain actually got us a tour of the bridge. All because of the guide dog. Had I not had her with me, we probably wouldn’t have got the tour. So that was quite unique. But it is fun traveling with a guide dog. It makes it a little easier, especially when you get off the elevator, and you tell the dog, “Get the room,” and they take you right there, and you don’t have to worry about trying to find your way around this ship with, you know, three thousand other passengers on it. You know, the dog learns after the first day or two that they’re there where you’re going, and it makes it really nice. It makes it a lot easier to travel too, I think. As far as mobility and navigating, that kind of thing.

Chris: You talked about going on excursions and having to do paperwork to take the dog off of the ship. Has that ever been challenging?

Melvin: It has been. Because you have a certain number of days before the cruise to get the paper work, stamped by the US DA, and sent back to you, and then faxed to the cruise line, and there have been a couple times where it’s been really, really close. Because either there was a holiday, or the mail just was really slow. You know, so there have been a couple times that it’s been … it’s been kind of close to not having that paperwork that I need. And especially being that I travel usually from Michigan to Florida, and then leave on my cruises from Florida and I’m usually down here for a couple months every winter, and my cruises are usually in January and February. So I have to find a vet down here then that’s willing to work with me, having never seen my dog before. So it can be a little challenging.

Chris: So they won’t accept word from your vet in Michigan?

Melvin: Because it is more than ten days before the cruise, no.

Chris: Ah.

Melvin: Yeah. You have ten days before the cruise, so if your cruise is seven days long, you only have like a week before the cruise starts to get your dog to a vet, get them examined, get the paperwork to the US DA, get it stamped, get it back, and get it faxed to the cruise line. It’s a real tight, tight window that you have there to get the paperwork done and sent in.

Chris: It seems like there would be a lot of value then in having a travel agent that knows how to do that.

Melvin: There is. I can pull all of the forms off line, make sure that my clients have those forms, and, you know, make sure that they’re aware of the dates that they need to get things done, it kind of helps relieve the stress of it a little bit for them.

Chris: Have you ever had to leave your dog onboard ship?

Melvin: I have. There was one … one country, one island, and the paperwork was just so extensive, and then there was also a … an additional fee on top of all the paperwork to get the dog off the ship, and I’m like, “You know, this is just crazy. I’m not gonna pay an extra fifty bucks to get the dog off the ship. You know, for a two hour excursion.” So, I have had to leave the dog on the ship once. Which is fine, because I had friends on the cruise at the time, so they weren’t getting off the ship anyhow, so they stayed and they just kept the dog. Because the cruise lines will not let you leave your dog in the state room unattended.

Chris: So there’s a chance then that you may need to either pay the fee or choose not to go on an excursion.

Melvin: Correct.

Chris: Okay.

Melvin: Yes.

Chris: We’ll hear the conclusion of this interview in a moment, but first, a brief word from our sponsor.

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Chris: Tell me a little bit more about your employment as a travel agent. Has there been any challenges as a blind person other than the course work?

Melvin: Some of the booking sites are a little tricky to navigate. One of them, in fact I just did a booking on it a couple weeks ago, works fine, right up until the very end, where I have to submit the booking, … (Chuckle:) And then the button to submit the booking doesn’t read. So I have to go get a sighted person and say, “Hey, can you click this button for me?” Other than that, everything else works wonderfully on the site. That’s one of the biggest challenges. Another challenge is, my agency, my host agency, Cruise Brothers, does weekly webinars. On Tuesdays Wednesdays and Thursdays. And, a lot of times, when they’re sharing their screen, they just go, “Well you go here and click this, and then you go here and click that, and then this shows up and you click this,” and it’s like, “Well, what are you clicking?” (Chuckle.) They’re not very descriptive as far as talking through what they’re clicking, because it is … They’re sharing video. So, you know, the sighted agents are getting what they’re doing, but me, not so much.

Chris: What is the response from sighted agents that you work with when they find out that you’re blind?

Melvin: They’re like, “How do you do it!” You know, it takes some … it takes some patience. If you’re not a patient person, it’s definitely not a job for you. Because there’s lots of research involved, and some of that research can be quite tricky to do, but they … a lot of the agents are totally amazed that I actually do it, and I do it well. In fact, my team leader, from Cruise Brothers when I first signed on, she’s like, “I’ve never worked with a blind travel agent before.” She’s like, “What do I need to do?” And, so, I went over some of the basic stuff, you know, like, “If we’re in a meeting, you need to be very descriptive,” that kind of thing. So, it’s worked out well. The ones that I work closely with know, and so they help me out as best they can.

Chris: Is there a lot of collaboration in the travel agent world?

Melvin: There is. For example, my specialty is Alaska, as well as the accessible travel. So, if someone comes to an agent that maybe doesn’t do Alaska, or doesn’t know Alaska that well, they may then refer that person to me, and I may do the same for them if there’s someone who, say, comes to me wanting to do a … a river boat in Europe. I mean, I’m familiar with river boats in Europe, but that’s not my … my … my specialty, so I may pass them off to someone who I know knows that area of cruising really, really well.

Chris: Can we talk for a minute about how you get paid? I imagine that it’s commission based, like a lot of jobs are, where you get paid for how productive you are?

Melvin: Yes. It is commission based. Each vender pays a different amount of commission. I really can’t go into commission schemes, but they … they do pay a different amount of commission depending on whether it’s cruise, or whether it’s land, the only ones who don’t pay commission are airlines. They quit paying commission quite a few years ago. So the only way that we get commission if we book air is if we book something like a rental car, or a hotel or a cruise with that air. But that gets paid to cruise brothers, and then I make half of whatever the commission was. So if the commission was paid 300 dollars to Cruise Brothers, I make 150 dollars.

Chris: Have you ever felt like you were less productive than other agents because of your blindness

Melvin: No, I wouldn’t say because of my blindness, I would say maybe because I don’t know as many people who travel as some people do. I know there are some agents with Cruise Brothers who are constantly doing groups of like 250, 300 people. I can only hope to ever be that productive. (Chuckle.) Just because … and maybe it does relate back to my blindness, being that I’m not out in the community as much as they are. I don’t know if that’s part of it, but like I said, it’s just that I don’t really know people who travel as much as they do.

Chris: So how have you gone about finding clients?

Melvin: I have a Facebook page, which is “Melvin Reynolds CTA ‘cata,” put that in the search box, you’ll find me. I have that, I hand out business cards everywhere I go, word of mouth has been a big one, friends telling friends, other clients telling their friends, that kind of thing. And I also have a newsletter, as well, that goes out once a month, and that has been passed from some of my recipients to their family and their friends, and from that, I’ve gotten new subscribers to my newsletter, and a couple new clients from that.

Chris: Do you think that being a travel accessibility expert helps you with marketing?

Melvin: I do, in some ways. Simply because I feel that I can reach a different market than a lot of travel agents, and because I know how to reach that market for my training, a lot of agents kind of … I don’t want to say they don’t know how, it’s just that they’ve not been trained how to ask the questions that they need to ask to serve the … the accessible market.

Chris: How about guide dog users? Do you find that guide dog users are more comfortable with working with a travel agent that is also a guide dog user?

Melvin: I think so. I think they are, simply because I, you know, I know what they need to have, and they know that I know what they need to have, to get the dog in this country or that country, or how to talk to the cruise lines, or the resorts, and say, “You know, my client has a guide dog,” and what to request as far as accommodations from the cruise lines because of having to have had to request them for myself.

Chris: Talk to me about a time maybe when you’ve been discouraged, felt like maybe … maybe this was harder than you thought, or wanted it to be?

Melvin: I think the most discouraged I was was when I started to take courses through one of the cruise lines, and I thought, “Oh! I’m gonna love to do these courses through this cruise line. This is my favorite cruise line!” I won’t mention the cruise line’s name, … (Chuckle.) But it is my favorite cruise line. But when I got to those courses, and just discovered that they weren’t accessible. And, I thought, “After being on the ships and seeing how accessible the ships were, is this what everything’s going to be like?” It was kind of disheartening to see that. And, once I figured out a work-around, it wasn’t as bad, but at first, I’m like, “Ugh! If this is what everything’s gonna be like, you know, I just … I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just give up and not do it.” But friends said, “No, we can work around it, we can work with you, we can help you, you’ll be able to do it.” And that kind of relieved me, and helped me get through it.

Chris: So what keeps you going?

Melvin: The love of travel. I mean, just that … that wonder of exploring a new place, finding a new place, and hearing a client come back and say, “Oh! You know, we went to this wonderful …” I don’t know. Say “monastery on one of the islands, and just had a wonderful excursion, had a wonderful time!” That’s ‘what really keeps me going. Is hearing the joy that I bring to my clients when I send them on a … a one of a kind vacation that they’ve always wanted to go on.

Chris: Do you find that there are types of excursions that maybe lend themselves more towards a disabled traveler or a blind traveler than to a sighted traveler? Do you steer people towards things or away from things maybe?

Melvin: I give them options, and a variety of categories whether it’s, we’ll say, in Alaska. At one of the ports in Alaska, you can ride a helicopter and go hiking on a glacier. Or you could ride a bus to a native village. And, depending on the person’s mobility, and their level of activity, and their level of balance, that sort of thing, I kind of give them options and let them choose themselves. If I know somebody can’t hike three, four, five miles, then I may suggest some more of the less active excursions. The ones where maybe it’s a city tour and you ride a bus, and you may get off, on and off the bus a couple times to look at a statue, or to take pictures, or to sample reindeer for chili, or something like that, as compared to the hike across a glacier.

Chris: How do you talk about a cruise to someone who’s never been on one before and is maybe thinking they want to try it but they’re maybe a little bit nervous also?

Melvin: You know, I tell them, it’s like a floating city, because everything you need is right there. Your food is there, your entertainment is there, you never have to leave the ship if you don’t want to. You know, if you don’t want to go on an excursion, you don’t have to. You never have to leave the ship. Everything you could ever want can be brought to you. You can just find a nice cozy spot in the library and sit down and read a book or listen to a book, you never have to interact with other people, it is one of the most relaxing, most enjoyable ways to travel, ’cause you unpack once, and you see five, six different places. Without ever having to pack and unpack, or drive, or ride in a car, or get on a plane a number of times. So, you know, it’s … it’s … it’s the ultimate way to travel, I think.

Chris: Are there any dirty little secrets about relieving a guide dog on a cruise?

Melvin: Be sure you take your own bags. (Chuckle.) The last time I was on a cruise with a dog, we had told them we were bringing my dog, and they had the relief area set up, which is usually wood chips or paper pellets, in like a big, very heavy duty plastic area that’s maybe four foot by four foot, and the bags that they gave me to clean up after my dog, you could have fit like three of me in them. Now I’m five foot six, and about a hundred and eighty pounds, and you could have fit three of me in the bag that they gave me to clean up after my dog. (Laugh.) So, be sure you have your own bags. Before you leave, you may want to work with your dog to get them used to going on wood chips, especially if they’re not used to going on something like wood chips or paper pellets. I would suggest, you know, going and getting a kiddy pool, and taking a bag of wood chips, and throwing in, and every time that you take your dog out to relieve them, for like a week, maybe two weeks, before you leave on your cruise, take them to that kiddy pool, and have them relieve themselves in the wood chips. ’cause most dogs really aren’t used to going on wood chips. That kind of gets them used to that, ’cause that’s what most cruise lines use.

Chris: What is the most fun trip you’ve been on do you think?

Melvin: It would have to be my Alaska trip. It would have to be my Alaska cruise. By far. Just the whole culture that I experienced when I was there, the food that I got to experience when I was there, the history, there’s a bit of everything in Alaska. And it really is America’s last frontier to experience a ride over the White Horse Pass. And learn the history of the Gold rush. Or to experience a native dance and song demonstration. It’s just … I don’t know. It really, it just kind of makes you appreciate our heritage a little more I think.

Chris: I’m sure that many people like me are wondering, “Isn’t it cold?”

Melvin: It can be, depending on what time of year you go, but Juno, most of the cruise lines go to Juno, Ketchikan, and Skagway in Alaska, and during the cruise season, which is May through September, it’s not real cool. I mean it’s in the sixties a lot. It can get as high maybe as the seventies, it’s a little drizzly, but it’s not bad. Where it starts to get cold is when you start to get more up towards the Arctic circle. And then it starts to be colder a little more frequently.

Chris: So what’s next for you as a travel agent? How do you take it to the next level?

Melvin: Oh wow. Next for me as a travel agent, I would love to be able to do a group cruise, I think. I’ve never actually done a group cruise. I would love to do an escorted group cruise to someplace. Whether it be Alaska, or Hawaii, or even the Caribbean. But I think that that would be my next level is starting to do groups.

Chris: Sounds pretty fun to me. Well, Melvin, this has been an exciting trip, and I’ve learned a lot, and as a fellow guide dog user, I’m kind of itching to travel. So maybe we’ll be talking again soon. Thanks for being here.

Melvin: Uh huh. Thanks for having me.

Chris: I hope you have enjoyed this week’s interview, and will join us again next time, but before you go, would you ever give your thirteen-year-old a credit card? I read an article in “Money Magazine” the other day from a parent of a thirteen-year-old, that was giving their thirteen-year-old a credit card. My first reaction was, “That’s crazy,” but as I read on, I got more and more intrigued. The author’s point was that by giving their thirteen-year-old a credit card, and mentoring them in how to use it wisely, that they would be better prepared to handle using credit cards when they became an adult. Now, I don’t know if I would be ready to give my thirteen-year-old a credit card, and I’m not sure that many parents would. But I think that there was a very valuable point in the article. And that was, that we should all explicitly teach our kids about how to manage money wisely. Our kids learn a lot from the example we set, but sometimes the example that we set isn’t necessarily the example that we would want them to follow. I think it’s good to make sure that you explain to your kids what you are doing, why you are doing it, and be willing to admit that you’re wrong. Explain to them how you could have done better. And help them to learn to manage money wisely. That way, they can avoid the financial obstacles of high credit card debt during college. And maybe not knowing how to invest in their 401 K when they start work after college.
Chris: We hope you have enjoyed this week’s episode of “Target Your Goals,” a podcast by Penny Forward. For more information about Penny Forward, like us on Facebook, join our Facebook group, or visit
www.pennyforward.com