A pair of empty nesters take flight for Spain, where Mod­ernista ar­chi­tec­ture and Granada history leave an im­pres­sion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - is El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org. CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

Do you trust your air­line, car rental com­pany or ho­tel? Does it trust you?

It’s a ques­tion sel­dom asked. But when I checked into the Moun­tain Sky Guest Ranch near Em­i­grant, Mont., this week, I couldn’t help it. They didn’t is­sue a cus­tom­ary room key at check-in. Yes, the doors have locks, but they’re rarely used. Out here, in the wilder­ness near Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park, peo­ple trust one another.

If only it worked that way in the rest of the travel in­dus­try. Of­ten, travel com­pa­nies don’t trust their own cus­tomers, and the feel­ing is mu­tual.

Maybe this is an in­evitable byprod­uct of the In­for­ma­tion Age, with now-you-see-it, nowyou-don’t rates and fares.

A re­cent sur­vey by the Ponemon In­sti­tute, which con­ducts re­search on pri­vacy, data pro­tec­tion and in­for­ma­tion se­cu­rity pol­icy, found that cus­tomers tend to dis­trust com­pa­nies with in­ac­cu­rate, buggy or in­se­cure Web sites. Er­ro­neous con­tent was a turnoff to 91 per­cent of the re­spon­dents. That’s a wake-up call to air­lines and ho­tels that some­times dis­play prices that turn out to be “no longer avail­able.”

Trav­el­ers say they’re dis­trust­ful of com­pa­nies for other rea­sons, too. Maybe they’ve been on a flight that was de­layed by “weather” even when con­di­tions were clear on both ends. Or maybe they’ve been told a ho­tel is sold out, even though rooms are still avail­able on third-party sites.

Or how about the car-rental dam­age claim that comes in just shy of $500, the typ­i­cal in­sur­ance de­ductible? Car rental com­pa­nies don’t want to in­volve your in­sur­ance com­pany in the claim, be­cause they’re less likely to get a quick pay­out, cus­tomers say. They sus­pect that such claims are bo­gus, and some­times they’re right.

But there’s another per­spec­tive: the one from the other side of the counter.

Trust is earned, peo­ple in the in­dus­try say, and a few bad cus­tomers can ruin it for the rest. Mike Black, who runs an Or­lando tour op­er­a­tor that spe­cial­izes in pad­dle­board­ing and kayak­ing ad­ven­tures, says when he started his busi­ness, he would al­low visi­tors to hold reser­va­tions with­out a credit card.

At first he trusted them. How­ever, he stopped agree­ing to the prac­tice “af­ter many can­cel­la­tions or last-minute reschedul­ings,” he says.

A credit card num­ber is not an un­com­mon re­quire­ment, and from an owner’s per­spec­tive, it’s an un­der­stand­able one. But it can be taken to ex­tremes. Con­sider what hap­pened to Wil­liam Os­borne, whose son was killed in an au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent this spring. Os­borne asked Al­le­giant Air to re­fund his son’s $349 ticket, and he says it re­fused. I con­tacted the air­line and it claimed it wasn’t re­fus­ing, just wait­ing for him to send his son’s obit­u­ary. It wanted proof that he had ac­tu­ally passed away. Al­le­giant even­tu­ally re­funded the ticket.

Sim­i­lar scenes play out ev­ery day at the air­port. A pas­sen­ger ap­proaches the counter and asks for a be­reave­ment dis­count be­cause his mother died. The ticket agent’s re­sponse? “We no longer of­fer be­reave­ment fares.” I’ve spo­ken with air­line em­ploy­ees who say con­sumers abused such ben­e­fits as be­reave­ment dis­counts and le­nient change fees to the point that they were with­drawn. They were re­placed with poli­cies called “no waivers, no fa­vors,” which, as the name sug­gests, al­lowed no flex­i­bil­ity, even when a pas­sen­ger de­served it.

There’s a sense that travel com­pa­nies want to trust their cus­tomers— if only they could. At least that’s the im­pres­sion I got when talk­ing with Bil­lie Frank, the owner of Santa Fe Trav­el­ers, a travel-plan­ning and tour busi­ness. When she opened her busi­ness, she also al­lowed her clients to make reser­va­tions with­out fork­ing over a credit card num­ber. But cus­tomers didn’t al­ways re­cip­ro­cate by honor­ing their plans, and on sev­eral oc­ca­sions she lost in­come as a re­sult.

“Now, ev­ery time we en­counter an un­ex­pected sit­u­a­tion that re­sults in our los­ing money due to client ac­tions, we in­sti­tute a new pol­icy to pro­tect our­selves from that type of sit­u­a­tion,” she says.

Some com­pa­nies are try­ing to re­verse the trend with train­ing. Zoe Con­nolly, co-founder of Hos­pi­tal­ity Spotlight, a con­sult­ing firm, says some of her clients have asked for “em­pa­thy and trust” train­ing for their em­ploy­ees. Con­nolly says one of the more un­usual re­quests came from a ho­tel that wanted train­ing in a hy­po­thet­i­cal sit­u­a­tion: An em­ployee “is placed into a dif­fi­cult guest sit­u­a­tion hav­ing to do with the death of a fam­ily mem­ber,” she says. The ho­tel wanted to have the cor­rect, and suit­ably em­pa­thetic, re­sponse built into its cor­po­rate cul­ture.

But what the cor­rect an­swer? It de­pends on the com­pany’s pol­icy. “The an­swer is judged on main­tain­ing ap­pro­pri­ate lev­els of em­pa­thy and pro­fes­sion­al­ism,” Con­nolly says.

That kind of train­ing is the ex­cep­tion rather than a rule. Travel com­pa­nies con­tinue tight­en­ing their rules be­cause of cus­tomers who take ad­van­tage of their trust. When cus­tomers who le­git­i­mately de­serve em­pa­thy don’t get it, busi­nesses are thought of as cold­hearted, of­ten de­servedly so.

Is there a way to over­come this im­passe? For that to hap­pen, enough cus­tomers would have to stop ex­ploit­ing the gen­eros­ity and com­pas­sion of travel com­pa­nies— and enough com­pa­nies would have to start be­liev­ing their own cus­tomers. No one can wave a magic wand and make that hap­pen, and all the em­pa­thy train­ing in the world can’t over­come a rigid re­fund pol­icy.

Per­haps a good start would be for trav­el­ers to honor their com­mit­ments and, in turn, for com­pa­nies to do what they know is right. We seem to have lost sight of the mid­dle ground, some­where be­tween open-door poli­cies and fortresslike se­cu­rity.

Do we re­ally want to con­tinue down that road?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.