Robin Sheppard is a man on a mission. Leaning across the table in a quiet corner of the tea room in London’s Landmark Hotel, he lays out his vision with the air of someone used to making himself heard.
“What I’m after is a sense of going into a room designed for a disabled person and saying, ‘Wow, isn’t this fabulous?’ And that’s not a call I’ve heard very often.”
Sheppard is one of the UK’s leading hoteliers — co-founder of the Bespoke Hotel group, which with 200 properties and 9,500 rooms is the UK’s largest independent hotel group.
But in recent years it is his work as a champion of disability rights in the hospitality sector that has become his key focus. Earlier in 2018 he was involved in the second Bespoke Access Awards, which reward those in the hotel industry who put design, care and style for disabled guests at the forefront of their business.
Sheppard has an acute understanding of what it means to be a disabled hotel guest.
On Christmas Eve 2004 he started getting pins and needles in his arms and legs. Within hours he was paralyzed from the neck down and was later found to be suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). Explaining this rare condition, which he dubs “Getting Better Slowly,” Sheppard says: “The immune system gets the wrong email and thinks it’s under attacks so it attacks itself. I had no idea what was happening to me.”
Over the next few years, Sheppard regained feeling in his legs, although he still has mobility issues. He was profoundly affected by the experience, writing a book, “A Solitary Confinement” about life dealing with GBS, before returning to work with a greater understanding of the needs of disabled people.
“I learned that the way in which I was studying how hotels reacted to and anticipated the needs of disabled people was pretty thin,” he says. “I started to research it and felt there was a bit of an injustice and a medicalization that was set up within hotels for disabled folk. I thought ‘It doesn’t need to be this way’.”
In 2016, Sheppard and Bespoke teamed up with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to set up the first Bespoke Access Awards. His aim, he says, was to foster the concept that disabled rooms should be every bit as stylish as those for able-bodied guests.
The necessary functionality should not detract from the design. He demanded five guiding principles from applicants: Their designs should be universal, personal, flexible, functional and beautiful.
The winning entry came from Newcastle, UK-based Ryder Architecture and accessible design business Motionspot.
It was a wholesale re-imagining of what accessible rooms should be, blending the needs of disabled guests, such as lower beds, accessible baths and wider doors, with a style and finish befitting of high-end hotels.
Its work is now being seen in Bespoke’s own properties, including The White Horse, a new hotel in Dorking, south of London, which places a special emphasis on accessibility.
Courtesy Bespoke Access
The 2018 prize winners included MnM studios in Dubai.
Sheppard says he wants the Bespoke Access Awards to help hotels go beyond doing the basics required by law.
“At the moment, any hotel has the obstacle of having rooms that are compliant [with the UK’s Equalities Act],” he says. “There’s a neutrality about that status. There is no prize or further commendation for having something that is rich and delightful.
“There’s a two-pronged attack here. I’m asking for some physical further anticipation of the needs of the disabled guests. But I’m also asking for some beauty and an aesthetic measure going in there,” he adds.
“Just because you can’t walk doesn’t mean you haven’t got a sense of style. That’s the point we’re trying to make. It’s changing hearts and minds. I don’t want this to be a statuary thing. I don’t want sticks. I’m asking for more carrots and more self-awareness.”
He says such developments are already taking place. He points to The Ned, a period hotel in London’s financial district run by the team behind Soho House. The owners ensured that accessible rooms fit the design-led aesthetic of the property, meaning disabled and able-bodied guests get rooms that look and feel the same. This, says Sheppard, flies in the face of the wider industry approach of offering “gray rooms,” with “…bathrooms that look like toilets in train stations.”
He also has high praise for The Elms at Abberley, a country house hotel in England’s West Country. “The owner came to our inaugural awards and was so inspired that he’s decided to convert the hotel into the best-in-class disabled hotel in the country.
So rather than saying, “I’m going to do a few rooms for disabled people,” he’s going to make it the raison d’etre for his property.” Such developments, says Sheppard, will need to become more commonplace as the population ages and more people require accessible services.
Courtesy Robin Sheppherd
He says that there is still much to do in the UK to improve accessibility in hotels. “You won’t be surprised to learn that the Scandinavians are ahead of us,” he says. “Scandic Hotels have a disability ambassador and a really strong thread running through their business. Their accessibility statements, the DNA that runs through their business, is profound. We follow on their wake and are learning from them.”
Sheppard is hopeful that the success of 2018’s Bespoke Access awards, coupled with his work as a UK government sector champion for improved access in hospitality, will gain even more traction for his fight for equal rights and better rooms. The UK’s Design Council is on the judging panel and appliance manufacturer Dyson has come on board as a headline sponsor. Plus, there are new awards for staff who show anticipation of the needs of disabled guests.
“The more you can do to take the barriers away and to plan ahead for disabled people, the more comfortable they feel,” he says.
His optimism doesn’t hide the fact that accessibility and design-led disabled rooms are not ubiquitous, but Sheppard’s approach and his awards are doing much to ensure that the conversation is moving higher up the travel agenda.