Cancel culture: Why there is a refund policy

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • February 20, 2021

“We chose Wild Bunch Desert Guides for a mountain biking excursion during our recent trip to Tempe, Arizona. We contacted Laurel a couple of months before traveling, and immediately knew we had chosen correctly. She responded immediately and kept us updated on our ride status up until our trip. The whole experience was perfect from start to finish. Our group consisted of two experienced roadies and a couple that has limited cycling experience. Laurel took us on a ride that fit our group perfectly, providing challenge while matching the technical abilities of everyone. When we arrived, our bikes were setup and ready to roll. She provided everything we needed and the equipment was top notch. She taught us how to ride different terrain, stopping to give us tips when the trail got a bit more technical. Her knowledge of the desert is awesome and our water breaks were super informative -- we learned so much about the Arizona desert. We even got to eat some cactus! Laurel's love for her job and company are apparent. It would be difficult to imagine we could have found a more positive and genuine guide. Thanks Laurel! Our ride with you was the highlight of our trip!!” – Kent & Lisa, Lansing, Kan., on Yelp, Feb. 18, 2019

The picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix area of Arizona.

My cell phone rang memorably one night at 2:36 a.m.

Shocked awake, my heart pounding out of my chest, my first worry was someone close to me had died.

But ever since becoming a small business owner in 2016, I answer my phone literally 24/7, never knowing what catastrophe is waiting on the other end.

So, I picked up and heard the all-too-familiar “thump thump” bass of a dance club beating louder than my heart in the background.

However, a “booty call” this was not.

"Hey, hey, Laura,” the gentleman caller slurred a little bit, but definitely got my name wrong.

“So, me and the boys are still tearing it up in Old Town and are heading off to an after-party spot. So, we were wondering if we could move the start time of our mountain bike outing to 1 p.m. tomorrow?"

Thank goodness I was still lying in bed because my eyes rolled into the back of my head and I think I blacked out with blinding rage for a moment.

The question was even more stunning than the outrageous hour of the call – less than five hours before the Wild Bunch Desert Guides were scheduled to meet “Mr. Big Stuff” and his three friends at the trailhead for a Scottsdale guided mountain bike tour.

As one of the top-rated Arizona adventure travel tour companies, I take the necessary time and great care to customize the experience for every guest on a Phoenix guided hiking tour or Scottsdale guided mountain biking trip. So, I already had gone over this dozens of times with “Mr. Big Stuff” during the booking process.

Since the “Fantastic Four” were coming to “The Valley of the Sun” in May, I prepared them for the dangerously rising temperatures we typically get that time of year in the Sonoran Desert. We arranged for a 7:30 a.m. meeting time because temperatures are normally well into the mid-90s by 9 a.m. in May.

And, for the month leading up to their arrival, I kept reminding them. I was transparent and totally honest. I even begged for them to save any partying in Old Town Scottsdale until AFTER our Phoenix mountain bike tour because dehydration, whether from drinking too much alcohol or not enough water, is both a serious and all-too-common problem for visitors here in Arizona.

I even joked around and said, “If you plan to light up the clubs anyway beforehand, you may want to consider a beer-to-water, one-to-one ratio,” I advised seriously before adding with a knowing laugh, “and if you choose to drink Bud Light? That's water anyway.”
Oh yeah! Of course, “Mr. Big Stuff” was all in.

“We won't do anything crazy like that,” he assured. “We will totally be up and prepared and not really go out on the town the night before.”

But it was all wasted breath, and it did not surprise me. The “Leader of the Pack” came off being a bit “too cool, highfalutin.” The vibe was, “I'll do what I want and get what I want; you listen to me.” You know the type, right?

So, I still got the call I had warned against. I do give him credit, despite sounding a bit on the tipsy side, and calling at such an outrageous hour, for being responsible enough to at least contact me.

However, I was calm and firm. "The high temperature tomorrow is supposed to be 109 degrees and that is supposed to happen around 1 or 2 p.m.," I said.

His response? “Yeah, so me and the boys, we can handle 109 on mountain bikes. It's only, what, a couple of hours?”

I did not curse. I swear.

“Sorry,” I said, “We cannot accommodate a 1 p.m. start. I have told you numerous times.”

Meanwhile, during our back and forth, “Mr. Big Stuff” was catcalling to the girls outside of the club, talking to his buddies and I could still hear the thumping bass of the club music in the background.

After verbally dancing for a while longer, I finally said, “Look, if you are not going to be at our meeting location at 7:30 a.m. like you are booked for, you will be charged in full. We have a clear 48-hour cancellation policy which you have received in a confirmation email and been told numerous, multiple times.”

Next thing you know, he hung up on me.

So, right then and there, I ran his charges for a Phoenix guided mountain bike trip through our booking platform.

And predictably the “Party of Four” never showed at the trailhead less than 5 hours later at 7:30 a.m.

But the story gets better: “Mr. Big Stuff” had the audacity to call later that day at 1 p.m. from the trails to try and make it seem like it was a “my fault mix-up” that they showed up and Wild Bunch Desert Guides were not there to provide a service for which they had been charged.

Mr. Big Stuff” then told me he was going to fight the charges with his credit card company, and I went ahead and said, “OK, do what you need to do and I'm really sorry that you had this experience. However, I told you it is not safe to go out in 109 degrees and now especially after you have been out drinking all night. That is a disaster waiting to happen.”

He never did open a chargeback request, and it took me a few days to not stop thinking about whether I did the right thing.

But I know now, in my heart, I did the right thing by my guides and their safety, as well as the health of the guests by not putting them in sweltering temperatures where heat-related illnesses can sincerely be life-threatening.

I also am sure now I did the right thing by protecting my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.

The Wild Bunch Desert Guides are ready and waiting for a group of guests to arrive.

To charge or not to charge? That is the question 

Deciding and following through on a cancellation policy has got to be one of the toughest things in business.

We have all been a customer on the other end of the phone, right?

I mean, who has not had to try and cancel at the last minute a hotel reservation, a flight reservation or car rental? The list of services and cancellations is much, much longer than that, and most businesses in the service industry have a policy to protect them. You cannot cancel the pizza delivery at the doorstep, you know?

As a small business owner, I am torn by putting myself in other people's shoes when a last-minute cancellation situation crops up.

I am an understanding human being. I know there are serious and all-too-legit reasons guests must cancel a Scottsdale guided hike or Phoenix guided mountain bike adventure. So, I want to be the kind of business owner who is flexible enough to make realistic exceptions.

The biggest reasons I get called about late cancellations are the kids getting sick while on vacation or people who choose to do another activity but hurt themselves before a scheduled date with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

However, please do not tell me the dog ate your reservation or some other lame excuse when you are booked for something like a Camelback Mountain guided hike.

Just be honest and transparent. That is how I try and treat every guest, so please show me the same respect and courtesy and be mindful of the shoes I stand in, too.

I also want you to know that when you call to cancel, I offer another day and start time if we are not already booked solid, so the Wild Bunch can deliver a once-in-a-lifetime experience before I hit the payment button.

Unlike most Arizona adventure travel companies, I do not charge people's credit cards until the tour is over.

There are two good reasons I do that – 1) In the event a guest calls to cancel before the 48-hour policy kicks in, there is no refund of money or guests having to keep checking their accounts and waiting for any turnaround time between my booking platform and their credit card company; and 2) so I can leave the gratuity open, in case a Wild Bunch guest wants to reward a guide on their credit card instead of with available cash. (And yes, I do recommend guests treat their guides as they would a good waiter or waitress and consider 20-percent of the check a good tip for excellent service).

Truly, I do everything in my power to ensure people get what they pay for and if for some reason they get here to Arizona and must switch days and times, I typically can accommodate almost any change.

But listen, customer service in a guest-driven small business is never as easy as it sounds.

The hardest part of having a cancellation policy is when a resort concierge or general manager calls to book with us, only to call back later to cancel, because if it comes within that two-day window, those service workers take the brunt of telling the guests again all about our cancellation policy.

And I just want to throw this out there: It does not matter WHO you are, or WHERE you are from, or WHAT important title you hold, or how pushy and bossy your assistant can be, EVERYONE gets the same treatment.

Please keep in mind, when I do charge the amount for a late cancellation Wild Bunch is unable to reschedule, we do so because I still must pay the guides for their time regardless of whether the tour happened or not.

My guides are independent contractors who have real-life jobs and families. They must juggle their schedule, and sometimes take time from another job or their family, to make a guided Sonoran Desert adventure tour happen for visitors to the beautiful "Valley of the Sun." The Wild Bunch are passionate about showing you a good time and showing off our area’s exotic scenery. However, my guides are not just hanging out at the trails, waiting for the next group of guests to wander past. So please respect their time as much as we greatly respect yours.

Also, whenever a late cancellation happens, remember the Wild Bunch Desert Guides have already bypassed other guests biding for your booking time, and there is no reclaiming that business once it has gone down the road looking for something else to do or someone else to do it with. I still have things like insurance, permits, vehicles, mountain bikes and other things I still must pay for even if you cancel too late to replace that booking.

Thankfully, late cancellations are not an every-day issue, but that also is likely because of the cancellation policy in place to offer some protection.

The bikes are ready to roll on another Wild Bunch Desert Guides adventure.
The very first stop sign

When I first opened the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, I knew I was going to have to somehow implement a cancellation policy, but it was really, really difficult.

I started off being super lenient. If a resort concierge called and booked for the next day, only to call back later to cancel, I knew the concierge was going to have to take the heat If I decided to charge the client.

Which brings me to one of my first lessons learned on this cancellation-policy journey.

I will never forget; the Wild Bunch had a group of 10 people booked.

The assistant GM of a pretty swanky place here in Phoenix called me and personally booked the group of VIPs. They were all set for a 10-person event in the next 48 hours, and I was super stoked to pull together a large group gathering like that at the last minute. It was a real coup for the Wild Bunch, a great proving moment for a small, private boutique outfit.

Making the moment especially satisfying is that most of my permits for Scottsdale guided hiking tours or Phoenix guided mountain bike tours require at least a one-to-seven ratio for community safety standards and insurance requirements. So, with 10 guests, I must have at least 2 guides on hand.

At the time, Wild Bunch was just starting out, and with only 3-4 guides in the crew and possibly available, that was a heavy lift.

The task was challenging and stressful, but fortunately I was able to secure another guide besides myself and put together what I thought was going to be an amazing adventure.

Boy, was I super excited! A group of 10 people was a big deal to me in my first year of business, and that was going to be the first "big group” adventure for Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

So, there I was the night before the Sonoran Desert guided adventure getting all the backpacks ready, filling them with water, putting the snacks together, when my phone rang at exactly 9 p.m.

It was the front desk letting me know that the group of 10 had decided that they no longer wanted to go on a Phoenix guided hike, and that I would need to not charge the group because they were considered VIP status at this resort.

I politely informed the front desk staffer that I had a cancellation policy, and that was explained during the booking process, and that I would have to charge for the Phoenix guided hiking trip as I already had secured guides and Wild Bunch already had turned away other guests.

But the front desk staffer threatened the future of my business, explaining to me that if I did not do as requested, this swanky resort would no longer utilize my business when booking Arizona adventure tours.

That put me in a terribly tough situation as the owner of a small, start-up business.

Looking back, the situation still burns me.

How unfair of a big, high-end resort that if you do not show up for a reservation, they would have no problem charging you, but they expect a small service vendor to basically eat what would have been well over $1,000?

In the end, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides had no choice but to not charge the group, but I learned a hard lesson that day while trying to build my business.

The Wild Bunch Desert Guides pickup truck not only hauls the gear, but doubles as a pickup counter.

The Nightmare on Negative St.

Over the years, specific issues have cropped up when visitors arrive here in “The Valley of the Sun.” I already mentioned illness and injuries. I also have had a handful of guests who call and are super transparent about their plans and sometimes need to switch their dates and start times to help get them on other adventures because of limited availabilities or a short vacation window.

I am always happy to try and accommodate such folks, and they always seem to be genuinely realistic and patient and respectful and especially grateful if something can be done. Those kinds of people always seem to understand the many chess moves that must be made. You love those kinds of people and wish they were your neighbors. As a small business owner, you pray every guest could be this way.

Sadly, there are a few people with specific personalities that think because of WHO THEY ARE they can just run all over you and expect you to make special exceptions for them.

So, I will never forget one guest who booked two different dates of guided Arizona adventure tours with the Wild Bunch.

He had his assistant book the outings, however “Mr. Big Shot” also wanted to be the one in communication with me.

So, I had an email chain of about 25 emails back and forth, all of which included the strict 48-hour cancellation policy, especially since the booking came during peak season.

Long story short: “Mr. Big Shot” booked 6 people over 2 days for an adventure each day. However, the morning of the first trip, he just decided, you know, they all just did not feel like going.

So, only half the group nonchalantly showed up without an explanation. No phone call. No text messages. No email. Not even smoke signals. Nothing.

Meanwhile, my guide was prepared for six guests.

Next day? Different journey, same story. Half the number of booked guests. No communication.

However, the guest left a very generous gratuity for my guide and I went ahead and ran the charges for 12 people – 6 per day, just like it was booked.

Keep in mind, I had exchanged a ton of emails with the guests directly prior to the tour and our booking confirmation had gone out two times prior to their arrival reminding “Mr. Big Shot” of the cancellation policy.

Less than 24 hours later, I get a phone call from the rudest, nastiest person – someone part of the booking guest’s crew.

The caller was questioning why I would charge for 12 guests when only 6 participated. She badgered me to take the fee down by half. Berated ranting are good words to describe the call. I was not even given a moment to answer any questions or concerns.

Next thing you know, the caller is throwing around status and titles and basically all kinds of ridiculous things “important” people like to say to remind you WHO THEY ARE.

My favorite, though, was “Mr. Big Shot” was a VIP from City X and, just so you know, he will destroy your small business completely.

Boy, did they learn a quick lesson.

This guest tried to get his money back in full in a chargeback scenario claiming neither he nor his family even went on tour with my company and that I was running a card fraudulently.

Mr. Big Shot” even asked for the guide gratuity back.

Let me just tell you how awesome it is when you are booking platform and the accounting team have your back.

All Wild Bunch guests sign waivers -- first and foremost from a legal standpoint, it is an assurance they are aware of what they are getting themselves into and what our company is all about.

However, the waiver also is proof they actually went out on tour with one of the top-rated Arizona adventure tour companies.

We also have all guests sign a charge sheet at the end of a tour before I charge their credit card -- yet again another way to prove that the guest was out with the Wild Bunch.

Well, “Mr. Big Shot” thought they could ruin good old Wild Bunch Desert Guides, but boy were they sadly mistaken when we were able to prove with signatures that they were out on tour as well as all the emails back and forth proving we had a cancellation policy in place and the guest understood that.

Long story short, we won that chargeback complaint.

The Wild Bunch Desert Guides love to show visitors to Phoenix and Scottsdale the beauty of Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

So, anyone reading this blog knows, whether with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides or not, you should have a better reason than “I am just not feeling it,” when deciding to cancel the day before a Phoenix guided hiking trip or Scottsdale guided mountain bike outing or guided Camelback Mountain hike.

Yes, communication and understanding can overcome a lot, but the bottom line is if other accommodations cannot be made, the guide still needs to be compensated for making the necessary arrangements to be available for the original booking.

Also remember, an outdoor activity in Arizona is different than most places on the planet. The air is dryer here, the temperatures are hotter, and the elevation is a bit higher than most guests are accustomed. So please, avoid staying out late the night before, drinking heavily, and showing up as a dehydration risk. Being hung over is not a good excuse for a refund, either.

Simply put: If you cancel more than 48 hours prior to the adventure? We will not charge you.

However, if cancelling within that final two-day window, Wild Bunch Desert Guides must charge you to cover our guides, the preparation costs, and any business we had to turn down because of your booking.

It is only fair.

I have learned to stick to my guns and follow a strict 48-hour cancellation policy. So please, do not make me be the “bad guy.” I hate the feeling and never want to ruin anybody’s hard-earned vacation.

About the Author

Laurel Darren is the founding owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a 5-star rated adventure tour company that offers guided hiking tours and guided mountain biking tours in Arizona’s picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Arriving in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” in 2012 -- from the home of John Deere in the Quad Cities of Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois -- this corn-fed Midwest girl brought 30 years of athletic chops under her chaps. A 3-sport high school standout and former college softball player – who won her conference’s Athlete of the Year award as a prep senior – Darren has graduated to competing in many races as an adult, from road running and cycling, to cyclo-cross and Mountain Bikes, and even Duathlon and Triathlon “Ironman” competitions. Darren was a popular, top-rated senior mountain bike guide at Arizona’s Outback Adventures before branching out to start her own small adventure business in 2016. To book a guided mountain bike tour or guided hiking trip – or a combination of the two adventures – please visit the home page or call 602-663-0842.


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