On August 1st, I arrived in New York City to attend the BlogHer 2012 conference. From then until August 5th, I stayed at the Hilton New York, which, conveniently, was the site of the event.
The BlogHer conference is one of the largest conferences for bloggers out there, and the largest social media conference geared towards women.
Let me first mention that this is not the first event I’ve attended at the Hilton New York. In 2010, I attended the BlogHer conference for the first time, and that’s where it was held. Last year (2011), I attended Affiliate Summit East, also held at the Hilton New York. Not being one who likes to dwell on the negative, I overlooked– twice– the obvious accessibility issues that are impossible for someone using a wheelchair to ignore.
I’ve had enough. I’m speaking out.
At least three of the events that weekend (August 2-4) were held at a ballroom which, I later learned, was part of a separate building where the Hilton rents space. Still, imagine my horror when I first found out that the only way to access that ballroom is by using the escalator– or a cargo elevator.
Yes, you read that correctly.
In allowing several of the parties that weekend to be held in a separate location that was inaccessible by a regular, human-friendly elevator (as opposed to a cargo elevator, which is totally unacceptable), the Hilton New York sent BlogHer attendees the message that they are both unprepared and unwilling to cater to the needs of guests with disabilities.
I personally paid to stay at the hotel during the conference because, ironically, of the ‘convenience.'” But if convenience to them means being condescendingly treated like cargo and being forced to a ride a potentially dangerous freight elevator, then I will unfortunately have to miss out on future events.
When BlogHer attendees obtain a conference pass, they are assuming to be treated on an equal level as all the other attendees. What happened to me– having to wait 20 minutes while an employee verified that there was no alternate access to the event, therefore missing the first part of the party, then being addressed in childish terms (“it’s okay, sweetie”) by an unprofessional Hilton employee, and riding an elevator that is not intended for guests– is a far cry from the sense of equality and solidarity that one usually feels at BlogHer. And for the Hilton, it is a blatant and unapologetic violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
After I Tweeted the Hilton New York account several times (with much restraint, I might add), I finally received direct messages from them, claiming they wanted to “meet with me” to “rectify the situation.” After several misses, I was mortified to discover their idea of atonement was to seek me out during the Voices of the Year ceremony (during which I was an honoree), a formal, sit-down event with speakers that had already begun. They made a paltry attempt at apologizing to me in front of my bewildered parents (whom the Hilton people did not even address) and went on their way.
The disability is theirs, not mine. I still can’t believe how rude they were to the two people who have been supportive of me in every way.
I Tweeted them again before checking out of the hotel, asking to meet with them again in the hopes of having the chance to discuss things calmly, without other people around, but they replied after I had already left, rendering their “efforts” pointless.
Now, I cannot speak about the situation without pointing something out: I was not the only blogger with a disability at this event. I saw plenty of wheelchairs during the conference, and God only knows how many others had invisible challenges. I’m not trying to make assumptions based on what I saw– I’ll only surmise that I wasn’t the only one.
If there is one good thing at all to be found in this humiliating experience, it’s this: two fellow bloggers I had just met and who were eager to join the party insisted on waiting with me and then rode the ‘fright’ elevator with me. I can’t thank them enough for their genuine concern and willingness to stand by a fellow blogger. They were just as outraged as I was, and they followed up with me to ask if I had been contacted by the Hilton.
So to me, that one positive aspect of these unfortunate events highlighted a promising point: while the Hilton New York drew a metaphorical dividing line between a minority group (those with disabilities) and the rest of the group, the BlogHer community didn’t hesitate to cross this very same line in their support of me. I felt very proud to know that my fellow bloggers didn’t see a distinction between “my problem” and “their problem.” When one blogger is slighted, the entire community stands beside her in solidarity.
And my fellow bloggers weren’t the only one to take a special interest in this situation. TheAssistant Director of Food and Beverage at the hotel, Jason Tresh, happened to be standing near the ballroom at lunchtime. I didn’t have time to sit down and eat, because my volunteer shift at the registration booth was about to start.
The kind employee offered to bring me a plate of food to the booth, and I got to talking with him about what had happened the night before. He was outraged. He couldn’t stop apologizing to me, even if he had nothing to do with it.
Near the end of our earnest conversation, he handed me his card. “It doesn’t matter what time it is– if you need anything at all, you call me at that number.”
I thanked him wholeheartedly. The next evening, just as attendees lined up at the escalator to go up to another party, I took him at his word, and called.
He was there in five minutes, to personally escort me, along with Kelly Kwok Lee, Meeting and Conference Service Manager, and an intern, in the same freight elevator, to the party. Only this time, I was treated with the dignity and respect worthy of a guest. I was the first person admitted to the party, and the way I was treated, by this man who decided to take responsibility for another’s inaction, made me feel truly like an honored guest, and not like a nagging inconvenience. Jason instructed me to let Kelly know whenever I was ready to leave the party, and he would come to escort me.
Mami and me with Jason Tresh, who helped turn a negative situation into a positive one! Thanks so much, Jason!
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that, after we checked out of the Hilton New York, my parents and I checked into the Hilton Garden Inn, a very small hotel, just a few blocks away from where we had been, and yet it was worlds away in service.
We showed up at the hotel, and we asked if by chance our room was ready. It was already 3 p.m.-ish, but it wasn’t ready yet, so we asked to stow our luggage in the lobby in the meantime, so we could walk around the city. They had no problem with this.
When we returned to the Hilton Garden Inn, it was past five, we were tired, we needed to change, and we were informed the room still wasn’t ready. In total PTSD mode (once, burned, twice shy!), we said, almost in unison, that that was unacceptable. We needed a room– now.
The young manager immediately took it upon himself to rectify the situation. He offered to show us another room that was available, identical to our original one but on a different floor. He said if we liked it, we were welcome to stay there instead. We agreed that was fine for us, and he said “I’ll be buying you breakfast tomorrow morning.” All this, with a pleasant smile and every reassurance.
Customer service done RIGHT.
I’m glad Mami took the initiative of snapping a photo of a notice that is prominently displayed at the front desk of the Hilton Garden Inn:
As good as gold for me!
And that, Hilton New York management, is at the very heart of the problem you are facing. Social media isn’t about who’s manning the Twitter account and is able to respond quickly– it’s really all about one thing: our shared humanity.
I’m looking into the process of filing a formal complaint against the Hilton New York. Not because I’m trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, but because everyone else at BlogHer (or simply staying at the hotel) who I saw with wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, deserve better.
Our humanity demands it.