Two years ago, Visit Mesa became the first autism-certified destination marketing organization (DMO) — not just the first in the U.S. but the world. For families like Lisa Kadane’s, the effort, and her recent successful visit to Mesa with her autistic son, will have her on the lookout for destinations similarly friendly to families with neuro-diverse members when she plans future trips.
(Photo Credit: Lisa Kadane, journalist and mom)
“As a mom, being able to visit a community that is autism-certified meant worrying less about things going off the rails,” she said. “Going in, it was a relief to know that the attractions and accommodations in Mesa employed staff who had undergone autism certification. I felt like there would be more understanding and less judgment.”
Kadane’s hopes were borne out. While staying in Mesa, twelve-year-old Bennett enjoyed the nearby OdySea Aquarium and the Phoenix Zoo, and while he didn’t need them, Kadane said it was nice to know that both attractions had designated decompression zones. His favorite activity was horseback riding at Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch.
“I appreciated that they were willing to tether his horse to the guide’s horse so that he could have a proper trail ride in the desert rather than just being led around the corral in a circle,” she said. A journalist, Kadane wrote an article about her experience.
Mesa: A Community of Kindness
Hearing about vacation experiences like the Kadanes’ is what it’s all about for Visit Mesa. The DMO’s initial effort to get certified by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) quickly blossomed into something much broader.
“We didn’t realize it at the time, but Visit Mesa spearheaded a movement,” said Michelle Streeter, chief communications and content officer at Visit Mesa. “As efforts were underway to secure a travel-related designation for Mesa, Arizona, leadership at the City of Mesa quickly saw the opportunity to embrace this initiative. They could see the positive impacts that a citywide autism certification could have on the overall health of the entire community.”
What followed amazed her. “You began to see city services achieve certification, Mesa Police and Fire departments adopting the program and even Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities training 500 members of their staff,” said Streeter. “This was an amazing accomplishment to witness an entire community be fully engaged and dedicated to one cause.”
Visit Mesa kicked off its effort in April 2019 with a community summit that included guest speakers, educational presentations, and a Q&A with a panel of experts. In November 2019 it held a formal event that included a presentation from the mayor announcing Visit Mesa as the first Autism Certified City. In between, the DMO worked with its hospitality partners to get them through autism certification training.
In addition to establishing a unique URL, www.AutismTravelMesa.com, an entire section of Visit Mesa’s website was dedicated to providing information about autism-related travel to help ease the minds of families while planning their trips and visiting Mesa. The portal includes a downloadable autism travel guide and certified sensory guides, listings, and links to autism-certified hotels, restaurants, attractions, transportation services, community resources, and a comprehensive FAQ.
“Our goal in Mesa was to welcome all visitors and reduce any unnecessary anxiety for those with autism and hidden disabilities as well as their families or travel companions,” Streeter said. “As destination marketers, we can serve up that promise to visitors when you dedicate time and resources to ensuring your hospitality industry is informed, your inclusivity efforts are properly aligned to the experts, and you’re staying actively engaged with your community so that they can stand behind your leadership. This was a business decision, yes, but it was also the right decision.”
How Mesa has Elevated its National Travel Brand
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website indicates, at age eight, one in every 59 kids is on the spectrum as of 2018 — and its prevalence is increasing in every racial and ethnic group.
By becoming the first “Autism Certified City,” Visit Mesa could bring awareness to the challenges faced by families that include a child on the spectrum, and also tap into a market of 32 million annual travelers who spend more than $262 billion on autism-related services in the U.S. each year.
The DMO wanted to make the most of the opportunity. From the April 2019 kickoff through April 2020, it helped to get 60 organizations within the hospitality industry, City of Mesa, and regional communities to commit to autism certification, representing nearly 4,500 employees. More have since been certified. In addition, two conferences were booked in Mesa that year as a direct result of the initiative, each resulting in more than 100 on-peak room nights.
More than 21 million people viewed Visit Mesa’s paid digital media during that period, and more than 16 million people watched one of the campaign videos.
“Mesa, Arizona becoming the country’s first Autism Certified City speaks volumes about the compassion and kindness that is present in our destination and the commitment illustrated by our hospitality community,” said Streeter. “This level of awareness offers another layer of support for travelers on the spectrum, and it’s garnering so much positive feedback. We often hear from others across the globe about how grateful they are to know this type of support and travel planning resources are available, and the movement is spreading. IBCCES is seeing an increase in DMOs becoming Certified Autism Centers, which is the true reward. We have always wanted other destinations to join us on this journey.”
Lisa Kadane hopes for that, too.
“I really feel like travel can be more inclusive if destinations take their cue from cities like Mesa,” she said. “Yes, it was an effort for city businesses, including the police force, to undergo autism certification, but it makes such a difference for travelers with a developmental disability. Looking ahead to future trips, knowing that more attractions and resorts are becoming autism certified, gaining that designation would certainly influence our decision making around travel.”
The U.S. Travel Association recently honored Visit Mesa’s autism certification efforts with a 2021 Destiny Award, Special Projects.
Inspired to learn more about how Visit Mesa developed into such an autism-friendly destination? Check out these resources:
Cover photo provided by Visit Mesa