The month of March 2020 will be remembered as the month that the world stopped traveling. Borders closed, airlines grounded their planes, cruise ships docked and the tourism industry imploded. Every day brought a new change or rule, enacted for the greater human good but with devastating effects on the global economy, particularly for the fields of hospitality and tourism.
As operators of nine small & independent sustainable luxury hotels in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, we were caught in the middle of this storm and have been trying to navigate these turbulent, uncharted waters to the best of our ability. Right now, we are implementing hibernation plans at our hotels. Close down the hotel temporarily as nobody is traveling right now and reduce our costs to a minimum, but at the same time keep our local staff employed and busy so we are 150% ready for our guests when travel comes back. We are working with our suppliers and staff members on ways to share the burden of operating hotels at zero percent occupancy for a few months.
Some, like Howard and his team at Jicaro Island Lodge on Lake Nicaragua, have already implemented community outreach programs to educate their neighbors on how to prevent and protect themselves against the Coronavirus. In the coming weeks, we hope to launch similar programs at many other hotels to continue our commitment to serving and bettering the communities that we exist within.
March and April are “high season” in Central America with many guests eager to experience a tropical spring break. Guests at our hotels during this time of year had prepaid their reservation in advance and in a normal environment they would, in theory, just lose their prepayment for a canceled trip. In times of Corona with no airplanes in the air and closed borders, our guests cannot come to visit us. So we have implemented a 100% flexible policy in rescheduling all trips, in the form of a voucher or credit for future travel, for later this year, for 2021 or even for 2022 if necessary. And outside of “festive season” we are allowing guests currently experiencing trip disruption due to border closures the opportunity to lock in 2020 rates for their future date. We know that you may not be able to make a decision on when to reschedule right now, but we hope that extending this credit & booking window will help.
It has been an enormous challenge to quickly react and adapt to this “new normal.” This is the best and most generous policy that we can adopt for the benefit of our guests and also local staff and suppliers who depend on our hotels for their livelihood.
Most of our future guests (about 70%) were very thankful for this flexibility and have either rebooked and accepted a credit to apply to a future booking at no additional cost. However, some guests are pushing to get their money back as this unforeseen crisis has put them also in a difficult financial situation. We understand, we empathize and we wish we could help all of them. Many of us at Cayuga are in similar situations with travel plans and have lost our investments as the airlines or hotels did not show much flexibility at all.
The question we’re seeing most frequently from guests requesting a full refund is “what have you done with my money?” And the answer is simple, we are using the cost of prepaid reservations to continue to pay salaries to as many local staff as possible so that we can invest in training, support our local communities and work with our vendors so that we can reopen in a few months and provide a great vacation experience (everybody will really need one, including us) to all guests that have been affected by this. Nobody is profiting from this and sadly, we’ve already had to let some of our extended team go to reduce costs, but if we deviate from this policy, we jeopardize everybody else’s experience in the future and only add to the hardship of local communities who depend so heavily of tourism.
While our world is not coming to an end, it is clear now that nothing will be the same after we make it through this storm. But we believe we will all pull through together and all of us at Cayuga look forward to giving you the most well-deserved vacation of your life once we’re on the other side of this.
Stay healthy, stay calm and take care of each other.