The inn’s owners are out — why won’t they waive my cancellation penalty?

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Christopher Elliott

Here’s a case I’ve been mulling for a few days. It involves a highly-rated bed and breakfast, a loyal customer and an unwelcome change.

Should I get involved? I’m asking for your advice, as I do every Monday on this site.

Julie Barton has been a loyal guest at the Chanric Inn in California’s wine country for several years. She knew the proprietors well, so when it came time to select a place to stay after her wedding ceremony, she wanted to be with Ric and Channing, the Chanric’s innkeepers.

“The primary reason I chose the Chanric was so that we could stay with the same innkeepers, as I knew them already, and I knew that we would have a pleasant experience for our small wedding weekend,” she says. “I went ahead and made the reservations online for myself and our friend who would be our attendant, and paid a deposit of $601 for both rooms in May.”

But that wasn’t meant to be. Before her July 21st wedding, Barton saw an announcement on Ric’s personal page that the inn had been sold and that he and Channing were moving on.

“I was surprised, but I sent him a congratulations and inquired about if we would be able to cancel our reservations, since they would no longer be the innkeepers,” says Barton. “Ric told me that I would have to speak with the new owners, but he thought we would be able to cancel our reservations subject to a $30 cancellation fee.”

Barton contacted the new owners and made her case. Had she known the inn would be under new ownership, she wouldn’t have made the reservation, she says.

“The only reason we were choosing to return to the Chanric was because of how awesome Ric and Channing were when I stayed there previously,” she says.

The new innkeepers concurred — she could cancel, but it would cost her. Here’s the email she received from them:

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

For your information the agreement for the sale of the Inn is end of January 2012, before your reservation.

Our policy regarding refund for cancelation more than 14 days before checking-in is a $30.00 fee. Please send us your exact address and we will send you a check.

If you want to change your reservation dates, it’s possible without penalty.

OK, so the Chanric isn’t keeping her entire deposit. But a $30 cancellation — for a total of $60 — is still a significant amount of money.

Barton is unhappy. She says there was no notice of the pending sale on the Chanric’s website or Facebook page.

“I had no way of knowing about the sale when I booked the rooms, which I did online,” she says. “I did not learn of the sale until Ric announced it on his personal Facebook page. To say that the agreement was signed in January as if I should know that is ludicrous.”

Barton has requested a refund, minus the fee. She also wrote back to the new owners, saying “you have lost us and our friends as guests permanently” and reminding them that she is “active” on TripAdvisor.

I consider those tactics to be less than effective when dealing with a business.

Barton wants me to go after the new owners to recover her $60. I don’t know if I should.

Here’s what makes me think she has a case: A significant part of the lodging experience is the interaction with the innkeepers. That’s what any reasonable person would conclude just from the inn’s name, which is a combination of the original owners’ names. Also, Barton says she wasn’t informed of the ownership change when she made her reservation. (Indeed, I couldn’t find the B&B’s cancellation terms on its site, either — it may want to publish a “terms and conditions” section somewhere online.)

Here’s what makes me think she might not have a case: It’s the same hotel. Her agreement is with the property, not with Ric and Channing. I’m not sure any court would find that the new owners are in breach of their contract.

The Chanric is simply under new ownership — that’s all. Right?

Well, kinda. When a hotel loses its flag or is reflagged — that’s hotel industry-speak for getting its franchise stripped — the status of future reservations is a matter of some debate. Do they remain with the hotel chain that pulled the flag? Do they stay with the resort? I’ve seen it go both ways in the past.

This one’s not as simple as it first appeared.

Update (4:30 p.m.): I’ve been in touch with Barton this afternoon, and she has clarified two issues: The terms of the sale did not allow for the sale to be announced prior to the deal being done, which is why she believes she wasn’t notified when she made her reservation. Also, she would describe herself as being “casual friends” with Ric and Channing, not close personal friends.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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