This summer I went on a trip of a lifetime with my Mom to Paris. In true representations of ourselves, I planned out every detail from travel, hotels, day trips, restaurants we couldn’t miss and mapped out how to get from point a to point b… and my Mom arrived at the airport and came along for the ride.
Every day of our trip was checking off a bucket list item! We did the Rodin Museum, a day trip to Giverny to see Monet’s house, saw Van Gogh’s resting place, went to the top of the Eiffel tower, saw plentiful museums, walked until we couldn’t go any further, and drank aperol spritz’s outside at cafe’s on the street every night. It was magical.
The day I was most looking forward to, was actually not even in Paris. The plan was to grab a train to London’s St. Pancras station and then spend the entire day in London, meeting up with friends of mine from Grad School whom I hadn’t seen in over 5 years since I did a reading at their wedding. I’d be meeting their daughter for the first time, who had been told stories of “American Katie” and was hyped to see me. We planned to meet at 10am at Buckingham Palace, for yet another bucket list checkbox item, to take a tour of the interior of the palace during the Queen’s Jubilee year. The interior tours of the palace are only available by tour for 8 weeks out of the year and I had never been able to see them before.
A 10am tour was ambitious, after a 2.5 hour train ride, but again, it was all planned perfectly. Our train would get us there with plenty of spare time to get to the palace and experience a full day in London before heading back again that evening. Having lived in London for a semester during college, and then in Newcastle for a year in graduate school, I was pretty experienced and comfortable with European travel. That is, I was experienced and comfortable with European travel prior to Brexit.
Early in the morning we woke up, walked to the metro station, took a metro ride, transferred, waited on the first train to leave the station, arrived at Paris Gare du Nord and then could not figure out where the Eurostar area was located. It was bustling and everyone around us was walking with purpose, so there wasn’t a single person to help point us in the right direction. Finally, after wasting precious minutes, we arrived at our train departure gate around 40 minutes before it was set to leave. We saw several lines for other trains, but none for ours. After wasting more time, I finally found an information room and asked an attendant where to go for our train. To my horror, I was told that we didn’t make it in time. Confused, I reminded them that we still had at least 30 minutes before it departed. “We require you to be here at least 45 minutes before the train departs in order to get through security”. I was shocked. The train hadn’t even left the station yet, but we weren’t allowed in. Brexit. Brexit changed everything. I remember days as a student, running onto the train 5 minutes before it departed. No longer were those days. Now the security was more intense than an airport TSA line and would take you no less than 45 minutes.
Devastated, we ran through our options. The rude and robotic attendant told us that the next 2 trains were sold out and the 3rd train left in 2 hours. If we got on that train, we’d only have 5 hours in London, and remember, would need to be back at the station at least 45 minutes before the return train departed. We’d miss our Buckingham Palace tour. I was devastated. All I could think was about my friends who were meeting us in London who had traveled all the way from Northern England and spent the night in city, just to meet up with me. I couldn’t not show. I’d swim the channel if I had to. So without much choice, I accepted our fate and got us on the 3rd train.
Prior to departing the station, I emailed Buckingham Palace and informed them that we wouldn’t be making it. I told them it was completely out of our control and we were devastated to miss it. I asked if our tickets could be refunded. I texted my friend and let her know. She understood, and was sorry we’d miss the tour. Her 4 year old daughter who was amped to meet me, cried when she was told we were missing the tour with them. We would have 5 hours of travel to and from London, 3 and a half hours of waiting in the train stations, and just 4 hours in the city. I also felt like crying.
Despite a rocky start, we made the most of it. We met up with our friends at Buckingham Palace, after they finished their tour. They said it was amazing! They tried to spare us from too much disappointment, but they had obvious enthusiasm all over their faces. My friend told me that she informed them of our situation too and was told we could email for a refund. I told her that I already started the process by emailing them earlier in the day. We were so disappointed that we missed out, but tried to put that past us so we could still make the most of our short time together. We took some pictures outside the palace to document that we were there, and then were on our way.
I have never packed so much into 4 hours in my life! We had lunch at a pub, walked by Westminster Abbey and Parliament, saw Big Ben, walked up to 10 Downing Street and saw the changing of the guard, grabbed some scones and clotted cream from a Tesco Express so my Mom could try an authentic English tea scone on the train ride back, walked by the National Gallery and the lions at Trafalgar, and then back to the station in plenty of time for our 45 minute pre-train curfew. Old friends caught up, I made a new little friend for life, and the frustration of the morning was forgotten.
That is, until we left and I checked my email.
Buckingham Palace responded and told me that they didn’t offer refunds, but would transfer my tickets. I explained that I am an American, and would not be back to London. I explained that we couldn’t control the situation we were in, and were extremely disappointed that we couldn’t attend the tour. I told them that I had emailed as soon as I knew we wouldn’t make it, so I provided notice before the tour start time and they could have resold the tickets or transferred them to someone else. They didn’t waver. They would transfer the tickets to an 8 week window within the next year, and that’s it.
So… I could not get a refund. And there was a zero percent chance that I’d make it back to London in the next year, again this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, not likely to be repeated. It was like the cherry on top of a melting, messy sundae that rolled off and hit the floor. We were upset we missed the train, disappointed we missed the tour, and then we couldn’t get a refund for it. Just days later, the Queen passed away, the same week that our tour of her home would have taken place. I felt like I missed out on history.
Upon returning to work, I kept reflecting on that experience. Museums strive to stay relevant, and to do that, you must be reflective. Reflective practice is important so you don’t get left behind while other organizations, practice and procedure are changing and growing.
Up to that point, our refund policy for online advanced tickets had been “No refunds. No transfers.” We have over 300k visitors a year, and we had just 2 staff who process visitor emails with questions, refund requests, date transfers, etc. There are days where I spend hours answering 50+ visitor emails. The volume of inquiries was already so high that we felt like a more flexible policy would be too much for us to handle the volume. If we were clear up front that we don’t allow refunds or date transfers, we felt like we did our job in communicating the policy, so it was on them to decide. The visitor could just get their ticket day-of at the Admissions booth if they wanted, or purchase online. If they opted to do so, then they were making the decision that the non-refund policy was ok with them. In our defense, we did also make the occasional exception if they had a good reason for cancelling. If someone said they were international and wouldn’t be back to visit, we’d refund them. If someone said they were sick with COVID, we’d refund them. If a local person said something unexpected came up, or the weather was bad, we’d offer a date transfer within 2 weeks. But sometimes they’d say very little or say that they decided not to come without a reason, and we’d say “sorry, our policy is no refunds, no transfers”.
And then I missed a train because of Brexit.
I was reminded that sometimes things happen outside your control. Sometimes you can plan every detail, hour by hour, and then you miss a train and with it, goes your check mark for that bucket list item, and you’re devastated. And then the last thing that you want is for some person behind a computer to say “we don’t do refunds”, making you pay for a service you didn’t receive, and contributing to a series of disappointing experiences.
That was a good, healthy reminder. If anything, the experience reminded me that working with the public does require more grace sometimes. I got together with a few colleagues in my department and we discussed it. We talked about the typical reasons people give for missing their reservation. We talked about whether that matters or not. We talked about what we were capable of handling like what volume of inquiries we could handle, and what the finance procedures are for closing the open period for when we can process refunds. We also talked about how many back and forths we go through when we have to say “no” verse how many back and forths we could go through if we said “yes”.
Ultimately we made a few minor changes to staffing to get a third person on board to help us answering emails. We revised the policy so it was now more flexible and allowed refunds if they asked within 2 weeks of their reservation date. No matter the reason. We no longer wanted to be in the inequitable world of passing judgment on what reasons were worthy of refunds or not. Things come up, and things happen that prevent you from doing what you planned- but I don’t need to know what those things are.
The downside of this policy change is that yes, we did notice a very obvious increase in refund requests. It did increase our work load on the back end. There isn’t a way for me to see how many of them reschedule their visit or end up coming again in the future. I hope that a more flexible refund policy will create a more positive brand for the museum in the long run and those people do end up visiting some day.
Since changing this policy and taking out “No refunds. No transfers” from our repertoire, my new line is “Not a problem. I have processed your refund, you should see the funds in your account within 3–5 business days.” Now we receive a lot of “Thanks so much!”. Just this week I got “You’re an angel!”. That’s a really nice change from the previous angry or frustrated reply’s. While it might have created more work, at least the end result is more pleasant work for us. Sometimes I think of the two women in the train station in Paris, sitting on the floor, looking tired and disappointed and waiting for their train to depart. I picture them as our visitors, and I think about the little relief I’d be providing them by saying “Not a problem”. It doesn’t save the day for them, but it’s just something small and positive that we can do to help them out.