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

Spotting Prospective Guests Who Don’t Fit

In last week’s Glen Glines’ Comment:

“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.”

Fortunately in the vast majority of cases prospective guests self-select.  Unfortunately we are not that good at spotting non-compatible guests during the planning phase.

Actually, when we spot  prospective guests who we do not feel are good fits we encourage them to reconsider.

Here are the exchanges of emails in two recent such cases where there were enough hints in the early communication from the guests to give us pause:

Case #1:

Prospective Guest:

“I have filled out wish list. I am interested in National Parks of Costa Rica. The parks: Tortugero, La Fortuna /Arenal, Rincon de la Vieja, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio / Quepos area. I am very concerned with clean and bug free accommodations. I will be travelling with another adult. We are not interested travelling in groups  on a tight schedule. We are arriving in San Jose Nov.8th and departing Nov.22nd. We are interested in any places you recommend.”

My Response:

“Clean is easy.  Bug free in the tropics is impossible to guarantee.  Rooms may be big free for months and then there is hatch and the rooms have bugs for a few days until we can figure out how to deal with them. At any time every time you open the door there is a chance that a bug will get into the room This true of literally 100% of the hotels in Costa Rica. That said, we can choose hotels for you where there is a high probability that you will not be annoyed by bugs, but If 100% bug free is really important to you, you should choose another destination.

Please let me know if you have any questions.”

Case #2:

In this case Nadya sent our  standard first response to a Wish List, with the preferences that the guest indicated.  You can read the whole response here.

You can check out the Wish List here.

Prospective Guest:

“Please review my initial request.  My wife and I plan on staying 4-5 days, not 8 or ten days.  The cost per day may be appropriate, depending on the service and itinerary.  Assuming that the website re driving is accurate, we will not rent a car.”

If you would like to deal with me on a sincere and professional manner, please do not send canned e mails, only custom ones that address our desires.  Thanks.”

Here is how Natalie answered:


Nadya sent me your email below and asked for my help responding to you.

You’re right, some of the text that was sent to you in Nadya’s email of yesterday is text that has been written in the past. In order to get back to you within a day, we often use templates as long as they are relevant.

In your case, I see that although the text was to some degree “canned” the email was also personalized. You sent in a Wish List where you checked the box for a Travel Planner specializing in upscale vacations and we wanted to reconfirm that this was the correct budget.  You also check the box for rental vehicle and we sent you some information regarding what that entails in Costa Rica and asked you if taking this into consideration you still want to rent a car. Have we sent this information in the past? Of course. Nadya also sent you a paragraph and a link that she has probably used literally thousands of times introducing herself and offering you information on her experience as a Travel Planner so that you would be able to put a face to the name when working with her on your vacation. Over the years we have had a lot of feedback that our clients appreciate knowing who they are corresponding with and for this reason our Travel Planners introduce themselves.

You say you only want custom emails that address your desires. Our ability to do this depends on what you mean by that, we have a huge database of text that deals with the routine and the predictable, we use this text on a daily basis. Every time we write something new that is relevant and will get re-used in the future and will save our Travel Planners some time, it goes into the data base. We do this so that when we can highly personalize the exceptions.

The email that you sent implies that you doubt the accuracy of the information on the rental vehicles and it also warns us that you only want to work with people who are sincere and professional. It seems to me that we are already off on a bad foot and if you are doubting our sincerity and our professionalism you might be better off to work with a different company.

It is up to you, we are happy to send you a customized itinerary in the upscale price range. The itinerary will be designed with the information that you have provided. What we can’t do is reinvent the wheel and will most likely use paragraphs that have been written and used before both for the itinerary and our correspondence with you. What we can commit to doing is making sure as we have up until now, that what we sent you applies to your personal situation and plan a very special Birthday Celebration for you and your wife.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Me again:

Neither of the two prospective guests answered.  I can’t say that we are disappointed.

So what do you think?  Are we jumping to unfair conclusions?

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                    • At August 16, 2010
                      6:03:17 pm
                      Len Prins said:

                      I do not think you are jumping to unfair conclusions. Reading those emails alarm bells go off for me and I am not in the travel business.

                      • At August 13, 2010
                        8:43:29 pm
                        dick la roche said:

                        I’d say your full responses met every point and fairly. If the customer comes across as a ‘bully’ in temperament, it seems appropriate to deal with them as one would with any other bully: firmly and with plain talk. To do otherwise leaves you in the (unenviable and unnecessary) position of servile attendant – not that of confident, knowledgeable, leader-guide. Untenable. That’s not what any of us want, including the ‘bullies’ – only they don’t know it.

                        • At August 12, 2010
                          9:59:39 pm
                          Jennifer Fletcher said:

                          I think # 1 might not have been English-speaking,& so came across sounding a bit stiff.However, your answer was spot on.

                          #2 raised my hackles! I found the letter insulting ,questioning as it did the professionalism of CRE,& asking for uniquely composed letters.Are your employees expected to sit down with a Thesaurus so that each message is different?
                          I cannot fathom why a person wouldn’t see that such a letter would be offensive.I liked your reply- the fact that you were not pleased was conveyed politely but firmly.
                          Glad they didn’t come !

                          • At August 11, 2010
                            9:18:45 am
                            Ruth Marie Lyons said:

                            In these two cases CRE was NOT jumping to unfair conclusions! I won’t write an epistle as others have already done that. This is short and to the point.

                            To expect a vacation in a tropical rain forest area without insects is totally unreasonable.

                            The letter Natalie wrote to the second case study is masterful. She deserves a gold medal for it! And I hope it was retained in your computer bank.

                            In my opinion, CRE is better off without these guests. They would have definitely been a thorn in your side. More than likely, they are the type that are never satisfied. There seem to be more and more of those people in our world…. pity, isn’t it?

                            Thanks for giving me the opportunity to express myself. We love coming to CR with CRE. I would not think of using another company and certainly not a guide other than our beloved brother, Charlie!

                            • At August 11, 2010
                              2:12:54 am
                              Emily Le Moing said:

                              I agree with others that CRE is probably well rid of both these potential customers, the first because they would have inevitably stumbled across bugs (maybe they had never before visited a tropical country, or the southern US, or in fact anywhere on Earth?), and the second because anyone who would complain about Nadya’s first email would have complained about everything. I disagree with Cheryl’s suggestion that a phone call from CRE would have helped the situation. I work with publishers in other countries who, now that there is Skype, would prefer to communicate with me by telephone rather than email. I refuse to do this because I have found that if problems develop between two people who have communicated by phone instead of in writing, a “he said, she said” wrangle will be the result (unless, of course, someone records the conversations). When I have traveled with CRE, I have been thrilled to receive incredibly detailed information, prompt answers to all my questions, and some personal comments from travel planners, all conveniently written in emails that I can keep.

                              • At August 10, 2010
                                6:46:02 pm
                                Kathy said:

                                Two points on this topic…The first is related to the canned response or “recycling” itineraries. There is a fine line between providing “the already invented wheel”, (which is why you use a specialty operator in the first place- they know the destination!) and really hearing a clients personal needs. In my own case I had a very upscale travel operator, award winning in service to her destination, (this was the owner I dealt with)send me an itinerary with a destination (in a multi destination trip) that I had specifically requested we not visit. I had explained to her on the phone we were traveling with young teens and that particular destination was a no go for us because I wasn’t convinced of its security, and it did in fact get much worse before we departed. I was disappointed enough about not being heard that I really felt I could not spend upwards of 40 grand for our party and feel comfortable working with this person. Another less known but excellent provider to this region eventually put together exactly the trip we asked for, and after taking the trip, we marveled at how perfect it was for us. So there is that fine line!
                                My second point is the allure of “any customer is a good customer”. I would think one of the advantages to being a specialty tour operator who puts together the kind of wonderful high end experiences Michaels company does, is that you really get a reputation and that will bring repeat and w.o.m. business. Therefore it is so important not to accept a client who will bad mouth your company mainly because the trip/destination was not a match for the client. Or fill your properties with guests who turn off the guests you hope will repeat.
                                Again a personal example…we had planned a trip to Africa for sometime and decided to splurge and stay with one of the best known conservation camp operators (not in SA) because we felt it was important to put our money where our mouth was and we wanted a serene and personalized experience. Unfortunately, that operator decided to “cash in” on the recent World Cup event, accepting guests (and accomodating them with World Cup TV tents) who were not a good fit for what I understood and read in their literature to be their ethic of conservation; quiet and respectful appreciation of the wildlife and natives. I won’t get into details, but lets just say that our experience was hampered by guests who showed up with vuvzelas, dripping with diamonds but no camera or binoculars in prisitne, off the grid camps that advertise the peacefulness of the environment.
                                Companies cannot have it both ways, and we were left with a very bad impression, even though the rest of the trip and their properties and service were near perfect. I might have gone away feeling very loyal to this company and always returning to it (the way I will return to CRE), but I am left with a bad taste and the possibility of exploring other camps next time.
                                SO I think there is merit to this idea that the client and the destination/trip need to mesh, and as the destination expert it is in your best interest to insure you do not end up with 1- bad word of mouth from the mismatched client and 2-disappointment with the mix of folks on your trips on the part of the client you’d like to keep.
                                Hope my personal experiences shed some light from the other perspective! I enjoy your discussions and thoughtful examination of how to improve customer service!

                                • At August 10, 2010
                                  2:45:21 pm
                                  Cheryl Shnider said:

                                  Wow! I am very impressed with your responses to these prospective guests – so very courteous, informative and professional. I wish I could articulate myself so clearly.

                                  Do you ever respond by telephone to people like this? (or to complaints?) The reason I ask is that I find that written messages can easily get misinterpreted without the benefit of tone, inflection and the ability to immediately seek clarification about meaning or concerns.

                                  Your first prospective guest might just be uneducated about the tropics and insects. It almost sounds like there might have been a specific incident with bugs in a hotel in the past which might not even have applied here. If they had gotten a phone call or a request to be more specific about their concerns, I wonder if they might have turned out to be reasonable guests. At least their message was not hostile. Phone calls can be cumbersome…I suppose it depends on how badly you need the business.

                                  The second prospective guest sounds like they might have been a nightmare to deal with had they turned into customers. I am curious though as to whether they received info about 8-10 day trips rather than 4-5 day ones that might have been a contributing factor to their hostility? Natalie’s response does not address that aspect of their email. After reading your response, perhaps the prospective guest realized how unreasonable they were being and was too embarrassed to respond….

                                  Your trip planning templates were fine by me…I found that the service got more personalized as we got into details. Nadya and I started with more canned itineraries and then worked together to create exactly what I wanted. I’m sure the info you send tell prospective guests this?


                                  • At August 10, 2010
                                    1:56:08 pm
                                    Max Waugh said:

                                    Ah, the joys of customer service… in this case before they were even customers to boot. I have to admit that I’m fortunate that the closest I come to situations like this is when dealing with an occasional finicky design or photography client. Those instances are few and far between though, as I hope they are for you guys.

                                    It obviously takes the right mindset and a bit of patience to handle situations like this, and I think CRE’s responses were appropriate. I especially like that the person complaining about canned emails received a very lengthy personalized response about “canned vs. personalized” emails… :)

                                    In both cases it certainly seems to be a blessing that they never responded.


                                    • At August 10, 2010
                                      2:39:49 pm
                                      Michael Kaye replied
                                      to :

                                      Case #2 was the first person ever to complain about the canned response. So Natalie had to write a personalized response in or to—well—respond. Hopefully she “canned” it and stored it away for a rainy day.