Monday, March 14, 2022

Harvest Hosts - Circling the Drain?

Negative option renewal techniques are a sign that a company is struggling, or greedy - or both.

I have written before about negative option.  It is a technique that loser companies use to make money, not from selling goods or services at a fair price and a fair value to valued customers, but to instead charge annual fess and hoping most customers won't notice or not think it is "worth the hassle" to challenge them.

Believe it or not, there are people who still get their credit card bills in the mail (or even online) and don't bother to look at them in detail.  They just pay the minimum payment or have it auto-drafted and then move on with life.  I know this as I used to be one of those people.   You get the credit card bill and it is pages long and you can't remember what is charged for what and you start to challenge the charges and realize, yes, indeed, you did order Chinese take-out six times last month.  So you give up and pay the bill.

Today, I check my credit card balance every day and pay at least a portion of it daily - if not all of it.  I can keep track of charges this way and thanks to online push notifications, I get texts and e-mails whenever a charge is made.

So it was a surprise when my phone buzzed and said Harvest Hosts had charged my credit card $45.

What is (or was) Harvest Hosts, anyway?  Well, it was a cool way to camp for free while visiting a winery, brewery, distillery, organic farm, museum, or other type of retail venture (generally involving something related to agriculture or culture).  The idea was, you would sign up for this service for $40 a year and they would give you a list of places you could stay.  So you visit a winery, for example, and taste their wines and maybe buy a bottle or two (or a case) and then park out next to the vineyard and enjoy a bottle of their wine (that you just purchased) and some snacks, as you watch the sun set along the vines.

That was the theory, anyway.  and when it was run by the founders in the early days, it kind of worked that way.   We joined and stayed at some wineries, a brewery, and a museum.  Unfortunately, the company was sold to a "tech entrepreneur" (you know that that means!) who saw the potential for "exponential growth" and wanted to make the site more "user-friendly."   I guess negative-option renewal, pages of four-point type ToS, and an impossible-to-navigate website is "more user friendly".

If you want to opt-out of auto-renewal (which I never recall signing up for, but the owners point to a tiny-print part of the ToS, claiming I agreed to this) you have to hit "CANCEL MEMBERSHIP" which seems odd.  What it means is, auto-renew is turned off, but your membership is still active. Intuitive, no?  Just finding the user login screen required a separate Google search - the "main page" of their site just scrolls forever with hype about how great it is and how you should sign up.  I mean, it just comes across as desperate.

But they also have user page on how to request a refund if you didn't want it to auto-renew, which is interesting and tells me volumes about how many people besides me are pissed off about this.

The reason I didn't want to renew the membership can be boiled down to two words:  Covid Campers.  In the early days of Harvest Hosts, you could go to a farm and maybe there would be one other camper there with you. But with CoVid and the explosion of new RVers, well, that all changed.   You would get to a farm or winery and find that all the spots were taken (and typically, most places only accomodated a half-dozen campers at best).

Worse yet, even though the system was supposed to be "first come, first served" people started making reservations, so if you called a winery or showed up, they would tell you that there were no spots available and that people had reserved them weeks in advance.   This of course, placed an additional burden on the winery owner, as they now have to take and keep track of reservations - essentially running a campground - with no real profit in it.

Yes, that.  A lot of "newbies" started complaining online that the farmer or winery owner or brewery owner "acted like they expected me to buy something!" - as if these entrepreneurs were letting people camp for free just for fun.   As a result, more than one winery we visited said they had opted-out of the program as it was too much hassle.

Worse yet, were people who left reviews savaging the winery owner for not providing 50A service or water and sewage connections (the whole point of Harvest Hosts was that you were dry camping).   People not only wanted a place to stay for free, they wanted free water, electric, and sewer!  And of course, if a farmer started providing these services for campers, well, the authorities would start to ask pointed questions as to why they were running an unlicensed campground.

And yes, in a few incidents, some campers left trash, grey water, or worst of all, black water, on the ground when they left.  "Thanks for the free place to stay!  We have no intention of buying anything! Oh, here's some garbage strewn across your lawn and some fecal matter to boot!  Enjoy!"

People suck.

But overall, we found ourselves not using the service. Why?  Well, it just wasn't practical.   You stop by a brewery for example, as we did in Indiana once, and have a beer and a pizza and buy a t-shirt and a six-pack and a growler to go.   You have to get there when they are open, which usually means in the afternoon for many wineries.  But even if the place is open late, you want to get there before they are busy.  So you've parked your rig in the parking lot, had your dinner and patronized the host business.  Now what?   It is hours before bedtime.  Do you sit in your chair in the parking lot and watch the sunset over the parked cars?  Or do you sit inside your $500,000 motorcoach and watch Fox News on your Satellite Tee-Vee and get angry at "Brandon"?    And if the latter, why leave home to do this?

Now, granted, some places had a nice view and you could sit outside and watch the sunset over the corn field of whatever.  Others were more like parking lots and in some instances, could be creepy, particularly if there were homeless or young people (or homeless young people) loitering around your camper.

As a result of all of this, we didn't use Harvest Hosts at all last year - wherever we were going, there was not a Harvest Host nearby or en route that made sense to us in terms of timing.  Others that we wanted to stay at were "booked up" weeks in advance.  It was $45 spent for nothing and bear in mind you can stay two nights in a State park for $45 in some places.

The year before that, maybe we stayed at one or two places - and spent quite a bit patronizing those businesses.  It is a neat concept, but I think the new owners of Harvest Hosts are more interested in making money than in the overall concept.  And sadly, the newbies who are signing up are more interested in a free place to stay than in visiting.  And in that regard, there is another site - also bought by this "tech entrepreneur" which is even more bizarre, and that is boondockers.

The idea behind boondockers is similar to Harvest Hosts, minus the winery or distillery or alpaca farm.  It is a listing of people who, for whatever reason, are willing to let you camp for free on their land.  Sounds like a good deal - for the campers.  But what does the landowner get out of it, other than potential liability?  I mean, if your insurance company found out you were letting strangers camp on your land, they might have second thoughts about insuring you.  After all, all it takes is one idiot to trip and fall and sue you, to bring the whole thing crashing down.

The land owners don't expect payment or anything, although the site sort of suggests giving the landowner a small gift (like maple syrup!).  I am not sure that is enough compensation for what is, in effect, opened-ended liability.  And if someone leaves trash or sewage on your lawn, I am sure you would nope out of that in short order.

I wonder about the future of these services.  Yes, in Canada, you can just park your camper on "Queen' Land" and hang out.  But in many cases, that's all you can do, as there are not a lot of things to do out in the middle of a vacant lot.  And in places like the Yukon Territory, the scenery is divine - but you do you really want to camp out, all alone, miles from civilization, in Bear country?  Worse that the bears are your fellow humans.  Yes, camping off the beaten path has its risks as well as rewards.

I wonder about the future plans for Harvest Hosts.  If this "tech entrepreneur" is going by the Silicon Valley playbook, he'll jack the numbers for a few quarters, show exponential user growth, insert annoying ads in everything, and then go public with an IPO or better yet, a SPAC - and cash out millions.  I mean, that's how the game is played, right?

The Harvest Hosts people did refund my money after I went through the refund process.  There have been too many class-action suits over this sort of nonsense for them to do otherwise.  In addition, I could just dispute the charge with my credit card company which, cumulatively, would ding them with the credit card people.  It is funny, but I don't mind doing business with a company which allows me to sign up and sign off from a service without having to go through three layers of menus or to search online on Google for a "how to" video.  Disney+ and Netflix, for example, make it easy for you to sign up for one month and then cancel - and will welcome you back when you are ready.

My suggestion to Harvest Hosts is to make auto-renew an option - that you have to check off on a box when you sign up.  Relying on buried ToS language is a cheater's way out - sure, it makes you money, but at an overall cost to your business reputation.  And if you are going to do auto-renew, send a reminder e-mail before running the charge.  Again, this results in less profits, so they won't do it - companies like this (e.g., AOL) rely on "ghost subscriptions" to stay in business.

To me, though, it says volumes about a business if they use negative option - that they don't really believe in the business model and are trying to milk the system for everything it is worth before it all comes crashing down.  The other thing is my mantra of "If you get into a business relationship predicated on a lie, no matter how trivial the lie is, it will only go downhill from there!"  And in this case, the trivial lie is putting auto-renew language into small point type in a ToS that no one in the history of mankind ever reads and then relying on that as your legal leg to stand on when you charge people again and again.

You can spot a bad deal from 100 paces, as I noted before.  And Harvest Hosts, by auto-renewing me, left a bad taste in my mouth.  I realized that I should have bailed on them a year ago, when it basically became unusable.   Actually, I should have hit the ripcord when the young "tech entrepreneur" took over the site.  I guess he still thinks "tech entrepreneur" is an accolade and not admonition.