O.X. – Outdoor Excursions or Outrageous eXcuses?

I freely classified the five month period between Grad School and the start of my career as my “Pre-Employment” phase.  There were many highlights throughout this period – including a month of traveling Europe, working a week at a Middle School Leadership Camp, camping and rafting for my brother’s bachelor party in Colorado, the Scorpion’s Tail, and watching all 6 seasons of Lost.  However, the highlight of this period had to have been the way in which I moved to Colorado.  I could have driven a car (or a moving van of my stuff) but instead chose a route with stops in Antigua, Guatemala  for my brother’s wedding and Las Vegas to watch the Badgers play UNLV.  To be honest, I was a bit skeptical when my brother and future sister in law chose to have a destination wedding in Antigua.  However, the experience proved to be one of the most relaxing and enjoyable weeks of my life and their wedding experience was by far the most beautiful that I have ever attended.  We met some remarkable people, including our guide David who took our group to Lake Atitlan, a wonderful guide in Tikal, and the wedding planners, Diana and Romie of weddingsinguatemala.com (their blog includes pics of the wedding), who did an absolutely impeccable job planning my brother’s wedding.  In fact, the only negative aspect of the Guatemala wedding was our experience with O.X. Outdoor Excursions in Antigua and its head guide, Victor.  I’m writing this post to assist future visitors to Antigua, Guatemala, who may be considering a tour with O.X.

O.X. Outdoor Excursions (which by the way is not at all a unique name and this post is solely describing the the O.X. Adventure Tours in Antigua, Guatemala at www.oxexpeditions.com) promised the following to us in an e-mail description of our hike-zip-bike tour:

Victor “LaBlanc” Ferrell - Head-Guide at O.X. Outdoor Excursions
Victor Ferrell, Head-Guide at O.X. Outdoor Excursions

“We exit the cobble stone streets of Antigua and head into the picturesque hills on a small foot-path above the Panchoy Valley through small village and coffee farms snaking our way up a ridge line until finally after about 2 hours we come face to face with the longest Zip-Line in all of Guatemala!!  The Zip-Line is designed for the adventure lover who enjoys the thrill of connecting up to the double line and cruising for almost 1700ft and over the canyon floor, 500ft below! Once across the canyon, you climb to another zip tower and do it again, back across the canyon.  After the Zip we hike 10 minutes to Earth Lodge, an eco-hostel located in the hills above Antigua and the Panchoy valley.  Enjoy lunch and the beverage of your choice taking in the excellent views of Volcanoes Agua, Acatenango and Fuego.  After lunch, we hop on the bikes and take in a leisurely ride down the road ending at The Cross monument that watches over Antigua.  A great way to take in the beauty with a little bit of exercise and a whole lot of fun!!”

It sounded great.  It wasn’t.  So what went wrong?  There are many US based standards organizations providing customer service guidelines, however, since our experience occured in Guatemala, I find it only fitting to adapt international guidelines (just in case our own customer service standards don’t translate well into other cultures).  ISO 9004-2: 1991 Introduction to quality service includes the following guidelines:

A quality service system is one that:

  • Ensures that customer needs are met.

We started the morning by telling O.X. that we had already eaten breakfast and therefore didn’t want to have to buy another one at Victor’s buddy’s restaurant – “The Earth Lodge.”  They told us that this was not an option.  As a wedding party member, I also needed to be back for pictures by 2:00 pm and O.X. seemed unconcerned.

  • Receives regular feedback from customers.

It would have been tough for our guide to receive feedback from us throughout the hike because she stayed in the back of our group, chatting with the other guide in Spanish.  As a result, we frequently had to stop and wait for her to catch up so that she could let us know which way to go.  This is less than ideal in a country with one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America.

  • Respects customer perceptions and opinions. 

My brother and I were told by Victor that many people in our group (“especially the women”) had bad attitudes.  He also called one of his employees a lesbian in front of us.

  • Pays attention to cultural values and perceptions.

We received absolutely no cultural information throughout our hike.  At our request, we visited Antigua’s famous Cerro de la Cruz, however, our guide didn’t know when the cross was constructed.  Also, thinking that we had become “bros” in the one day that we interacted, Victor shared with me how crazy Antigua was and how he couldn’t wait to get out of the country to their other business location in Colombia.  This instilled in me a great impression of the Antiguan tourism industry that I assume Victor relies heavily on.

  • Improves service performance and productivity.

The Zip Line company that was hired by Victor (because O.X. doesn’t provide that service), required all of us to wear helmets for the zip line.  Which is an interesting safety feature when you’re dangling a thousand feet above the canopy floor because a plastic helmet probably wouldn’t get you very far.  However, later in the trip, during the bike portion, although it was raining and we were descending thousands of feet down switch back roads through the mountains, O.X. did not provide helmets.  After the trip, a member of our party brought up to Victor that he felt very unsafe biking the mountain roads without a helmet and Victor later recounted this to my brother and I as an instance of our group “complaining” during the trip.

  • Encourages personnel to improve quality.

When we provided feedback to our guide that she trailed our group and we constantly had to wait for her to guide us on the trail, she claimed it was because we were already such a friendly and close knit group.  We also cited her complete lack of any knowledge of the surrounding area and its culture and in response, she told us that she was trained in preventing hypothermia (it was 85° and humid) and not as a tour guide.

  • Controls costs and improves efficiency.

O.X. doesn’t take credit cards!  This would of course require O.X. to pay 1-3% merchant fees to credit card companies.  There are many benefits to merchants who accept credit cards and O.X. is evidently not interesting in them.  Instead, O.X. forced my brother to pay thousands of dollars to them via PayPal and personally incur PayPal’s transaction fees.  After our initial hike-zip-bike tour went so poorly, we decided to cancel our Volcan Acatenango trip for the subsequent day.  As a result, Victor was completely unwilling to work with us on a discount after our initial customer experience went so poorly.  At this point, my brother’s PayPal transaction for thousands of dollars had still not gone through and Victor was visibly (and audibly) concerned.  However, we requested that prior to O.X. pushing an incorrect transaction amount through PayPal that they first provide us with the details of the exact refund that they were willing to provide for our pre-paid Acatenango trip.  At that, Victor began threatening to instead escalate the transaction to small claims court or a collection agency.  We complied and as a result of not adjusting the incorrect balance prior to the transaction going through, once my brother actually did receive a refund, he was forced to again endure more PayPal transaction fees to withdraw the money.

Unanimously, everyone’s favorite part of the trip was the zip line that we did high over the canopy of the jungle.  However, this was the only part of the tour that O.X. had nothing to do with because they purchased our zip lining from another company.  Afterwards, a couple of us thought that perhaps our overwhelmingly negative experience with O.X. was an anomaly.  Perhaps their customer service actually is impeccable and Victor, the owner, is actually a sincere and caring person.  Then we found this review:

“The owner Victor, an American guy, is very pushy and money orientated.  Try not to deal with him – he is very in your face.  The website says they supply all your camping gear, but then when we asked Victor for things on the day he refused to supply us with a torch for no apparent reason.  He could have told us that at the time of booking and we could have got one for the trip.  Even local/ex-pat cafe owners we spoke to said the locals do not like him because he is obsessed with money!  Make sure whatever you do, he does not go on your trip as a guide as he will spoil it with his bad attitude…  If we didn’t have to deal with Victor it would have been the best experience but his aggressive and unfriendly attitude at the start was the only issue.”

My advice: book your zip line tour through the company that actually operates the zip line and avoid Victor like the streets of Guatemala City after dark.