The Humanist Dilemma: Feeling Sorry for Myself for Feeling Sorry for My B&B Guest

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Waivering Policy: I run a bed and breakfast in a college town. Business is good but it fluctuates seasonally; sometimes we could book all our rooms two or three times over, and other times we’re empty. So while we make a living, margins are narrow.

Recently the university held a ceremony to inaugurate its new president. We had a couple of bookings from people attending this event, one an academic from half-way across the country. She was due to land at the local airport at 9 p.m. and stay with us for two nights.

At exactly 9 p.m. that night, I received a phone call from her saying that she had woken up feeling ill that morning and decided not to come. She expressed regret and said she understood our policy was to request two days’ notice; otherwise her credit card would be charged but refunded if we were able to fill the room.

As usual when taken by surprise, I became flustered and ended up agreeing to charge her for the first night (over $200) but not the second. I also told her I’d send her a gift certificate for one night’s stay that she could use in the future.

Based on our policy, we were within our rights to charge the full $400 plus tax.  I’m simply not comfortable penalizing someone for such a large amount of money, especially on a week when we’re only 25 percent full.  It would be different if it were a football weekend and we’d turned away a dozen other bookings.

But here’s what bothers me most. After I got off the phone and my husband and I discussed it, I realized there was a distinct possibility that she had actually flown in and perhaps was met by a colleague who said, “Oh you shouldn’t stay there, you can share my suite at the Sheridan” or “we’ve reserved a room for you at the president’s house.” Otherwise, why wouldn’t she have called earlier in the day rather than precisely when her plane landed? I feel like a fool for not penalizing her because she said she was sick. Now I’m sick.

—Cancelled Out

Dear Out,

Yes, you are cancelled out—out of the money. And it was you, not your guest, who experienced a dilemma. She simply bailed at the last minute, understanding and accepting she would incur the penalty. While it does sound probable that the illness was a fib to cover her last-minute decision not to stay with you, she acknowledged her obligation to pay for the two days.

Yet you backed down and hurt yourself financially, regardless of whether the guest’s excuse was honest. Once you publish a policy and the guest is aware and in agreement, you should consistently enforce that policy unless there are extenuating circumstances. Perhaps a blizzard closing the airports, or the event being canceled just before her flight took off.

Your existing policy is skewed against you, and your second-guessing makes it worse. You ‘ve built in a loophole such that people who book and bail get off scot-free if you manage to find a last-minute replacement, which makes no sense. You can’t ever make more than a full house on a busy day, but you have no way to make up for rooms you can’t fill. And then you feel guilty because you’re not full and give up what, according to your own policy, you’re due. I wonder where that guilt is coming from. You’re a hotelier, not a generous friend.

Did your guest ask you not to invoke the full fee, or did you volunteer to waive it on your own? If she takes you up on the free night, she breaks even and you lose even more than you already have. Plus you’ll be out what her stay costs you (i.e., breakfast, laundry and housekeeping–plus the room if you could have booked it with a paying guest).

I can perhaps understand flexing when it’s a valued repeat customer who clearly is in an unforeseeable bind and has made a good faith attempt to give you notice. But please take another look at your policy. Make sure it’s in line with industry standards. (I doubt it’s standard not to charge if you’re able to fill the room with another guest. That should be your gain, not your no-show guests’.) Clarify in your mind (and, perhaps, in writing) what, if anything, would constitute reasonable circumstances to waive non-refundable fees. Then enforce your policies consistently and professionally, even if you have to invest in a couple sessions of therapy to manage your unprofessional waffling. Waffles should only be for breakfast.