It’s one of the dirtiest words in hospitality — and travelers may be hearing it more these days.
The travel agency Discover Africa had to say it when potential clients asked if their young son could ride a lion while on safari.
“When we said no to riding a lion, the guest asked what other wild animals he could ride,” said Susan Swanepoel, a senior travel consultant at Discover Africa. “I reminded them that they were wild animals, and there was no possibility of this happening.”
In the end, she said, the travelers decided not to travel with the company, saying “they were going to go to India where their son would be able to ride a tiger.”
That’s one of the strangest requests that Swanepoel and her colleagues have fielded over the years. But there are plenty more.
There was the Japanese company that wanted Japanese food, prepared with Japanese ingredients by Japanese chefs, for some 6,000 guests for six weeks surrounding the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. (Swanepoel said the company she was working for at the time successfully pulled this one off.)
And the guest who wanted a new, unopened jar of crunchy peanut butter present at every meal during an 18-day safari in the Kalahari Desert and Botswana.
Other asks are more maddening than logistically difficult. Like the time a couple traveling with Discover Africa — who requested a feather pillow on the left side of the bed, and a foam pillow on the right — called at 10 p.m. to say the pillows had been mixed up.
“I asked if they could swap the pillows themselves as it was late, and the housekeeping staff had already gone to bed,” said Swanepoel. “The answer was no. They wanted me to get hold of the camp manager to go to their tent to change the pillows around for them.”
An uptick in unusual requests
Andre Van Kets, director and cofounder of Discover Africa, said there’s been an uptick in such requests, especially among people who are new to safari vacations.
“First-timers often have the most unusual requests,” he said. “But that’s ok. It’s our job to help them understand what is possible and what’s not.”
But inexperience isn’t the only reason some travelers have unrealistic expectations, he said.
“Social media also plays a role in ‘hyping up’ anything unusual,” he said, adding that viral posts often lack context explaining what they depict. “As a travel operator, it’s vital to create realistic expectations. And sometimes that does mean saying ‘no.'”
Over-the-top requests — like the Discover Africa client who asked to help breed a white rhino — may, in part, be an unfortunate side effect of the travel industry’s success in providing flawless, end-to-end experiences. Ironically, excellent service may have worsened a growing sense of traveler entitlement.
The result can be cyclical: The more travelers are given, the more they want.
The ‘old code of conduct’
Yngvar Stray, the general manager of the luxury hotel Capella Singapore told CNBC that in the luxury hotel industry, the “old concierge code of conduct” is to say yes even before knowing the question.
“As long as it’s legal and morally correct,” he added.
When requests violate laws or company safety rules, they’re easier to reject. Plus, there may be other ways to reach the desired outcome, said Van Kets.
“For example, if a traveler wants to see a wild rhino up-close. We simply can’t offer that to anyone in every safari destination. It’s just too dangerous,” he said.
“But in certain parks, at certain times of year, we can arrange for guests to join a wildlife vet in a helicopter-based rhino-darting conservation exercise.”
Other reasons companies are saying ‘no’
Changes made in the name of progress — sustainability, safety, health, animal welfare and more — also garner pushback from travelers who lament the “new way” of doing things.
From an eco-resort knocked for not having air conditioning in the bathroom to banning single-use plastics in airports and hotels, some travelers complain about the very changes that others demand, leaving the hospitality industry in a seemingly no-win situation.
Van Kets said his company encountered resistance after it limited its safaris to “authentic wildlife settings,” which it defines as areas where predator and prey roam freely without fences separating them. That meant safari parks and animal sanctuaries, which he said “are really just glamorized, large-scale zoos,” were out, he said.
“If guests have limited time or budgets, and insist on visiting these facilities, then it’s their choice to do so,” he said. But “keeping the ‘real thing’ alive and well for future generations, is what we’re all about.”
Cities are spurning travelers too — in some instances, hundreds of thousands of them. In arguably one of the biggest “no’s” of the year, authorities in Amsterdam launched a “discouragement campaign” in March with a message aimed mostly at young male travelers coming to the city to party: “Stay Away.”
Fewer services, higher rates
Some travelers are learning requests, once thought to be standard, are being cut due to ongoing staffing shortages in the industry.
Kristen Graff said housekeeping didn’t clean her room once during a three-day stay in a Los Angeles hotel this January. She said she later learned cleaning was available, if she booked it.
She said she understood the problem to a degree, but “it’s not like I’m paying cheaper rates.”
In other instances, travelers are revisiting hotels they stayed in before the pandemic, only to realize perks that once came standard with bookings have now vanished.
According to Expedia Group’s Traveler Value Index 2023, about 82% of the industry think consumers are understanding of limitations like these. However, it’s likely that customer loyalty is taking a hit, said Cheryl Miller, the chief marketing officer for Expedia for Business.
“Ultimately, it comes down to the individual traveler and their expectations,” she said. “However, it’s important to remember that customer service is not just about meeting expectations. It’s also about exceeding them.”