If the Chicago Marriott Downtown were a ship, it would have added a poop deck for the best friends and working canine partners of many of the 600 people who came to The Foundation Fighting Blindness national conference August 22 to 25. The hotel, which normally is not dog friendly, did the next best thing for its guests’ seeing-eye dogs: It created a high-flying dog walk.

"It took a little creativity and a lot of teamwork," says Cindy Ruchman, the hotel’s director of marketing, "but we transformed the ninth-floor patio from a garden with flowers, mulch, and bushes, to a dog park with sod, a fountain, water bowls, white picket fencing, and benches so people could relax with their dogs." But it didn’t stop there: The Marriott also added dog food and biscuits to its room service menu for the three days the Foundation guests were in house learning about genetic breakthroughs, assistive technology, and the potential for implantable microelectrode chips to restore lost vision. It also made sure that staff members knew not to pet or feed the dogs when they had their working harnesses on.

Ruchman says the hotel conducted sensitivity training with employees, who also did role playing to learn how best to accommodate this group’s attendees, most of whom were vision impaired, with dignity and respect. "We clipped one side of the key so people could tell which side to insert, and made sure menus and other printed materials were available in Braille," she says. The hotel also provided vibrating alarm clocks guests could put under their pillows, and set the tables with black linens and white plates to provide sharper contrast for attendees with limited vision. Housekeeping staff were told not to change the position of items in the rooms during their daily cleaning, and bell staff learned how to best provide assistance by playing the part of a person with impaired vision ahead of time.

"It was a great experience for us," says Ruchman, adding that her hotel is interested in landing the meeting again in 2004 and 2006. "Our fingers are crossed. We’d like to have the opportunity to host it again."