When Visit Salt Lake’s Evan Bauerle heard about Mesa, Arizona, becoming the first-ever Autism Certified City through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) — a story Convene wrote about in 2022 — he knew it was something he wanted to share with his employer so that they could consider joining Mesa’s ranks.
Bauerle, who serves as sports, tourism, and event sales manager, West region, for Visit Salt Lake’s sports division, Sports Salt Lake, said the certification struck a chord with him not only because Mesa is close to his hometown, but because he is the father of a child with autism. Visit Mesa pursued accreditation because its president and CEO, Marc Garcia, also is the father of a child with autism. Curious about the program, Bauerle researched IBCCES and as he learned more, he said he knew “immediately” that he “wanted to do this in Salt Lake.”
Bauerle joins a growing number of CVB staff seeking certification to make their destinations more inclusive. IBCCES has seen an uptick in interest in earning autism travel accreditation from DMOs both in the U.S. and abroad in recent years — 16 are currently certified through IBCCES, with “many more in the process,” IBCCES President Meredith Tekin told Convene via email.
IBCCES offers a number of certifications for destinations, including Certified Autism Center (CAC), which requires a facility or organization to have at least 80 percent of its staff trained and certified in the field of autism; Autism Certified City (ACC), which ensures that all areas of a city, including health care, education, local government, hospitality, leisure, and more are trained and certified to work with guests, staff, and residents with autism and cognitive disorders; and Certified Autism Destination (CAD), which means the majority of tourism-related organizations have completed autism and sensory disorder sensitivity and awareness training, alongside an on-site review with IBCCES. The programs aim to help destinations “understand how to promote their location, communicate effectively, [and] provide supports or accommodations,” Tekin said. “Knowing they can attend an event or meeting where the staff on site have an understanding of their needs and interests makes a huge impact on [visitors’] comfort level.”
Becoming a CAC was an easy decision for Visit Salt Lake, Kaitlin Eskelson, the DMO’s president and CEO, told Convene. She recalled the first time she spoke about pursuing autism training with Bauerle.
“We were talking about a barbecue that we were having staff-wide,” Eskelson said, and he shared concerns about bringing his son, “because his son can tend to get overwhelmed. That led us down the road of talking about Visit Mesa, who really has been the one to lead on all these efforts.” From that conversation, Eskelson decided it was an important initiative for the organization to take on, “not only for our internal staffing perspective, but also the larger community.”
Visit Salt Lake then scheduled several meetings with IBCCES to assess the destination’s needs and what they wanted to achieve with the training. “We determined that we wanted to do a training for the entire staff, and then after that, go community-wide,” Eskelson said. While the organization is still working on how to approach that certification for the larger destination, Visit Salt Lake earned its CAC accreditation this year, with the leadership team participating in a three-to-four-hour training session and employees taking part in 30-minute training sessions.
“We really try hard as a team to be emotionally intelligent,” Eskelson said. “I think that means being accessible to everyone.”
Destination Toledo is another DMO that earned CAC status this year, also inspired by Mesa’s example — Destination Toledo representatives heard about Mesa’s certification during a keynote at a Tourism Academy conference, which focuses on transforming the landscape of travel through technology and marketing. The DMO decided to start down the same path in 2022. The destination is currently working toward becoming a CAD “within the next four or five months,” according to Jayme Mazur, relationship manager at Destination Toledo, and its convention center, Huntington Center, is already a CAC.
“This community wants to travel, they’re just nervous to,” Mazur said. “We all want to want to go somewhere [where] we feel comfortable and understood.”
A Growing List
In addition to Visit Salt Lake and Destination Toledo, CVBs that have earned autism travel accreditation include:
- St. Johns County Visitors & Convention Bureau (St. Augustine, Florida)
- Discover the Palm Beaches (Florida)
- City of Benson Visitor Center (Arizona)
- Experience Florida’s Sports Coast
- Willamette Valley Visitors Association (Salem, Oregon)
- Visit Jacksonville and The Beaches (Florida)
- Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (Missouri)
- Visit Billings (Montana)
- Visit Greater Palm Springs (California)
- Visit High Point (North Carolina)
- Visit Visalia (California)
- Go Lake Havasu (Arizona)
- Arizona Office of Tourism
Casey Gale is managing editor of Convene.