When or if the corona virus manifests itself in the US, it’s going to affect tourism businesses including charter fishing. Already, some college sports teams are suspending schedules; I’m getting announcements of major fishing tackle companies backing out of attendance at the Bassmaster’s Classic. What’s going to happen when you start getting calls from customers to cancel reservations they’ve made to go fishing?  

If you don’t require any sort of deposit, there’s nothing you will be able to do other than slam down the phone. If you do take deposits, make sure to be up front with your cancellation policy and your customer is aware of it when they make the reservation. 

By up front, the least would be to have it posted on your website, brochure or other outlet people use to find your charter service. By aware, I mean, make sure customers who make reservations are specifically advised of your policy.

Some operators require a cash or check deposits, which works, but some potential clients are put off by this method and it requires enough time for the postal service to do it’s work. A captain needing to issue a refund of a deposit, has to write a check.

I’ve written before about getting a credit card merchant account to accept deposits and/or payments, if for no other reason than that’s the way business is conducted in the 21st century. It’s simpler now than when I started, and less expensive. Payscape is affiliated with NACO and offers CC merchant accounts to members. Other options are PayPal, Square and some banks now have competitive systems. 

What you need to put in your policy is the timeline. Obviously, if a customer calls six months in advance and puts down a deposit, then calls back a day later and says they need to cancel, give back the deposit in full. No harm, no foul. If a customer leaves you waiting at the dock, that’s completely different.

But what’s in between these extremes?  That’s for you to determine and will vary according to your location. Guides in remote areas don’t get many last minute calls. Charter operators in popular tourist areas might be able to rebook just about any cancellation with only a day or two notice.

I personally operate like most hotels. I require a card number to hold a reservation, but the card is not charged unless a cancellation contingency occurs. On the day of the trip, the customers can opt to pay with cash or card and if they pay by card, the tip or any other fees can be included.

Doing it this way allows me to adopt a more equitable policy. For my service, cancellations made more than seven days in advance have no penalty. I just shred the credit card information. For cancellations seven days or less before the scheduled trip, I process the card on file for $100. If I’m left standing on the dock I charge half the charter fee. (Luckily, that’s only happened three times in 22 years.)

The important thing, in light of the virus threat or just as a good business policy, is to set a policy and make it known to your customers. My policy is shown on my website so potential customers know in advance there is a policy and what it is when they are shopping. Then, either by mail, email or text, each customer who makes a reservation is sent a reservation confirmation with pertinent information and the detailed confirmation policy.

Let’s all hope the corona virus turns out to be insignificant. No one knows. I do know, customers will appreciate knowing they have options when planning fishing or boating trips amidst the uncertainty.

Capt. Mike Schoonveld - NACO Board Member