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


Reading the many flattering comments in this blog you might think that we never screw up and never get complaints.

Of course we do screw up and we do get complaints—some of which in our opinion are justified and some of which are not.

The judgment calls that we make in handling these complaints are a very important aspect of our business. How we handle complaints sends a message to present and future guests and, even more important, to all our employees.

In this and next week’s Post’s I am going to publish the full text of an email that contains a complaint and request for refunds.

After each one I will give you our version of the facts and ask for your comments. Then in future posts I will tell you how we handled each case.

Case Number 1.

Dear Costa Rica Expeditions:

We just returned from a 10 day trip to Costa Rica and stayed at the Monteverde Lodge for 3 nights. You are clearly a reputable and responsible company, so it is in the spirit of constructive criticism that I send these remarks regarding our stay at your hotel. My sense throughout was that those guests who book the hotel independently and not as part of your packages are treated as somewhat second class citizens. Fair enough, but since there were four of us – two adults, two children – we paid top dollar ($212 after tax per night in the low season) and might have liked a little more consideration.

Here’s what happened: on arrival, ask about a room upgrade (ours was on lower level in otherwise unoccupied wing, low ceiling, non-improved bathroom). No dice – but that’s OK, doesn’t hurt to ask. Afternoon of second day, arrive back to room and find an inch of water on bathroom floor (almost break neck discovering this), plus water running down wall. Pack clothes, move to room two doors down, unpack, and go out to dinner. Return from dinner and find several hundred dead and dying flies on the floor of our entryway, plus water freely flowing from ceiling tiles in bathroom and onto bed, as well as some of our clothing and all of our toiletries. Thirteen year old daughter “totally grossed out” by bugs. Quickly repack, with water raining on us throughout, and are offered another room on same hallway two doors down. Vehemently refuse and insist on room in another area of hotel. Move to another location, still ground floor. Spend the night with ceiling fan shorting on and off, making intermittent loud buzzing noises. No way to turn it off – tempted to pry the control from wall and throw it out window, but no screwdriver. Probably a good thing.

So all in all not a particularly pleasant experience. I realize the hotel was having some fairly catastrophic plumbing and electrical problems, and I’m sympathetic, but it seems we suffered an inordinate amount of inconvenience. And given the price we were paying, I would have expected a bit of compensation – even in the form a free drink, but more appropriately, a full refund of at least one night (say, the last during which we were unable to sleep and had to debate whether it was even safe to use our soggy toothbrushes)

That said, your lodge is lovely, and once repairs and upgrades are made, will again be first-class, I’m sure.

Services Purchased: Three nights Monteverde Lodge. Total spend: $636 Lodging. $86.54 Extras.

The facts in our view are as the guest states, except that the manager of the Lodge recalls that he offered them a complimentary dinner and they refused because they had plans to dine outside of the Lodge.

At checkout we did not offer any refund. They paid without protest.

The third night we moved them to a room where they did not have any problems.

Assuming that the facts are accurate what should have been our response?

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Comments and Replies

  • At July 08, 2010
    8:37:50 am
    John A said:

    I travel over 100 nights annually with much of this for business and perhaps 10-15 personal leisure. While I am admittedly not a hospitality industry professional, I do think that I have insight based on experience.
    Value is proportionate on every service and every product. Therefore at a premium price, premium correlative value is to be expected and an excellent response to make things right is indicated.
    In my opinion, there should have been an automatic comp night given at check out – period. To endure even one night with conditions as described would have earned that as a minimum.

    • At July 07, 2010
      3:35:27 am
      Chris Parrott said:

      Since we’re in the same business, we too occasionally get complaints. Some of them are for things which, though not the clients’ fault, are certainly beyond anyone’s control. But things went wrong, and someone should pay. Icelandic ash generated a good number of this category of complaint, and European airlines and tour operators are still feeling the fallout.

      Some complaints we get are the result of failures of our suppliers (airlines, hotels, providers of local services and excursions). But since we are the tour organiser (legally) we end up having to handle these.

      Some of of the coq-ups (as we say in Britain, although not spelled that way), regrettably, are our own.

      And once in a blue moon, we get a professional complainer. Nothing went wrong, but he wants money back. We’ve had about 3 of these in 30 years’ trading. Generally, we take the view that almost no-one complains unless he has a valid reason.

      My view is that your dissatisfied client sounds reasonable, although nothing he says provides any evidence of his original premise: that those who simply buy accommodation are treated worse than those who buy “packages”.

      Assuming that all the facts are correct, the client should have been offered, on the spot, a full refund for the “lost” night. Later, as soon as Michael became aware of the problem, a personal letter of apology would have certainly have made these clients feel special again.

      The fact that the clients declined (a less emotive word than refused) the offer of a meal (they already had plans), and paid without comment when they left (probably embarrassed) should not in this case detract from the seriousness of the complaint.

      If we had received this complaint (after the client returned home)we’d have probably had to offer more refund (“gesture of goodwill”) and would certainly have sought assurances from the provider that all faults had been rectified. If the provider was new to us, we’d have “stopped sale” immediately.

      But, and here’s the good bit, we almost never receive complaints about Costa Rica Expeditions’ getting it wrong on the ground – CRE are exceptionally good at putting things right as soon as they go wrong. I wish I could say that with honesty about all our other Latin America suppliers.

      Chris Parrott, Journey Latin America, London

      • At July 06, 2010
        11:21:09 pm
        Anne said:

        I would also vote at least for one night refund for sure. I would add, either a dinner or a refund on a next trip.

        • At July 06, 2010
          6:36:40 pm
          William said:

          What about laundry service at no extra charge and credit for one night on a future trip to Costa Rica at any of the company´s properties?

          • At July 06, 2010
            5:57:48 pm
            Jennifer Fletcher said:

            Guests should have been offered a refund of one or two nights.I feel the person complaining was trying to be reasonable & not be “appalled & outraged”.

            (Footnote : teenagers are often grossed-out by things! Anyone who goes to Costa Rica & gets upset at bugs… get my drift…..)

            • At July 06, 2010
              5:01:20 pm
              Shannon Borrego said:

              I have to agree with the comments of those whose sympathies lie with the digruntled guest. One night of inconvenience could have been remedied with a couple of free drink and appetizers, but 2 nights calls for something more. The apology and compensation for one night should have taken place after the second night. However, since it didn’t, a more generous apology is now necessary. I like Jake’s idea of compensating the guest $250 for past inconvenience or $500 towards a future trip. I would also suggest crafting a very personal apology signed by the lodge manager or, even by Michael himself. The guest sounds as though he wants to like CRE and is open to being wooed back. Each day of a vacation is “precious” and having 2 nights spoiled is a real shame. While some travel companies would just write the incident off, I suspect CRE is interested in preserving its excellent reputation and in making amends for an unfortunate situation which was mishandled at the time.

              • At July 06, 2010
                1:55:27 pm
                Roseann Bowerman said:

                I have to agree with the folks who have already indicated that the guests should have been offered a refund for at least one night and probably two. I think they have a very reasonable complaint. Having recently returned from a trip to Guatemala and Honduras for which I made all the arrangements myself I know how heavily I relied upon online rating services like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree discussion boards to decide upon lodging and travel plans. While I often took some complaints with a grain of salt, other descriptions like the one from your unhappy guest might certainly sway me away from a hotel or lodge especially if it seemed the management was not especially concerned with the comfort and well-being of the guests.
                Fortunately for me, my two trips with CRE have been outstanding and our stay at Monteverde Lodge was excellent…but had I been an independent traveler with no guide to speak up for me in a situation like this I’d be plenty unhappy too.

                • At July 06, 2010
                  1:03:16 pm
                  Patrick Taylor said:

                  Michael, first of all, the American River here in Placerville is flowing faster and higher than ever!
                  Anyway, the manager of the lodge should have determined whether or not moving the guest to an adjacent room was appropriate considering water from a leaky roof can move horizontally. In this case it was not appropriate. Ceiling fans shorting and buzzing? Does maintenance not make a cursory periodic inspection? Had other guests complained about this? Many unanswered questions. It appears that the manager could have handled the situation more appropriately based on the information given. My solution? Give the guest one nights refund after a sincere apology, and one nights credit towards a future trip. It appears that the guest noticed that the lodge was having “catastrophic plumbing and electrical problems”. Can it be determined why this has occured and take appropriate steps to prevent future occurances?

                  I have only used CRE once, and had exemplary service and highly recommend you to anyone.


                  • At July 06, 2010
                    12:45:10 pm
                    Howard Robinson said:

                    The disgruntled guest sounds totally reasonable and patient to me. I would have expected a minimum of one comp’d night, preferably two, for the two nights they had to suffer really quite intolerable conditions. It is critical, of course, that your hotel manager, or assistant manager when the manager is not on premises, be empowered and encouraged to make such decisions “on the spot” to do whatever it takes to make a guest happy. Timing is critical to the guest’s experience. Getting a refund two weeks after returning home is better than nothing, but getting it on the spot transforms a negative experience into a positive one.

                    • At July 06, 2010
                      12:15:11 pm
                      Michelle said:

                      It really doesn’t matter whose story is more truthful the statistic facts remain that a disgruntled customer is likely to spread the worst news multiple times over than a happy customer who invariably says nothing. So I agree with the other comments that no matter what you should not get into a debate against the two sides and simply made amends by the maximum compensation.

                      • At July 06, 2010
                        12:20:53 pm
                        Michael Kaye replied
                        to :

                        I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I am going to wait to respond, so as to not influence the other comments. When all the comments are in I’ll use a post to tell you how we responded to the guests and and why .

                      • At July 06, 2010
                        12:00:44 pm
                        Carlos Hirschberg said:

                        We stayed at the lodge in February and everything was fine!We are going back in one month to other places but with costa rica expeditions. IF the facts are correct, I would have given the party a fifty percent discount. My reasoning is simple: what do i want these people to tell their friends? A free dinner is almost insulting although i know it wasn’t ment to be. I hope our next visit is as good as the first one-if not-be sure I will let you know-but then again I hope it will be fine. Interestingly I just read the letter below, we are in complete agreement. I would suggest in cases like these your GM should call the President of CRE and get advise–the ONE thing which will keep your company in business is SERVICE.

                        • At July 06, 2010
                          12:15:30 pm
                          Michael Kaye replied
                          to :

                          I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I am going to wait to respond, so as to not influence the other comments. When all the comments are in I’ll tell you how we responded to the guests and why.

                        • Hi Michael,

                          Putting yourself in the customer’s position, what would your expectations have been? Having to move once due to a flooded room might be written off as an unfortunate incident, but twice? Definitely an inconvenience that can put (pardon the pun) a damper on a vacation. Vacations, as you know, should be memorable in a good way, and not a bad way. And a bad hotel/lodge stay can shade the memories of an otherwise great trip.

                          When your manager was told the dinner was not a suitable comp, he should have come up with something the guest could appreciated more. If he had, then you might not have gotten this letter. And the guest complained during the stay – he should not need to complain at checkout in order to further validate his discontent.

                          However, now that you do have the letter, the question is whether you want this person to be a future guest or just write them off. If it’s the former, I would have suggested offering either a $250 cash refund to make up for the multiple valid inconveniences, or a $500 credit against a future expedition/tour with your company.

                          We had a reputable tour company offer the same sort of deal (X cash or 2X credit) as result of a very disorganized and disappointing trip we took a few years ago. We took the credit and applied it to a new tour later in the year, which exceeded our expectations, and then another one a year later, which was excellent as well. We would never have gone back without the incentive to do so, however.

                          Anyhow, just my thoughts as a frequent traveler who has experienced his share of travel misfortune and delights alike.

                          Give my regards to Yolanda!

                          Jake Richter

                          • At July 06, 2010
                            12:16:12 pm
                            Michael Kaye replied
                            to :

                            I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I am going to wait to respond, so as to not influence the other comments. When all the comments are in I’ll tell you how we responded to the guests and why.

                            Yolanda returns your regards.