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May 20, 2022

Selling experiences not just products

Article written by lauren@bigcreektravel.com
Policies and rules have their place, but sometimes it is okay to bend a little.  At Big Creek Travel, helping our clients feel good is […]

Policies and rules have their place, but sometimes it is okay to bend a little.  At Big Creek Travel, helping our clients feel good is an important policy, and we choose to align ourselves with other companies that approach business the same way.  When people go on vacation, what do they share? How much they spent on their trip? Usually not... Instead they share their feelings and experiences.  They talk about how being in a different destination and seeing amazing sites made them feel.  How taking a break and connecting with friends or family made them feel. How a staff member or tour guide making an extra effort made them feel. When you decide to work with a company, how important is your experience? My guess is that you will be much more likely to return to a business if you felt like someone cared and took the time to listen to you. Products are products.  In the travel industry, everyone is selling the same resorts, cruises, tours, etc. But if someone takes the time to remember your celebrations, advocate on your behalf, answer your questions, and help you enjoy your experience, that can make all the difference.

My daughter loves Adidas shoes.  In her 9 year old world, they are "the best!" She has sparkly sneakers, plain white sneakers, Reeboks... She informed me when we were shoe shopping that she needs different shoes on different days depending on her mood and her outfit. It's hard not to laugh at my little diva, but what stood out to me is how she spent a lot of time describing how she feels when she is wearing their shoes. They have good shoes, but did you know that they also have a corporate responsibility policy that centers on three pillars? Community involvement, employee engagement and corporate giving. Knowing that I'm supporting a company that started the SOS Children's Village, BOKS by Reebok, and the Pakison Women Empowerment Program makes me feel good when I'm handing over my credit card.

Recently, a fellow travel agent shared a story about an experience she had when going out to lunch with some friends.  The agent is Norwegian (now living in the US), and she and her friends were celebrating an important day in the Norwegian culture.  They took small flags with them to the restaurant to place on their table, and when their server came over he recognized that the flags were Norwegian and asked if they were celebrating.  She explained their day of celebration, and he asked if there was anything he could do to help make the day even more special. Jokingly she told him that he could sing the Norwegian national anthem for them. He laughed and walked away.  A little while later he brought out their desserts and broke into song - the Norwegian national anthem. He had gone onto the internet, learned the song, and wanted to perform it for them.  She said he wasn't half bad!  She also said that the food wasn't anything special so they probably wouldn't have returned. But they were so touched by the server going out of his way for them that she's telling everyone who will listen how this made them feel.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that 2020 and 2021 were tough times in the industry. We worked countless hours to understand cancellation rules and COVID restrictions, and we did everything we could to help people get refunds or vouchers. In most cases, travel companies were willing to work with us (if you ever wondered if you really need a travel agent, ask anyone who tried to navigate refunds or COVID policies during the pandemic on their own how that went). Unfortunately, though, not all companies were reasonable - and one stands out as being especially inflexible and uncaring. When we tell you that we don't recommend traveling with certain companies, please know that it's about poor customer service and not about maximizing our profits. While countless tour operators, airlines, and cruise lines made exceptions to their policies because it was the right thing to do, this company decided to dig in, double down, and refuse to consider the human side of the past two years.

We have several different examples with this company that make us question if their leaders even have hearts, but one story in particular hit me especially hard. My elderly clients booked a trip in 2019 and had to pay in full a year in advance (as is the company's policy). Fast forward to early 2020... we were all starting to hear about COVID and how countries were talking about shutting down travel and employing public health policies, but none of the travel companies had shut down completely... yet. My clients had underlying health issues that made them very nervous to travel, so I contacted this company and asked them if they would consider waiving or extending their cancellation policy so that my clients had time to make an informed decision without losing thousands of dollars.  Their answer? "No." My clients decided to cancel their vacation because if they waited even another day, they would be hit with an even heftier cancellation penalty. The company refunded a portion of their trip and kept the rest. Just a few days later, the company cancelled all of their trips and provided full refunds to those who hadn't already canceled. My client had travel insurance (something we strongly encourage), but their claim was denied because they were told they didn't cancel for a covered reason. I contacted the company and asked for some consideration for my clients.  After much deliberation, they finally agreed to issue the money they kept as a future travel voucher - with an expiration date.  Since then, my client was diagnosed with lung cancer and told that it would be best for her not to travel while receiving treatments.  They never rebooked another trip because they didn't know what her prognosis would be and when it would be safe for her to travel again. They also didn't want to pay thousands of dollars well in advance knowing that they could be faced with losing even more money, especially since now they were dealing with a pre-existing condition. The vouchers expired, and my clients faced losing their money. I contacted upper management, explained the situation to them, and asked if they would be willing to make an exception and refund their money or even consider extending the vouchers so that my clients could rebook when and if they felt it was safe.  Their answer? "No. They canceled under the standard cancellation policy, so they are bound by those terms." I argued "they canceled under those terms because they had no choice, but we all know what's happened since. Just a few days later you were forced to give thousands of refunds." Their response? "There is nothing we can do." I said, "no, there is nothing you are willing to do."

I'm sure you can imagine how that made me and my clients feel. I'm also sure you're not surprised to learn that my clients will NEVER travel with this company again and won't hesitate to let everyone know how they made them feel.  This person is struggling through a cancer diagnosis and unexpected financial responsibilities, but it was more important to this large company to stick to policy. They spend millions on advertising each year but can't find a way to refund a relatively small amount. Well, small to the company - HUGE to the client.  I felt that their message was loud and clear - chasing the dollar is far more important than providing customer service. I understand that they have the right to stick to their policies, but when we've had so many of our preferred partners make exceptions, it's tough to accept such a hard stance.

As difficult as the past two years were for travel companies, most understand that kindness and compassion create loyalty. Just like my colleague is now telling everyone about the amazing server at her local restaurant who sang the national anthem of Norway, our clients are sharing their experiences - both good and bad.  We have lots of choices out in the marketplace.  I know I would much rather do business with a company that makes me feel good for choosing them.