The unbelievable but true story of Sandals honoring a 25-year-old voucher.

In 1991, Norman Gunn’s tropical and pricey getaway to a Sandals Caribbean resort went wrong.
Really wrong.

But the company made it right, offering a voucher for a future vacation. And then, over a quarter of a century later, Sandals made it really right. More right than anyone thought possible.

You won’t believe how.

One reason might be a stream of complaints in our forum, as well as other media (there’s that Chris Elliott guy again).

Nevertheless, Caribbean tourism continues to rise and with 24 properties in seven countries, Sandals is doing something right — enough that U.S. News and World Reports ranked the Sandals resorts against one another.

While all-inclusive resorts may not always deliver all-inclusive premium experiences, an exotic and relaxing low-maintenance getaway still appears to be the norm.

Until it’s not.

“In 1991, my wife, I, and another couple reserved a week at the Negril Sandals in Jamaica,” Gunn began. “When we arrived at the Montego Bay airport, a Sandals rep told us the resort was overbooked.”

1991? Geez. I recall buying a TWA ticket with one of my first credit cards having zero security features over a hard-wired phone mounted on the kitchen wall. (Yes, they had jets then. Stop it.). An e-boarding pass on your smartphone screen? Please. And Karl Marlden never left home without traveler’s checks. But I digress.

Back to Gunn and his party, from Mount Laurel, N.J., who hadn’t even arrived at the Negril Sandals when a rep told them at the airport he no longer had a reservation.

Wait — isn’t that exactly what reservations are supposed to prevent? Jerry Seinfeld agrees, “You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding.”

“The Negril Sandals sent us against our wishes to Sandals’ then-newest Dunn’s River Resort which is now closed,” he went on. “They were having their grand opening, yet construction was still in progress. The noise was loud throughout the night. It was obvious that this location needed guests there and we were the guinea pigs.”

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Gunn may have been on to something.

To assure planes are at full capacity, airlines regularly overbook and bump fliers, enticing volunteers to fly later with complementary future travel fare vouchers in addition to their purchased fare — or they may simply remove them.

But what happens if one is stuck in another country or city when a hotel does it? At least these customers found out before they left home. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of the hotel when it tries to relocate you to where it chooses. What if you want to change your reservation? That might be a good Bad News Guy column.

The Dunn’s construction droned on. As Gunn’s impatience grew.

But he stuck to his guns the Elliott way — by being assertive yet respectful, both while there and after returning home, via a to-the-point and polite letter.

“I told the Dunn’s General Manager that we were either going back to the Negril resort the next day or we were going home to the States,” Gunn declared. “Some vacancies magically appeared and our group of four transferred to Negril the next day — along with several other couples that complained.”

So, the resort was not overbooked after all? This is a good news story, so let’s get back on track.

“After returning home, I wrote a letter explaining my displeasure to the corporate office,” Gunn went on.

It must have been well worded. The Sandals CEO replied. It surprised not only Gunn and his travel agent (good for him for using one) back then, but also the Good News Guy now.

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“The letter offered a week’s stay at any Jamaican Sandals resort as an apology,” Gunn said.

For all four of them.

Even after they were able to stay at their desired location.

And even waived the one year use-it-or-lose-it time limit in writing.


Even though credits are not entirely free to the customer when factoring in round-trip transportation costs, a one-week stay for four is still a huge chunk of change.

Considering the forum recently advocated a similar case for others, eventually prying loose just two nights of refund, this was a great outcome — even 25 years ago.

Readers of this column know by now that this is not the good news, because to some extent this may be what Sandals should have done.

Fast forward to 2014.

Gunn lost the letter. And no one in his party ever got a chance to use the credits.

But wait.

“I accidentally found the letter 25 years later while cleaning out some old files around the same time my children were scheduling a honeymoon,” Gunn ruminated.

While most might agree Sandals already did its part to make Gunn and his party whole so long ago, he brought the unused letter to the attention of the Sandal’s current corporate office to see if his son could use it. He had nothing to lose and a negative reply would not be a surprise.

“Though the letter stated the offer was not transferable, to my shock, Sandals simply allowed me to transfer the offer to my children for their honeymoon, even after 25 years!” he exclaimed.

The Good News Guy is stunned. He is not easily stunned. The last time was when he made a huge face plant learning to snowboard in older age.

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The contrast between this outcome and the less-desirable ones reveals the critical component to be individual customer service reps behind monolithic corporate shields. Real and caring humans who are not overly shackled by contractual terms.

This Sandals rep would have none of the refund shenanigans elsewhere. This Sandals office was really sorry. It did more than the right thing, and then some.

Even the biggest of the big guys appreciate recognition, and the opportunity to utilize word-of-mouth and long-term loyalty as a strategic and profitable business plan.
“Sandals really stepped up to the plate,” Gunn said. “Many friends and family know about this experience and find it unbelievable. I plan to go to another Caribbean Sandals resort in the future.”

Isn’t this exactly what any business would want?

Gunn also imparted a lesson to others as well as himself — that consumers can take some responsibility for an effective outcome by being polite, picking and choosing their battles, and complimenting instead of only complaining, exactly as Gunn is doing now. Everyone likes to be appreciated. Even Sandals, which is now more likely to pay it forward and make another loyal customer.

But be careful what you wish for…

“My son and his bride had a fantastic time and have since returned to Sandals for an anniversary vacation,” concluded Gunn. “The only downside is that I now feel obliged to pay for my other son’s honeymoon if he decides to take marriage vows.”

As a father of two adult unmarried children, I offer you a collective sigh, and a tip. Don’t tell anyone. But maybe wait to see what the bride’s father does first?

This is a problem for which Sandals might freely accept blame.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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