The word itself, “cancellation,” resonates with finality. But when it comes to cancellation policies at adventure parks across the country, flexibility is really the name of the game. That’s the consensus of a number of park operators interviewed by Adventure Park Insider, and flexibility has carried extra weight as park operators have revised cancellation policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The biggest COVID-19 step is to allow—no, strongly urge—anyone who’s feeling COVID-19 symptoms to stay home. In that case, there’s typically no penalty for cancellation, even at the last minute, and many operators offer a credit. Some are offering a full refund.
In general, say those interviewed by API, cancellations are relatively uncommon, and disgruntled customers demanding refunds are rare. Still, with the COVID-19 crisis throwing a wrench into the cancellation works, as it has in other industries, park operators have become more accommodating of these requests. They are prioritizing long-term customer relations over strict enforcement of stated cancellation policies.
That takes commitment. Many states are mandating limits on customer numbers in the early phases of reopening. “A last-minute cancellation would be even more detrimental with such limited capacity,” says Marissa Doyle of Tree to Tree Adventure Park in Oregon. Still, anything is better than being fully shut down.
The Price of PR
What airlines, major hotel chains, and other hospitality businesses have determined is that a key to surviving the pandemic is maintaining good customer relations and loyalty that will fortify business when the crisis is over. Relaxing strict cancellation policies has been a good place to start.
That’s not entirely new to the aerial adventure world. “Softness,” as Sara Bell, co-owner of The Gorge zip line and Green River Adventures in North Carolina puts it, in applying cancellation policies has long been a common practice in the adventure park industry.
That’s largely due to the fact that most parks are independent entities, unlike an airline or hotel chain with global reach. With no corporate hegemony to dictate unyielding cancellation rules, modifying or relaxing policies on the fly is relatively easy.
But any softness in relaxing cancellation terms doesn’t mean that a well-defined and generally adhered-to policy shouldn’t be in place. The operative concept: establish and clearly state a cancellation policy, but under certain circumstances be willing to make concessions.
Variations on a Theme
If there is a typical policy applied throughout the adventure park industry, interviews conducted by API suggest something like this: full payment upon making a reservation, with full refunds, either in cash or in the form of future credit, available for cancellation up to 48 or 72 hours prior to arrival. Once within that two- to three-day window, all bets are off—customers forfeit their reservation fees.
Outdoor Ventures, which operates seven parks in eastern locations, takes a slightly different approach. Payment in full is required upon making a reservation, with credit given for unused reservations right up to the scheduled time of arrival.
VP of operations Micah Salazar explains that Outdoor Ventures parks rely heavily on local business, much of it repeat business, with bookings often made close to the arrival date. Being liberal with a near-to-arrival-date credit policy, he says, is an important part of maintaining a good standing within local communities that produce frequent repeat customers. A park that leans more heavily toward destination-travel business, where typically one-time visitors book well ahead of arrival, might not be so willing to abide last-minute changes.
Flexing the Policy
But back to the business of flexibility. “We allow managers complete discretion on a case by case basis” to bend policy terms, says Salazar.
Variations on that general approach are applied by other park operators. A big reason for being flexible is simply to keep as many customers as possible happy. Given the weight that online reviews carry in consumer decision-making, avoiding a bad review is “financially more valuable than sticking to a policy,” says Bell.
Dylan Burt, manager of Quarry Park Adventures in California, agrees. “We want [customers]to come back to the park and have a positive experience,” he says, and being punitive in enforcing a cancellation policy defeats that purpose. That’s especially true at a place like Quarry Park, which relies heavily on local, repeat customers.
Avoiding refunds. A few flexibility principles do apply, and chief among them is “try to stay away from refunds, if possible,” as Ruthie Lile of Granite Insurance puts it. Picture Paul Dooley as a used-car dealer in the great cycling film, Breaking Away, repeating the word, “refund,” with deranged incredulity after a nervous breakdown. Reaching into the till for refunds can drive the owner of any business crazy—it means relinquishing revenue that is already in the bank.
If anything of value needs to be returned to compensate a customer for a cancellation or an unused reservation, the preferred tactic is to steer a customer toward a voucher or credit. And even that is something to proffer frugally.
Korey Hampton, co-owner of French Broad Adventures in North Carolina, offers vouchers if a cancellation is made within 72 hours, and is willing to be flexible with refunds “on a case by case basis.” But the time of the year factors in. If two people in April cancel late in the game, she says, they might be extended a refund if requested. But 40 people on the Fourth of July? “No way in hell,” says Hampton.
Most parks apply slight variations on their basic policies for larger groups, especially when final group numbers might not be determined until shortly before an event date.
A typical group policy might require a 50-percent deposit upon booking, with the balance paid after the final group number is known closer to the arrival date. Nick Thompson, owner of CLIMB Works, which operates parks in Hawaii and Tennessee, says his policy is to require any group of 15 or more to make a non-refundable deposit of 50 percent at the time of booking, with the balance due 48 hours prior to arrival.
Part of the challenge with groups, of course, is that the final group number often isn’t known until shortly before arrival. Plus, with weight limits on certain activities, parks oftentimes need to nix some participants on arrival when they tip the scales above or below the weight requirement.
That’s one reason why Green River Adventures and The Gorge are willing to “customize payment plans for groups we’re familiar with, especially summer camps,” says Bell. For some organizations that might return frequently, she says, she’ll bill at the end of the month, after final numbers have been tabulated.
When the Park Cancels
Of course, it is a whole different issue when a park is forced to cancel reservations, as many have because of pandemic-related closures, rather than a guest cancelling. Thompson reports that pandemic-related cancellations have necessitated refunds in the neighborhood of $100,000 at each of CLIMB Works’ two locations. He says he was forced to cancel one large corporate group of roughly 1,000 participants, but at least he was able to recoup a portion of that lost revenue ($30,000) through an event-cancellation clause in his insurance coverage.
Communicating the Policy
According to Burt, a cancellation policy needs to be articulated in at least three places: on a park’s website; by the booking agent when taking a reservation; and in a confirmation email delivered after booking.
That can become complicated, however, if a reservation is made through a partner of a park, e.g., a lodging establishment, that might have a slightly different cancellation policy. CLIMB Works, for example, partners with other area attractions, such as a Polynesian cultural center in Hawaii, and a rafting company in Tennessee. Thompson’s solution to any variance between cancellation policies is simple: go by the policy stated by whichever company made the booking.
Balancing act. So the guidance on cancellation policies, from park operators interviewed by API, is three-pronged: Be clear in stating your policy; be firm in applying it; but be willing, in the interest of maintaining good customer relations, to make exceptions. The idea is to find an ideal balance between finality and flexibility.