It feels a little like being stood up on a date: “Oh, no! Another no-show (sigh).” When students don’t appear at their appointed time, it’s aggravating, but most important, it’s a bruise to your bottom line. Never forget: You have a service that they want, and your time is money.
Tell It Like It Is
Don’t get mad—take steps now to ensure chronic abusers of your lesson policies are kept in check. After all, this is your business, your livelihood, and it’s really nothing personal when you have to lay down the lesson law.
What does the oldest continuously operated stable in America do? Sharon Halley at English-discipline Claremont Riding Academy in New York City explains: “When people book, we notify them that we have a 24-hour cancellation policy, even if they want to change a lesson or move it. We take the name, a credit card number and phone number. They’re fine with it as long as you tell them up front.” Folks in Manhattan have never been prone to beating around the bush.
Post your cancellation policy on your Internet site where all can see it. At multifaceted, English-focused Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg, Md., Shailla Cardon happily directs inquiries to the Web where the policy prominently resides. Its specifics: Cancellations must be made 24 hours in advance in order to be eligible for a make-up lesson. In case of illness, make-ups will be scheduled upon receipt of a doctor’s note. No more than two cancellations may be used per session. Make-ups are the student’s responsibility and must be scheduled within 30 days of the cancellation or that lesson is forfeited. Make-up lessons are not guaranteed, but subject to availability and must be made up within current series dates. Students arriving more than 15 minutes late (10 minutes for 1/2 hour class) will not be permitted to join the lesson and will not be eligible for a make-up lesson.
Does this work? “It doesn’t work when people ‘forget’ that we do it,”?says Cardon. “When we remind them that the rules are posted, we still hear, ‘Oh, really???’ ”
Since nobody’s perfect, Laura Hall implements a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule at her new Ashbrooke Equestrian Center in Aiken, S. C. It’s her way of dealing with a group of mommies “who always call and say, ‘She just got off the bus and she’s sick.’ You know the ones, habitual cancellers at the last minute,” says Hall. “I also get really irritated when I have the lesson horse tacked up and ready, or maybe I’ve had to turn down another client because the lesson was full.”
Hall, who teaches dressage, combined training and hunting, is nonetheless as flexible as she can be. She encourages purchase of six- or eight-lesson packages, as it affords students more control and “is easier for committed kids who ride on a regular basis.” If the student calls late morning for an afternoon lesson, he or she will usually receive the benefit of the doubt, says Hall, who charges $50 for privates at 45 minutes. Her policy, too, is clearly posted on her site to eliminate confusion, but as in all businesses, exceptions can be made depending upon the situation: “Your instincts will frequently guide you,” she says.
It’s easier to stand your ground if you make your policy clear from the get-go. “When you start—and sign your liability and other forms—you are given a lesson policy sheet,” says Jennifer Hallmann of Windermere Equestrian, a hunter/jumper facility in Clinton Township, Wisc. Go to the barn’s website and click on “Barn Policies,” and it couldn’t be more specific, eliminating “I didn’t know” as an excuse.
“If ‘they didn’t know’ when information has been communicated, I shouldn’t have to pay for that,” says Hallmann, with 24 years at her location. “Stand up your dentist, your doctor? You’ll pay, and I can’t recreate that hour of time for you. I’ll stand around for 15 minutes and wonder where you are, and because I teach a certain number of hours per day, every minute is valuable to me. I’m a skilled tradesperson and I?should be compensated for that time.”
Hallmann has heard all the excuses and admits she’s evolved to deflect the different excuses she’s been given through the years. She knows that when she “bends” for one, two more will ask her to do the same for them.
“I’ve heard ‘Grandma died’ six times and ‘Susie’s sick,’ when really she had an overnight with friends and doesn’t want to get up,” says Hallmann.
A little advance communication can go a long way. According to Monique Smith, instructor at 90-acre Angus Valley Stables, Bethlehem, Ga., where Western, English and trail riding prevail, e-mailing can be a very effective tool. This organized teacher sends out her weekly lesson schedule Sunday night and requests confirmation by noon on Tuesday for upcoming lessons, which may total 40 weekly. “If they don’t respond, they’re not locked in,” says Smith. “If they cancel within four hours, it’s a $20 fee; less than four hours and they owe the full price. At a fine restaurant, if you make a reservation and don’t show, you pay. This is a business, too.”
Smith is “full” in summer, and plans her calendar a month in advance, including notifying students when she’s going on vacation, as they do with her. It’s tough, Smith admits, when a child really wants to learn and the parents don’t communicate or are disorganized about lesson fulfillment.
Catering to the Numbers
South Ponderosa Stables in Phoenix, Ariz., offers trail, breakfast and cookout rides as well as lessons, and only charges cancellation fees for some ride-and-dine outings. Fifty percent deposits are mandatory for rides for 10 people or more and the stable collects a 25 percent deposit on cookout rides, but they rarely see cancellations when it comes to these culinary adventures. Manager Katharine Lloyd says that “99 percent of the time we reschedule. In the rare case that a reschedule is not possible, we do refund deposits...when receiving a very good reason.” For simple trail rides, South Ponderosa operates on a first-come, first-served basis, so cancellations are largely not an issue—selling out is. And because people need to reserve the sunset and dinner rides, they are far less likely to pull a disappearing act.
One issue, points out Lloyd, is that the stable only has “certain numbers of horses that will accommodate certain weight groups. We are careful to get weights of all riders and are sold out when we reach that particular group’s number.”
The Individual Approach
Complete with mountaintop views and 150 acres, Grove River Riding Stables & Retreat in Gillsville, Ga., hosts plenty of semi-private and group lessons, and isn’t discipline-specific, co-owner Cindy Farmer says. “Horse care and education are the focus, along with 4-H and youth programs.
“You have to bend the rules sometimes and everything does have an ‘individual’ approach to it.” She honors a standing schedule week-to-week and if a student doesn’t call or show up, “they lose that spot if someone else wants it—unless they have a really good reason.”
When a client no-shows a second time for a private, “they don’t get another lesson until they pay for that second no-show. Everyone is told this when they start here.”
As all of these professionals have found, when it comes to the business, it is best to make the policies, disseminate them and stick by them. To get clients to respect your time and bottom line, you must make every attempt to make the rules clear. But never forget, your clients aren’t as easily controlled as your horses—people are only human, after all.