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Cancellations / Refunds / Coronavirus / Travel Insurance / Human Nature

Janet Dixon

February 2020

Recently we received a request for a refund relating to a three night cancellation. The individual asking to cancel attached a letter from a General Practitioner (yes, it was genuine). Three weeks before the trip that would have been a once in a life time adventure, this person was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and was required to start immediate treatment. Did we refund? Yes. Why … our hearts most likely. I didn’t even think to ask about travel insurance.

This coronavirus (COVID-19) on the other hand is sparking fear throughout the world and yet the World Health Organisation (WHO) is yet to say stop all international travel. Airlines are still flying, Hotels, Motels, B&Bs, Backpackers, Camping Grounds, Restaurants, Cafes are still operating. The media continues to print eye catching headlines where many just don’t read the facts and assume the statement is true, factual and has a reliable and validated scientific base. The continued reporting of “suspected” cases increases fear by the hour. Human nature I suppose.

I digress. In the past week we have had three cancellations with people stating they cannot come because of coronavirus, therefore “You MUST refund us”. No, actually we are under no obligation to do so, unless our own business cancellation policy has something in it that would require us to do so.

Last week, on the Bed & Breakfast Association member Facebook page Fiona posted a good article on Travel platforms (OTAs) forcing operators to refund. I can tell you this is happening, with the “force” coming in the form of the OTA passing our information to the guest.

I shall tell you about one such refund request. We received a message from a guest through their travel platform; I shall call it an OTA from here; stating they need to cancel because of the coronavirus. “Please refund us.” At the same time, we received an email from the OTA asking us to please refund these guests as they could no longer come. I chose to respond via the OTA. “No. These guests should be able to claim back on their travel insurance. That way no one loses out.”

Note: WHO have classified the COVID-19 outbreak as a Global Health Emergency and therefore claims not may not be covered by travel insurance policies and it is up to travellers to ensure they have full insurance coverage. Travel insurance will definitely not cover costs incurred because guests change their minds about travel.

There was no further communication with the OTA …… however …… we next received a phone call from the guest telling us we must refund as they could not come. “Did I not know of the virus?” This one-sided part of the conversation went on for quite some time and when finished I explained her travel insurance may cover this. No it won’t she said and we were the ONLY ones who have not refunded her. Every other hotel, airline and anything else had refunded her. I reiterated to her that we would not be refunding her. I explained the ins and outs of small seasonal business. Anyway, we came up with a compromise at the guest’s suggestion. When they come to NZ next year (assuming the virus is under control) if a room is available on the date they request they don’t have to pay for that date. I think this was a good suggestion from the guest and it felt a positive way to end the relatively tense conversation. This request was also backed up with an email from us, so they knew we were genuine.

Well, was this over? Absolutely not! The very next morning during a very busy breakfast session, the phone rang and it was said guest again. This time she got the man of the house. Mostly gentle, sensible and placid. To hear the man of the house, say very firmly after approximately 20 minutes on the phone, “please stop calling us, this is harassment, bordering on abusive” was most unusual. My ears pricked up. He discovered in his difficult conversation that the airlines hadn’t refunded her; they were still flying; and not all hotels and activities had refunded her either. The issue here was they had no travel insurance. Plain and simple. Why oh why then does it become the problem of the operator? It doesn’t. Our problem is we too are human and have big hearts.

We are sticking to our guns with this no refund stance as we probably always should if the cancellation is within the cancellation policy bounds. For the majority of us our seasons are short and we rely on the income to get us through the long slow times. If you consider how you behave when booking and cancelling, you always know there will be payment or a least a penalty payment. It is not mean to refuse to refund. It is good business practice to work in line with your professional policies.

Should it come to the point where more countries completely close their borders and travel isn’t possible then travel insurance companies may pay out depending on their policy. At the moment it is an individual’s choice not to travel (unless they are in mainland China) so people are not likely to get travel insurance pay-outs and we will continue to be pressured.

Remember, it is not your issue. You are professional business owners who have a right to refuse to refund. It is your choice and every situation is different but remember to consider why we have policies. Business survival.

In the meantime, follow good hygiene practices and keep healthy.

Janet Dixon

February 2020


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