In conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Department of Justice has published a comprehensive set of accessibility requirements for public accommodations facilities, which, with a few exceptions, mandate a higher level of access for individuals with disabilities than the initial 1990 standards. In addition to changing how accessible lodging rooms are dispensed, the new standards for the first time cover exercise facilities, golf courses, and saunas and steam rooms. They take effect in early 2012.

To ensure that individuals with disabilities are able to reserve—and to check in to—guest rooms with the features they need, the new regulations contain a number of new requirements that will require most hotels to make three significant changes to their existing reservations systems.

1. Reservations systems, including Web sites, will have to identify the accessible features of both the hotel and the individual guest rooms. They also will have to identify which aspects of the hotel are not accessible to those with disabilities.

2. Hotel reservations services must hold back the accessible rooms in each room type for use by a person with a disability until they have no other rooms left to sell.

3. Accessible rooms, once reserved, must be removed from all reservations systems to eliminate the possibility of double booking.

The new regulations also require “places of public accommodation” that sell tickets for events to ensure that individuals with disabilities are able to purchase tickets for accessible seating under the same terms and conditions, and stages of ticket sales, for other types of seating for the same event.

Meetings and the New ADA Rules
When the regulations were initially proposed for public comment, many planners expressed concern that the new requirements would adversely affect the operations of third-party reservations systems such as CVBs, housing bureaus, and even some associations and companies that handle lodging reservations for their attendees. Because these third parties must rely on hotels and other lodging venues for room accessibility information, the final regulations make clear that the reservations requirements do not apply to these third-party reservations providers.

However, the accessible room “hold back” requirements could affect planners because they could make fewer rooms available for sale to nondisabled attendees until “last sale,” an undefined date that could be well after most groups’ reservations cut-off date. It’s probably a good idea to ask how many accessible rooms of each type are in a hotel’s inventory and to advise attendees who need these rooms to reserve them early.

While the initial ADA regulations did not specify whether meetings are considered to be “places of public accommodation,” the Department of Justice commentary accompanying the new regulations make it clear that meeting sponsors become providers of “places of public accommodation” when they rent or use space in hotels, convention centers, conference centers, and other venues.

Thus, associations and corporations share a responsibility to make sure that areas used by attendees are accessible. Since planners have no control over a hotel’s physical structure or its common-area facilities, such as restrooms, lobby restaurants, etc., meeting contracts should contain a provision allocating ADA compliance responsibilities. Typically, the hotel is responsible for the physical plant, guest rooms, and common areas, while the planner assumes responsibility for making sure that the setup of the meeting rooms meets the needs of attendees with disabilities. If ticketed events (e.g., dinners, entertainment, etc.) take place in a hotel or similar venue, the organization planning the event may also have to review its policies to be sure that attendees with disabilities can purchase tickets in the same manner as other individuals.

James M. Goldberg is a principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Goldberg & Associates PLLC. His practice focuses on representing associations, corporations, and independent meeting planners. He is the author of The Meeting Planner's Legal Handbook.

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