Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Complaints: Response to Case # 2.

The week before last I posted a complaint from a guest who requested a refund because the plane that originally specified had to be changed because of mechanical problems, we ignored his preferences indicated on his Wish List for gourmet food and no interaction with local people, and he believe we were responsible for he and his companions digestive illness.

Your  11comments ran the gamut from

we do not owe any more compensation than an expression of sympathy to we owe a large refund.

Natalie responded that we agreed that we were wrong in not taking into account his preferences when scheduling the meal at Tortuguero and refunded $111, the full amount that we charged for the meal for the two guests and the guide, including the boat transportation for the meal.

She wrote  that we did not feel we owed a refund for the change for aircraft and explained why.  You can read her full  1024 response here.

Two weeks after Natalie wrote we had not received a reply so I wrote a follow-up. And on July 13 received the following reply:

“Dear Michael:

“ Since Natalie made no effort to reply to my concerns, I had no intention of replying to her e-mail.

My concerns are stated in my April 23 e-mail to Luis Pablo:

1.   We should have been told in advance (and given an explanation) that we would have to fly to Puerto Jiménez and back in a single-engine plane.  This is a matter of keeping your promises to clients and managing client expectations.  There is nothing that you can do about this other than to accept responsibility and to apologize for not communicating with us as well as you should have.

2.   All of the food that we consumed in Costa Rica came from only two sources:  Costa Rica Expeditions and the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica.  When we became alarmingly ill, we were examined by a doctor who told us that we had been made ill by something that we ate in Costa Rica.  We believe that the food that made us ill came from Costa Rica Expeditions  —  and not from the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica.

We had informed Costa Rica Expeditions in advance that we wanted “elegant” and “gourmet” meals, and that we did not want “interactions” with “local people”.  Costa Rica Expeditions was responsible for the food which we believe made us ill.  Once we became ill and bedridden (on Thursday evening, April 8), our enjoyment of our trip to Costa Rica ceased.  You can either repeat the attitude demonstrated by Natalie, or offer us some compensation for the damage that you did to both us and our experience in Costa Rica.

Best regards,

My response, which I emailed on Sunday, July 25 follows:

Dear (Guest Name),

I am sorry that you feel the Natalie did not address your concerns. I will do my best to address them, but to do so I need to understand them.

Regarding the change in planes, since your email to Luis Pablo says, “For us, it was a question of safety,” Natalie assumed that you concern was that by using the Caravan rather than the King Air, that your concern was that we had subjected you and Emer to increased danger and that was the concern that she addressed.

In you email to me you write, “We should have been told in advance (and given an explanation) that we would have to fly to Puerto Jiménez and back in a single-engine plane.”  I agree.  But Luis Torres assures me that he did just that and it was his impression that you were satisfied with the explanation.  So please help me understand your concern. Is it your position that Luis Torres’ statements to me do not reflect the communication between you and him?  Did you feel more frightened during the flight than you did in the King Air?

There is only one King Air available in Costa Rica.  All the other twins available in Costa Rica are vastly less safe (and less expensive) than the King Air. We did not know that the King Air was not going to be in service until 6:00 pm the night before you were flying. What do you feel we could we have done differently under the circumstances?

Regarding the food, and your illness these are two separate issues: Luis scheduling a meal a typical in a private house when your Wish List clearly indicated that this was not your preference and the illness.  In her email to you Natalie agreed that we were the wrong on this issue and authorized a credit for the $111, the full amount that you paid for the meal.

So again in this case, I need to understand your concern.  Do you feel that refund was not enough?  If not having interactions with local people was important to you, when you realized that the lunch was going to be in a private home did you say something to Luis?  Unlike the situation with the plane, this was a situation that Luis could easily have corrected.

Regarding you and Emer’s illness, in your email to Luis you wrote that the Doctor said that you were “made sick by something which Costa Rica Expeditions fed us at Tortuguero or at Corcovado.”  In your email to me you write that the doctor said that you made ill by something that we ate in Costa Rica,” and that  “We believe that the food that made us ill came from Costa Rica Expeditions.

Again, be that as it may, I agree that you were made ill by something you ate and given the time frame it is highly likely that it was something you ate in Costa Rica. It is true that there is inherently more risk of getting ill from food that you consume in Tortuguero and Corcovado, two of the most remote places in Costa Rica, than at Four Seasons.  That said, I have trouble following your reasoning that there was a “breakdown in hygiene,” for which Costa Rica Expeditions is responsible.

Digestive illness not caused by a breakdown in hygiene, especially when traveling, is a well-known occurrence.  It occasionally happens to my wife and me when we travel to the states.

When I was a child and had an “upset stomach,” my mother’s was always sympathetic, but she did not rush to scour the kitchen. Her explanation was that something I ate “disagreed” with me.  (In my misery I always wondered what I could say to reach agreement with the food I had offended.)

On what do you base your belief that there was a breakdown in hygiene for which Costa Rica Expeditions is responsible?  A digestive illness that has you bedridden for a day, able to take a tour the next day, albeit not feeling well, and fully recovered within three or four days is not consistent with a breakdown in hygiene.  Digestive illness caused by a breakdown in hygiene can usually be related to a specific organism and requires treatment for that organism. Now that I have become involved in this I have asked Yesenia to try to locate the doctor at Four Seasons so that on the chance that there was a breakdown in hygiene we can take corrective measures.  If you remember the doctor’s name and/or what he prescribed, please let me know.

I am sorry that I do not feel justified in offering you blanket compensation for your concerns.  Perhaps if I understood better your reasoning I would agree that you should get a larger refund than the one Natalie authorized. I know that it must be time consuming and annoying for you to continue this dialog.  If you are willing to do so, I promise to be as objective as I can in considering your arguments.


Michael Kaye,

CEO & Founder

As of this posting, I have not received a reply.  So contrary to what I expected when I choose this example two weeks ago, this issue has not yet been resolved.  That makes your comments even more valuable.  To quote my friend Chris Parrot, I am waiting to read them, “with bated breath.”

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Comments and Replies

  • At July 29, 2010
    11:09:38 am
    Shannon Borrego said:

    One of the prerequisites for travel to locations that are off the beaten path is the need for flexibility. In fact, some travel companies emphasize this in the literature sent to clients prior to a trip. Does CRE issue any sort of advisory of this nature to its clients? Clearly these particular guests would have been much happier traveling to a location in which the unexpected was unlikely and the opportunity to enjoy an authentic experience was not a priority, or even of passing interest. One wonders why they chose the destinations that they did. However, at this point, I think there is no way to please these clients. Short of offering them a blanket refund, which is entirely inappropriate, I think they will remain dissatisfied. CRE has invested time and energy in attempting to address these issues all to no avail. It’s time to let it go, in my opinion. However, in the future, I think that CRE should state in the itinerary that they will do their best to provide the services requested but that they reserve the right to substitute planes (or whatever else needs to be substituted) should an unforeseen problem arise.

    • At July 28, 2010
      12:26:07 pm
      Glen Glines said:

      My experience is these type of disputes are a matter of perspective. In your responses you address this as “understanding the clients reasoning” the reasoning / perspective was clear in their request for “no interaction with locals” and “elegant” “gourmet” meals. These two comments shed light on the clients perspective of who what and how they (the client) are made happy or satisfied. Happiness and quality of experience is delivered to them from the outside not their own personal internal responibility. All the explanations and compensation you offer will never “make this better” unless the client allows themself to accept being happy with the situation.
      My perspective is that delivering the correct response according to the client, even if impossible (King Air flying on Gods breath) would be insufficient. Where did they think they were going when being transported to a “locals” home for a meal? A private supper club ?They should have spoken up then so a change could be made.

      The failure in your organization was one of communication. Easy to say but very difficult to accomplish in your de-centralized service delivery system. As you are aware the face of CRE are the employees and subcontractors that deliver the service. Communication with them during a dynamic day can be difficult. For clients like L and E, the people that are the face of CRE were just there to deliver their happiness. They give little value to the people that are working to please them, except that they provided the fulfillment and happiness they seek.

      Author and CEO Coach Marshall Goldsmith (What Got You Here Will Not Get You There) learned that the secret of his success in coaching is picking the right client.
      The secret to CRE success is picking the right people to be the face of CRE. Perhaps the next step is to, once in a while, say no to the wrong client.
      CRE is about experiencing CR it’s splendor and its people.

      • At July 28, 2010
        8:28:16 am
        Rich said:

        In your letter I would have restated that the aircraft supplied was safer than the King Air. It really isn’t about the number of engines, it is about safety. The illness may have been caused by food, but not bad food. When we were there my wife had several issues with her stomach. We didn’t chalk it up to bad food, just getting used to different food. It is a common problem in her family. In fact, her sister ended up in a hospital on one vacation and never felt the need to blame anyone for it. These things happen. Because you have not received a response it says something about them and how serious they are really taking these concerns. One last comment, and I may be out of place here. When corresponding with a dissatisfied client, it is a good idea to have someone read over your letter to make sure the grammar and wording is correct. In cases like this it is very important. I also want to state again that, like many many others, CRE provided Vivian and I with an absolutely perfect trip to Costa Rica. Your staff and facilities could not have been better! – Rich

        • At July 28, 2010
          9:14:11 am
          Michael Kaye replied
          to :

          Rich, Thanks for the suggestion, especially the heads up on grammar and wording. I don’t want put you to extra work, but I would not be insulted if you pointed out specific mistakes that should have been corrected.

        • At July 28, 2010
          3:16:58 am
          Chris Parrott said:

          Morning Michael,

          yes, it was (is) difficult to call this one without getting more of a feel for the nature of the client. Natalie’s reply is courteous and very comprehensive. The clients’ lack of response to her at the very least is discourteous.

          Costa Rica Expeditions have honestly admitted that an error was made as far as the meal in private house and interaction with locals was concerned – clients had clearly expressed in advance that they didn’t want this. Refunding the cost of this meal/excursion would be fine if it had gone wrong in some way, but a straight refund is probably insufficient where they actually said they didn’t want it in the first place.

          Clients had also clearly expressed a wish not to travel in a single-engined aircraft, and explained why, and were prepared to pay extra for this privilege. That they ended up in a single-engine plane was unavoidable (force majeure) if the excursion was to go ahead. Leaving aside whether the explanation was handled properly, at this point clients had two options:

          1. Accept the substitution, despite their misgivings (“that’s alright”).

          2. Refuse it, and ask for refund of what the whole excursion had cost them. Since it was force majeure, this would have been the limit of Costa Rica Expedition’s liability – but CRE might also have offered a goodwill gesture of paying for an another excursion which didn’t involve a flight.

          They chose option 1 – they consumed the product. A gesture of goodwill (a payment), if the explanation of the circumstances at the time hadn’t been handled well, might be suitable here. However, I think a sincere apology and and full explanation (even though after the event)would be reasonable. Natalie did this.

          Stomach upsets are a notoriously difficult – we’ve all had them, at home, abroad, and when apprehensive. The only time in my life when I’ve been able to pinpoint a meal leading to my severe indisposition – you probably don’t need more info – was in Bolivia 25 years ago. And I knew when I was actually eating (half) the meal.

          As I believe you say in US, s**t happens.

          Very easy to say all this at a dispassionate distance of course. I wonder what the clients will say?


          • At July 28, 2010
            2:54:18 am
            john g said:

            u make me sick

            • At July 28, 2010
              3:03:29 pm
              Michael Kaye replied
              to :

              Gosh, John g. I don’t think any of this is important enough to make yourself sick over.

            • At July 28, 2010
              2:53:42 am
              john g said:

              you people are rich stuck up dispicable human beings

              • At July 27, 2010
                11:01:07 pm
                Ray Rusnak said:

                Hey Mike !

                When I traveled with CRE a few years ago I had no problems, except I slipped and fell and injured my right leg. That was not your fault , so tell the complainers to suck it up and move on.

                Ray Rusnak—–one happy camper.

                • At July 27, 2010
                  9:22:41 pm
                  Sam said:

                  We had an amazing experience in Costa Rica, all thanks to CRE. Specifically in regards to the questionnaires and our interactions with personal guides and drivers. After reading the complaint letters, it is my opinion that the complainant 1) did not communicate well in advance or during the trip their likes and dislikes, and 2) is the type of person who would never be satisfied under any circumstance. For those reasons, it is likely pointless to ask them to understand your position or thought process. Keep up the good work and we’ll be going back soon!

                  • At July 27, 2010
                    8:42:51 pm
                    Ruth Marie Lyons said:

                    Hi Michael, I think this is a case of someone who will NEVER be satisfied. It’s my opinion that CRE is probably not the first company that’s had complaints from these people nor will you be the last.

                    I know this does not help solve the problem but I think that no matter what you do, these people will always want more.

                    We are headed back in early 2011 for our fourth visit with a group of friends in tow to bird with Charlie & Nino and can hardly wait! CRE has always given good value for the dollar, IMHO.

                    • At July 27, 2010
                      5:43:53 pm
                      Kristen said:

                      Hi Michael! Really interesting to see how other companies handle these types of complaints. Unfortunately, my comments weren’t posted this time either. Not sure what’s happening, but despite some difficulties, I was pretty sure they were there after I posted and then navigated away. Anyhow, if there’s some glitch it’s OK. I did want you to know that I took the time to make some comments though, and will definitely keep reading the very interesting responses.

                      • Michael…
                        Over the past ten or so years my wife and I, on occasion with other family members or friends we have invited to join us on a Costa Rica experience – have had the pleasure of staying at Tortuga Lodge (5 times) Monteverde Lodge (3 tikmes) Corcovado (what an enjoyable and scenic location) and have never given a thought to suffering from a food induced illness. True, Corcovado dining was a little less “exotic” than the other locations, but the joy of the location more than made up for a very minor disappointment.

                        My guess is that the folks whose complaint you have patiently surfaced,are what some may call “ugly Americans who complain about everything – no matter hwat! they are certainly not seasoned travelers. I’m amazed that with their comfort demands and obvious lack of respect for local cultures, that they chose to tour Costa Rica.

                        Unfortunately, on our many trips, including your “specials” we had hoped at some point to meet you, but it never happened. Let me say thank you anyway for guiding us through an amazing country and arranging our trip to your, as well as other facilities. We hope to visit again, perhaps some time this fall.

                        • At August 01, 2010
                          8:14:46 am
                          Michael Kaye replied
                          to :

                          Robert, Thanks for the kind words. At present we plan to be out of the country from around September 15 to around October 15. Other than that we’ll be in country all fall. When you make the booking, please make it clear the you would like to meet and will do my best to get together.