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By Editor Emeritus, Don Causey

Recently, we sent you some feedback on the coronavirus pandemic from a few of the major companies in the fishing travel industry. Not surprisingly, most of them painted a fairly bleak picture of the current situation as regards currently booked trips. To give you a wider perspective, we have now reached out to some additional agents. Indeed, the overall picture is not all gloom and doom, though it would not be accurate to suggest anyone at all is happy with the current situation. Importantly, we also received one report from an unhappy fishing client who had three important trips booked this year. He did not want his name revealed because he did not want to be pegged as a problem client. I also provide my own view of what it feels like to lose a deposit. At this point, the overall industry view has been fully presented, I think. What is still lacking is substantial uncensored feedback from clients who have been asked to bail the industry out by accepting the loss of substantial amounts of money. What does that feel like? What needs to be done to prevent this kind of thing happening again? If you are a fishing client and you’ve lost money, please weigh it with your candid view. Rants and raves are both acceptable. On a one-time basis, I will process your comment anonymously – that is, I will publish it with your name withheld and the destinations you have booked anonymized as well. Just don’t send your comment that way. I will protect you from the possible wrath of the industry by withholding your name, but I am not going to run the risk of publishing fake news by accepting comments from people who don’t tell me who they are. The point of this exercise is not to create controversy; it’s to fully explore the enormity of what has happened here. Literally millions of dollars in travel funds have gone down a rat hole none of us dug. As an industry, we need to do something to keep this from ever happening again. You can help make sure of that by weighing in. Write Don Causey, Editor Emeritus, doncausey@msn.com.           

Garry Reiss of Acute Angling (www.acuteangling.com) issued this statement about trip cancellations as a result of Covid – 19. As an outfitter and agent for trips, Acute Angling has complete control over its cancellation policies. The company provides peacock bass fishing trips to the Amazon, mostly to conventional anglers but also to a growing number of fly anglers.

Today’s extraordinary circumstances are affecting us all. Although we doubt that these circumstances will continue beyond the next couple of months, we have implemented a policy that we feel will protect us all, just in case.

Our Policy, In Short: If any of our trips cannot operate, due to health risk or regulatory reasons, they will be postponed until it is medically safe and totally legal to operate them. In that event, anglers will be able to reschedule their trip, at their convenience and at no charge.

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Vince Tobia of Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters (www.ccoflyfishing.com) checked in with this statement. Tobia books guided and Do-It-Yourself bonefishing trips in The Bahamas, plus guided steelhead trips in western New York.

We have been in regular contact with our clients who were scheduled to travel over the coming months and with the many great lodges we work with throughout the Bahamas. Because of our close relationship with the lodges and guides we work with, we are able to extend full credit for any canceled trips to our Bahamian destinations, which include Acklins, Crooked, Great Inagua, Eleuthera, Cat Island, and Mayaguana. The credit is for all land-based expenses already paid for on these islands, which may include lodging, meals, and vehicle rental. It does not include any airline expenses, or any expenses incurred for overnight accommodations in Nassau. This credit will be valid for one full year from when normal travel resumes. The same policy goes for everyone booked to fish for steelhead this Spring in western New York. If you are not comfortable coming this season, we can reschedule. If you do come, we can take you fishing, away from any crowds.

We may not be the largest fly fishing outfitter, but you can rely on us to do our best to protect your interests. We consider all of our clients friends, as well as the lifeblood of our business. You always come first, and we have your back! As regards future trips, we advise you to be proactive and start thinking about booking future trips now! There is no reason you cannot be looking to schedule a trip for this Fall, and for Winter and Spring 2021, and possibly even for this summer. Keep in mind that many people are now attempting to roll dates over to next season, which of course means that future availability is going to get very tight. Don’t wait to book future trips if you want to reserve the best guides, dates, tides, etc. In the meantime, be a good neighbor and person, help your family, friends, and strangers alike. Be patient, not only with those you know well, but with strangers as well. Thank you for sticking with us here at CCO Fly fishing!

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Mike Fitzgerald, Jr. of Frontiers Travel (www.frontierstravel.com) issued this statement. Frontiers is a major international booking agency for fly fishing and birdshooting trips. It also has a general tourism division called Elegant Journeys that is devoted to upscale international trips:

We adhere to the cancellation policies outlined by the lodges and other travel entities we represent. Most have been lenient and have bent their clauses significantly. We are advocating on behalf of our clients as much as possible, but fully understand that lodges often cannot refund. As countries were closing their borders, we were able to get a lot of our clients home prematurely from far away destinations quickly and efficiently, which was greatly appreciated — and is another reason why booking with an agent can be very beneficial. Sometimes it’s tough to appreciate what services we provide until there is a major problem or crisis.

The cancelations started flooding in around February 24th. In late March, we had more than 600 clients cancel something. It’s been a very tough month, but we will persevere. We have been through global illnesses, major world events, and terrible Mother Nature curve balls over the last five decades. While Covid – 19 has been by far the most significant event we have had to deal with, we had a disaster plan. It is in effect now, and it will see us through.

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Mike Michalak of The Fly Shop in Redding, California, checked in with this statement. The Fly Shop is a retail and internet merchant of fly fishing equipment, an outfitter of local fishing trips, and a major international booking agent.

These are unprecedented and unwelcome times for all of us in angling travel, and nobody in this group needs to be preached to about how much we feel for those at the bottom rung of the ladder (the guides, cooks, and staff that often live from check-to-check; payday-to-payday) and those who are getting double-impacted, like our friends in the Bahamas who haven’t yet had the opportunity to rebound from their own recent hurricane tragedy and are now looking at losing the most popular portion of their season. How is The Fly Shop handling the current difficult situation? What I’ve done here at The Fly Shop is guarantee all my staff a full paycheck for the next 120 days. Beyond that date, I anticipate a return to normalcy, and I want to have a full team here to deal with the future at that point. It’s the short-term solutions and decisions that are most painful, difficult, and agonizing.

As this is written, our retail store is closed to the public, but we’re getting mail, online, and phone orders. The shipping people come in and do their job at night, and the retail staff is staggered to maximize personal separation. As for our Outfitters Division, I have completely shuttered our local guide service. The team of three that manages that portion of the business (which includes fly fishing kids camps, fly fishing schools, seminars, and a regional Private Waters Program that provides exclusive lodge and day fishing destinations), is busy answering questions and dealing with the individual policies for each destination or service.

Our travel team has been overwhelmed doing much the same thing as our outfitter team. Just determining what the policy is at every destination our clients have booked has been a monumental task. And, of course, they are dealing with a lot of yet-to-be-answered questions – when, for example, travel restrictions will be lifted in particular countries and when (or whether) our clients will be willing to risk the increased contagion associated with air travel.

To a great extent, the travel solutions are beyond our control, and that is the crux of our frustration. Still, some decisions have had to be made. For example, cancellation of all the trip packages planned in the short term (April and May) can’t be avoided. At the same time, we are necessarily kicking the can down the road on some of longer-term issues. What to do (and what will happen) regarding travel plans in June, July, and August will probably become a lot clearer as those dates approach. We are delaying those decisions accordingly.

Generally, refunds are not an option or consideration for lodges and outfitters. Those who have told us what they are going to do are offering rollovers (re-booking at a later date or next season) with penalties that range from zero to severe. Clearly, for some of them, simple survival has become an issue. Generally speaking, the refund/rollover policies of the lodges we have been in touch with varies with their own financial position. Lodges owned by oligarchs and the ultra-wealthy are being magnanimous. They can afford that luxury. Less financially stable destinations; those that are leveraged; those in more formative development; those with extremely short seasons that fall in the contagious calendar window; those that use their next season deposits as operating capital; and those with expenses that be can’t averted have been predictably and understandably less benevolent with their policies. I have no doubt there will some opportunists in our corner of the travel industry that will attempt to profit from this situation. By opportunists, I mean those that will just cut and run with bullshit excuses and penalty policies that don’t reflect the true gravity of their situation. But for every one of those, I am sure there are many others who have agonized over their decisions and have chosen policies that are as generous and practical as possible.

At the risk of appearing to proselytize, those angling travel agents you asked to respond on the issue of trip cancellations are all highly respected, sincere advocates for their clients. Those travelers whose plans have been interrupted or cancelled (and whose trips were arranged through an agent, rather than directly booked) are going to glad in the end they have a strong agent advocate in their corner instead of having to deal individually with the owners and managers of the destinations they have booked.

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Guy Schoenborn of Fishing With Larry, an international booking agency (www.fishingwithlarry.com), filed this brief statement:

Almost all of the lodges/outfitters we are dealing with have been rolling trips to a future date with no surcharge. At first, some of my clients weren’t happy with that, arguing they should be offered a refund. At this point, almost no one is complaining about not getting a refund and having to roll over their trip.

Don Causey Note: Guy’s general note does not include any mention of a lengthy and unusual negotiation he had with Avalon, the company that outfits most of the top-tier fly fishing trips on offer in Cuba. He asked me to get involved in that discussion, which started with him sending me a copy of some correspondence he had with Avalon over trips he booked for two clients that were scheduled to take place this month. Seems Avalon agreed to roll 100 percent of the value of those trips over if the clients agreed to apply half that credit toward a trip in 2021 and the other half to a second trip in 2022. The problem seemed to be headed toward resolution until Avalon notified Guy and his clients that a very large price increase would be applied to both trips. Specifically, the new trips would increase in price from $4,900 to $7,263! The math is a bit hard to follow, but the increase almost wiped out the value of the rollover of funds while obligating both clients to buy two trips rather than the single trip they wanted in 2020. The latter consideration, of course, meant Avalon was effectively “selling” two new trips without incurring any marketing costs. As unusual and convoluted as the offer was, the clients had reluctantly agreed to the deal until they found out about the increase in cost. And that is where matters stood when I was asked to reach out to Avalon and see if a better, fairer agreement could be reached. Here is the upshot according to a concluding e-mail from Guy Schoenborn:

“Avalon and I went round and round and finally agreed upon my clients going in mid-March in 2021. They will get 50 percent off and the original price of $4,900. They will have to go again in 2022 to get the other 50 percent. Avalon wouldn’t let them go in April even though they had space. It was the best I could negotiate. I hoped to do better. Thanks again for your help.”

If there is a moral, or point, to this long story, it was probably made by Mike Michalak in the above report when he pointed out the value of having an agent on your side when a trip goes off the rails in some way.

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Jim Klug of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures (www.yellowdogflyfishing.com) checked in with this statement:

I thought that I would send over a few thoughts and a couple of updates as to how Yellow Dog is handling this situation. In no particular order, here are a few things that might be helpful:

  • It is important that anglers remember that a booking agent cannot refund payments made for trip bookings in the near future, as all funds have already been passed along to operators to secure prime dates, reserve top guides, block rooms, etc. THIS IS THE WAY THE BOOKING SYSTEM WORKS.
  • Lodges world-wide are largely unable to issue cash refunds for cancelled trips – regardless of the reason. This is obviously causing a high degree of frustration. WE GET IT! Right now, many of the lodges that we work with are implementing credit and trip roll-over policies for trips that have been impacted. As Mike Michalak pointed out in his statement for The Angling Report, CREDITS (instead of cash) are the only way that these lodges and operators will stay in business! We are seeing everything from 100% credits to 50% credits, depending on the country and on the ability of individual lodges to weather this storm. The lowest we’ve seen is 25 percent credit from a couple of lodges in South America.
  • I believe that there are still a lot of anglers out there whose trips have been impacted or cancelled that still believe they can and should be made whole on the entire cost of their trip. I have heard time and again, “It’s not fair that I should have to pay a rebooking fee,” or, “Why am I not getting a 100 percent credit to rebook for the very best dates next season?”  The anglers are correct in saying that IT’S NOT FAIR! We get that. That said, and what I think a lot of people need to realize, is that this is an unprecedented situation, and, in the end, everyone is going to have to share the pain if we want the network and infrastructure of great lodges, guides, outfitters and agents to be there when all of this is said and done. Anglers need to remember that this entire situation is going to impact EVERYONE: from scheduling and rebooking annoyances all the way to lodges and destination angling businesses actually closing their doors. People are getting crushed.
  • A simple message that we are trying to share with affected customers is this: “You are an angler, and you have been to some of these destinations! You’ve met the lodge staff, fished with the guides, been served by the bartender. These are the people that the lodges and the operators are trying to protect.” We are very aware of how frustrating it is for anyone to lose a week of fishing or to have to reschedule a trip for a future date. These problems, however, while important to all of us, are honestly smaller than what a lot of people are dealing with right now.
  • Most lodges are digging deep and offering the very best solution they can as regards to future credits or roll-overs for certain dates. That said, there are admittedly a few operators who are falling short. I feel strongly that when this situation passes and things return to normal, Yellow Dog will 100 percent be reevaluating certain lodge and program relationships.
  • We are working hard to remind our clients to be patient, understanding, and kind. People are frustrated and scared and at times angry with this entire situation, and we all get that. Coming in hot and being pissed off at an agent, lodge, or guide, however, is totally unwarranted. This pandemic situation is not the fault of anyone in the industry, and no one imagined the situation that we are all now dealing with. Customers need to be understanding and they need to be compassionate. One of our Yellow Dog team members commented to me that the saddest thing he is seeing with this situation is how a customer who is laser-focused on securing a specific guide – committed to the idea of being guided by the person they believe is the very best in the game – will now leave that guide hanging and walk away with the expectation of a full refund for a cancelled trip. Forget the fact that the guide is now out of work and without any income. Andy Mill’s latest video post was great – reminding anglers that if you have the means and if you’re financially sound, thinking of the guides, outfitters, lodges and lodge employees is a kind and worthwhile thing to do. There are for sure plenty of anglers that are heeding that call and being magnanimous in the situation, but sadly, some are not.
  • And, on that note … just as we will be reevaluating the relationship that we have with a handful of lodges and operators post-pandemic, we will also remember how some of our long-time customers have behaved throughout all of this. Those that have been abusive to our team members, rude to people trying to offer suggestions, and willing to win-at-all-costs by seeking full charge-backs instead of understanding the difficulties that everyone is currently dealing with will likely be invited to find other booking options. When this is all said and done, we will no longer be investing the resources of our company (the talents of our staff, the time, and knowledge, and the fact that our team members actually CARE about each and every trip that they handle) in customers that are abusive, hostile and rude. This is a small industry that is largely filled with great people. No one is getting rich, but everyone found their way to the sport and the business of fly fishing for a reason. This situation has shown us that – sadly – there are a few people who are not a fit.
  • We all know that US airlines and the mega-hotel chains are going to be receiving bail-out funds. Even some small businesses are likely to receive limited financial support in the form of loans and grants. Lodges in Belize, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Seychelles, Argentina, however – NONE of these operations are going to receive any kind of government assistance. I have had a number of people demand full refunds, saying “You guys are all going to get bailed out – you’ll be fine.” That is simply not true of our company or any of the companies whose destinations we serve. It’s important, that anglers remember how the agent-lodge business model works: When funds are paid to secure reservations, ALL OF THOSE FUNDS are sent to the lodge. Agents make a small commission on the back end, and only when a FINAL payment is made!
  • Which brings up a MAJOR ISSUE that many of us are now dealing with: credit card charge-backs.  We have been pummeled by charge-backs for the past two weeks, and that can kill a small business or even a larger booking agent. Here’s why. Let’s say a trip is $8,000 total for a week-long lodge package. The agent sells and books the trip, invoices the client, and collects both the trip deposit and the final payment. Chances are good that the client pays with a credit card (likely a point-producing rewards card) which saddles the agent with a 3 to 3.5 percent processing fee on the entire cost of the trip.  Let’s say the agent makes 15 percent commission on the total trip package. For an $8,000 package, the commission might start at $1,200. When a client pays with a rewards credit card that commission is reduced by roughly $280 to about $920 because the fee is applied to the total cost of the trip. That $920 is now the TOTAL amount the agent is making in commission, and that is only collected once the trip is paid in full. With this pandemic situation, we are seeing panicked and unhappy customers (unhappy with the policy of no refunds or partial credits as determined and issued by the lodge) calling their card company and demanding a charge-back. The credit card companies in turn hit the booking agent FOR THE FULL $8,000! The lodges already have the money, but the card companies don’t care. The full amount is pulled out of the booking agent’s account, causing massive problems as these charge-backs begin to add up. THIS IS A HUGE DEAL, AND A PROBLEM THAT COULD LITERALLY SINK BOOKING AGENTS RIGHT NOW.
  • Here at Yellow Dog, we have had to make some very tough decisions in order to survive this situation and ensure that we are around to protect and look out for our customers and all future trips that we have on the books. Literally THOUSANDS of reservations that stretch well into 2023 are at issue. Presently, we are trying to deal with hundreds of cancellations and re-bookings, and we are doing it with a staff that has now been reduced by lay-offs and furloughs. These are not easy times, but we are doing everything within our power to take care of our customers, protect their trips and future reservations, and find workable and acceptable solutions to the challenges that this pandemic has created. Not to worry. Yellow Dog will survive this, but it will largely be due to the understanding, support, loyalty and kindness of the majority of our customers.

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A subscriber who asked to have his name withheld filed the following statement:

I had three fairly expensive trips booked this year, two of them international and one of them domestic but still expensive. At this writing, I already know that one of my trips is not going to happen because the planned date of travel is next week. I am keeping my fingers crossed on the other two trips. I am not writing this for publication in your newsletter, by the way – this is just a comment to you. I also am not asking for any intervention or inquiry on my behalf.

I think the current situation is going to have a long-term impact on the fishing travel industry, not just because of the financial impact on operators and agents, but also because it is going to leave a lot of strained trust between clients and the agents and outfitters who book and handle trips. Outfitters and agents have never been clear that your deposit is just a right to book the slot and is not a payment toward your specific fishing trip – at least that is how they appear to be treating deposits in the current situation. In the case of the trip I know I have already lost, the outfitter is not willing to let me use any portion of my deposit to secure a spot for the same time next year. It would be crazy on my part to fork over another deposit for next year based on the outfitter’s behavior this year. I reached out to my outfitter when the country where he operates closed its airports. He notified me at that point that he was closing down, but I have not heard anything at all since then.

Personally, I was already struggling with outfitters’ move to basically rely on client tips to pay their guides’ salaries. Do outfitters think us clients don’t realize this has allowed them to understate their trip cost by 10 to 20 percent? Do they think we are stupid?

Over the years, I have enjoyed scores of fishing trips, and I value greatly what outfitters have been able to develop in remote areas. I fully understand they have a large fixed cost. I think if they had been more up front over the years about what a client can expect when things go wrong, it would help with everyone’s expectations and trust at this point. As things currently stand, I may well go back to an outfitter I have used before rather than the one who took my deposit this year. I was really looking forward to fishing with that outfitter for the first time, too. I’ll bet he (and perhaps many others) will not be filling up early for 2021 so I hope he used my lost money wisely.

I would just like to reinforce that while we all want the good outfitters to survive, they need to understand that we did not contribute to the cause of the current problem and that takes a lot of joy out of helping. Not to be given any credit for a paid deposit to “save space for full-paying, future customers” is a real insult, I think. Not receiving a big thank-you letter for making an involuntary contribution makes things worse.

Don Causey note: I welcome additional comments from clients, but don’t sent them anonymously. I will withhold your name from publication on request, but I need to be able to verify that all client feedback is legitimate – that is, not fake news. In the interest of full disclosure, I lost several thousands of dollars on a trip deposit myself this season. To be sure, I cancelled the trip before the current crisis developed, for reasons other than COVID – 19. Also, I was aware at the time of booking that the outfitter had a no-return policy as regards deposits, and I understand the reason for that: namely, the trip in question is in a very remote area with a short season. Allowing even one client to cancel with impunity could tip the outfitter’s financial balance toward loss for the year. My agent for the trip told me I was actually lucky to have lost only my deposit because another outfitter in the same area I planned to visit requires clients who book a trip to sign a contract obligating them to pay the entire cost of their trip even if they have to cancel. This specificity of obligation, as rough as it sounds, may be a step in the right direction. As Name Withheld suggests, knowing ahead of time just what a deposit is and is not buying you, would prevent a lot of the sting many clients are currently feeling. (Anyone agree or disagree about that?) At any rate, I have accepted my own loss at this point, but Name Withheld is right: It does feel bad to lose money this way. When we are through caring deeply about outfitters and agents, maybe it will be time to bang a pot and celebrate the contribution so many of us clients have made to the survival of the fishing travel business!

Postscript: I just learned that European Union regulations require travel companies to issue a refund as soon as a Travel Warning has been issued. Anyone with more knowledge of this matter is urged to check in. How are European fishing travel companies coping? Write: doncausey@msn.com

 

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