by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 30, 2012

On March 15, 2012, 20 years after its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act will require a new set of standards to take effect (they were formulated two years ago and are officially called the 2010 Standards for Acceptable Design). They promise to have a major impact on the U.S. lodging industry, particularly in the design of public spaces such as ballrooms, gyms, lobbies and spas. But the new standards also take aim at elevators, service-animal policies and website accessibility. To avoid complaints from attendees or other problems, meeting planners should become familiar with these new regulations to avoid potential risk.

The law holds that buildings built or undergoing renovation on or after March 15, 2012, must comply with the new standards. Existing hotels that meet the old 1991 standards get a passing grade until they start a renovation. The Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Lodging Association has been busy educating its members on the technical aspects of the new rules for the past year with a series of seminars and webcasts tackling different scenarios and issues, particularly in the area of design. Eric Reller, director of legislative communication for the AH&LA, filled The Hotel Insider in on some pending changes.

• A special slide-out shelf at the hotel registration desk no longer is adequate for accommodating wheelchair-bound guests. Hotels must provide actual counter space at a designated height.
• If there are multiple elevators responding to the same call button, all must be be accessible-compliant.
• All swimming pools will require lifts or sloped entry.
• Spas must ensure saunas and steam rooms have accessible doors.
• In a fitness center, at least one of each type of exercise equipment categorized as promoting strength and cardiovascular health must be designated accessible and have clear floor space to enable an individual to properly use the equipment.

"One change that could really be significant is that 5 percent of public space has to be ADA accessible," says Reller. "So, if the hotel has a bar, 5 percent of the bar has to be designed compliant, which means you have to have allocated bar space at wheelchair height for a patron to sit at it. You can't just have a lower table off to the side any longer." That rule also applies to meeting space, which must have accessible routes throughout, as well as a clear line of sight from designated seating areas.

Noncompliance will come at a heavy price. The Department of Justice will impose a fine of $55,000 for the first offense and $110,000 for subsequent violations. The DOJ's enforcement activities against hotels has been on the upswing (as has its budget, climbing to $162 million last year from $123 million in 2009). In November 2010, as a result of lengthy investigation and negotiation, Hilton agreed to a fine of $50,000 and to remodel 900 of its U.S. hotels (built after 1993) to meet ADA requirements for accessible guest rooms and facilities. Allegations against the chain included failure to disperse accessible rooms, failure to allow persons with disabilities to reserve accessible rooms online or by telephone, and failure to provide accessible sleeping rooms when they were reserved. According to a statement by the DOJ, that settlement represented the first time the agency had required a franchisor to certify that its hotels — whether franchised or managed — were in ADA compliance. The agreement also represented the first time a hotel chain has been required to make its online reservations system accessible and to provide data about features in accessible rooms throughout the entire chain.

"Every hotel and situation is different," notes Reller. "Some have been very proactive at incorporating and implementing these rules into new designs. Others are finding they may have to rework some elements into their renovations." For more information, visit