If a customer comes down with COVID-19 after buying a show ticket or paying for a reservation, should they get their money back?
The omicron surge has more consumers and businesses wrestling with the issue of cancellation policies as the pandemic extends into 2022.
There’s no standard answer. Some venues are providing flexibility, others are handling it case-by-case and some not budging at all.
For businesses, it’s a delicate balancing act between trying to stanch losses and to avoid creating ill will, experts say.
"It’s been a pain point for almost two years," says Chris Cole, the Washington-based co-chair of Crowell & Moring’s Technology and Brand Protection group.
When COVID first started, there was a wave of cancellations of live events and shows by artists and performance spaces but that’s since slowed down.
Now it's consumers affected by COVID trying to cancel, he says.
Enforcing a contract
That’s spurred "a basic issue of contract law being applied in an area where you simply didn’t see it happen a lot," Cole says.
Two parties sign a contract and the "question becomes: What’s the understanding of the business and consumer from the outset?," he says. Was it clear upfront the business wouldn’t provide refunds under any circumstances?
"Most of my clients as a gesture of good will … will offer some concession most of the time," Cole says, but there are variables such as the uniqueness of event and ability to make up lost business.
The Patchogue Theatre offers refunds and credits to patrons with COVID. Credit: B Migs Photo
Michael Linder, 61, of Middle Island, was hoping for a concession, but found himself out of $741.90 after a positive COVID test prevented him from attending a New Year’s Eve gala with overnight stay he had booked at The Inn at Fox Hollow in Woodbury with his girlfriend.
He was aware of the no-cancellation policy when he booked last November, but reached out to Fox Hollow on Dec. 29 when he tested positive, hoping they’d give a refund or even a credit for another night’s stay.
He was told the New Year’s Eve Package was a nonrefundable reservation.
Linder, semiretired, says he thought Fox Hollow should make an accommodation given circumstances beyond his control and him "doing the right thing by not attending."
"I find it a bit heartless," he says. "I believe a business should be a little more flexible." Other unforeseen instances can arise, Linder says, like "what if someone was seriously injured in a car wreck?"
The Inn at Fox Hollow responded to requests for comment from Newsday with an email saying "we have no comment at this time."
To be sure, if it’s clear upfront there’s no refunds, a business can generally adhere to the contract, but that isn’t always the best move, experts say.
"I’m sure it’s been hard times for many businesses, but I do think it’s good business sense to treat your customers well and make them happy," says Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst with Bankrate.com, a personal finance website. "I tend to think there’s kind of a karma element to some of this."
As for consumers, Rossman recommends:
· Asking for a refund even if there’s a no-refund policy, perhaps alternatively suggesting a credit.
· If denied, go up the chain-of-command.
· Tell others about your unhappy experience with reviews on social media.
· As a last resort, file a dispute with the credit card company. "It may be declined," but worth a try, Rossman says.
Local venues interviewed by Newsday reported trying to be flexible regarding COVID cancellations.
Michael Papierno, regional director of sales at Jericho-based Samar Hospitality, which owns and operates nine hotels including three on Long Island (Viana Hotel and Spa in Westbury, Four Points by Sheraton Melville and Inn at Great Neck), says if it’s a group booking, they always encourage rebooking for a future date.
Good will hunting
"But if the customer’s unable to rebook for a future date, the good will you show a customer now could lead to future business," he says, noting they’ve given refunds due to COVID-related situations.
A room at Four Points by Sheraton-Melville. The hotel has given refunds in COVID situations. Credit: Samar Hospitality
Michael Newman, vice president of sales and marketing for Blue Sky Hospitality Solutions, which locally owns and operates the Long Island Marriott in Uniondale and Hilton Long Island in Melville, says when it comes to COVID, they’re flexible with individual room reservations if the person calls before arrival. With group bookings, they’ll encourage customers to book a future date and apply their deposit to the new booking.
For cancellations, they’ll look at the group bookings on a case-by-case basis, but have given partial or full refunds depending on circumstances, Newman says.
The lobby of the Hilton Long Island in Melville. Credit: Blue Sky Hospitality Solutions
As for performance venues, regarding refunds and credits, the policy at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Brookville "depends on the show … on a case-by-case basis," says Marketing Director Shari Linker.
Jodi Giambrone, Associate Director at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, says patrons with COVID, "will get a full refund or opportunity to use the balance towards another show."
Best Practices for Business Cancellation Policies
· Make sure refund policies are clear upfront
· Set staggered refund timelines (for example, a patron gets a 50% refund back if they cancel one week ahead, zero two days before).
· If you can rebook the reservation with another customer, consider a refund for the one who canceled for goodwill.
Source: Chris Cole; Crowell & Moring LLP
By Jamie Herzlich