|By Barbara Crown, Editor of The Hunting Report
With input from our affiliate partner the Dallas Safari Club
Buy a hunt at auction recently? Every year The Hunting Report receives scores of reports on hunts purchased at auction. Many go right, but others go horribly wrong. What can you do to make sure the hunt you purchased at a fundraising event doesn't end in disaster? Here are some tips:
1 - Read the contract/donation form closely. Always note what is included and what is not included, such as trophy fees, gun import fees, licenses/permits, overnight stays and meals before or after the hunt, meet-and-greet services and transportation from the airport to the hunt area. If the hunt is for two people, make sure you understand whether the animals included are to be split between you or taken in doubles.
Make sure you understand where you will meet your operator. We've heard of hunters arriving at a major airport, such as Johannesburg, expecting to meet their operator only to discover that they were supposed to meet at a smaller domestic airport hundreds of miles away. That's the kind of snafu that will ruin a trip.
Keep in mind that sometimes the hunt description provided for an auction is incomplete. On occasion, descriptions are incorrect due to human error or an uninformed auctioneer. Hunting Report subscriber Bill Snow (see Report 7619 in our online database) recounts how a donation form for a hunt in Argentina that he purchased at auction actually included things that were not part of the donation. He worked that out with the operator, although he experienced other problems later.
2 - Contact the operator right away while the donation is still fresh in his mind (and yours) and his hunt schedule is still flexible. Don't wait three to six months to contact the operator who donated your hunt, much less just before it expires. Remind him where you purchased the hunt and what it was. Bill Snow's example above is one reason why you want to do this sooner rather than later. You also want to get a sense of the operator's availability for the hunt and when you should be trying to finalize your plans.
3 - Know when the hunt donation expires. Most donations are for a specific year. Some offer an alternate year. Make your arrangements to hunt as soon as possible. Things change. Operators lose areas. Partners fall out. Game die offs occur. Quotas get cut and regulations get changed. Also, operators are continually working to fill their slots with fully paying clients. By scheduling and taking your hunt as soon as possible, you will avoid many of the complications and problems we've seen on some of these hunts.
A perfect example of what can happen if you don't act quickly is a complaint we covered in the May 2012 issue of The Hunting Report from subscriber Mark Klapmeier on a donated rhino dart hunt (Report 8639). Before he could take that hunt, regulations restricting dart hunts were put into place, making it impossible for him to take the hunt as it was donated. Klapmeier and the operator were unable to come to an agreement about swapping the hunt. Then the operator went bankrupt. "Take your hunt as soon as possible," Klapmeier advises fellow subscribers who purchase hunts at auction.
4 - If you significantly change the hunt agreement, understand that you are voiding the original donated hunt. Adding a couple of animals on an African plains game hunt is one thing, but completely changing the hunt is quite another. When this occurs, the operator is making big adjustments and incurring expenses on your behalf as if you were making an original booking. Here's an example of why that matters: A hunter bought a donated waterfowl hunt in Canada. He later upgraded to a moose hunt with a second hunter joining him. When the hunter's friend cancelled, he too wanted to cancel the moose hunt and go back to a waterfowl hunt. The outfitter refused. The original donation, he said, was voided when the hunt was changed and another hunt agreed upon, plus the outfitter had already incurred expenses he could not recover for the moose hunt.
Importantly, when the hunter made significant changes to his donated hunt, it voided the contract the outfitter had with the organization that received the original donation. They were NOT able to help him.
Since The Hunting Report is an affiliated partner of Dallas Safari Club, I asked Executive Director Ben Carter what DSC's policy is when an auction buyer changes his hunt. "Once the auction is final, DSC is no longer part of the process," he says. "We warrant our auction items, but only to the extent of the write-up for the donation. If the buyer renegotiates the terms, it can void our warranty, although that would be determined by DSC." Despite that, he says the organization is interested in hearing about any issues that crop up on their auction hunts, and of course, they want to hear about successful hunts too.
5 - Do not rely on verbal agreements. If you do make changes, even if only to swap animals on a donated hunt, make sure you get the new agreement in writing. We have received numerous complaints claiming an outfitter agreed to exchange species at no additional cost only for the hunter to get an unexpected bill for the animals he took. So, make sure all changes to the original donation are put in writing from the operator. Keep a file of all communications and changes and bring it with you to review with your operator upon arrival.
Also, when trying to make changes to a hunt purchased at auction, be aware that an outfitter may be unwilling to swap certain things due to various factors. Depending on the donation arrangement, the operator will have put out a specific cost for the donation. Also, keep in mind that his costs likely do not match the declared value of the hunt. "Values" may be more reflective of what the market will bear for a hunt in some cases and in others may reflect a narrow profit margin. For these reasons, operators may refuse to swap a donated hunt of one value for another, even if priced alike.
6 - Research the hunt as if you were booking it directly. If you have already purchased a hunt at auction, you may think there's no need, or that it's too late, to do any research. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you book a hunt directly, purchase it at auction or win it in a raffle, you want to learn as much about the hunt as possible so that you fully understand what to expect when you get there.
Many of the complaints we see, whether the hunt was bought at auction or booked directly, involve unmet or unmatched expectations. In other words, the hunter arrives expecting one thing and gets something different. It's much like sitting at dinner to eat what you think is sweet and sour chicken only to find that it is sweet and spicy. You might like it anyway, but then again if your mouth was truly set for sweet and sour or you hate spicy food, you're likely to be somewhat disappointed. Same thing on a hunt. Make sure you understand the hunting techniques used, the terrain, the size of the property, whether it is game-fenced or not, if the game movement is weather-dependent or otherwise migratory. Exactly what are the accommodations? Will you be the only party hunting there at the time? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
7 - Ask the donor for past references. Again, you've already bought the hunt, but last season's hunters could give you some excellent insights. They'll tell you what the hunting is like, what the PH's strengths and possible weaknesses are, if it's the place to bring your non-hunting spouse or not, what special equipment they found most useful or useless. Again, previous hunters will help you understand what to expect and what not to expect on this hunt.
8 - Hit the "pause button" if things start going wrong. If you can't get a hold of the operator right after the auction, or whenever you do try to contact him, consider whether it's the time of year when he may be out in the bush with current clients. Give him some time to connect with you. However, if six months go by without any luck, then ask the organization that auctioned the hunt for some help. Once on the hunt, if something seems to be going off the rails, take a breath and talk about it with the operator. An ethical, quality operator does not want any of his clients to have a bad experience, even on a donated hunt. Sometimes things fall through the cracks or just plain go wrong, but they can usually be resolved amicably.
9 - Remember why you're there. You bought a hunt at auction to help out a deserving organization, whether its Dallas Safari Club, Grand Slam Club OVIS, Wild Sheep Foundation, Safari Club International or The Boy Scouts. And you probably hoped to get a good value for your money too, as well as enjoy a good hunting experience. Likewise, an outfitter or safari operator donates his services to help the same organization, and he hopes to get some good promotional value and maybe make up his cost with some upgrades, whether in additional species, days or people.
If any party feels squeezed at any point in this process, resentment is usually right around the corner. Don't let a miscommunication, unrealistic expectation or a simple snag sour your whole experience. If you know what to expect and have detailed, clear communications, you will eliminate most of the problems we see in complaints on donated hunts. Most operators honestly want to make clients happy. While you may find the hunt isn't exactly what you would have liked, a little patience and understanding on both sides will at least yield a pleasant overall experience that you'll want to share with friends and fellow hunters. It may not be something you'll care to do again at full price, but it won't be a disaster.
10 - When disaster does strike: Sometimes no matter how much research and preparation you do, you end up with something that you simply find unacceptable. Despite your best efforts, the mismatch between your needs as a hunter and the operator's services cannot be overcome. It happens on occasion. At The Hunting Report, we understand that not every hunt is right for every hunter. Your critique/review of a hunt is just as valid as the next hunter's, because your needs and expectations may be completely different from his. Our goal is to help you make that determination, hopefully before you purchase a hunt. That is the purpose of our online database of hunter reports and the critical reviews we feature on hunting operators and destinations around the globe.
Many fundraising organizations also try to give potential buyers the opportunity to check out a hunt before they purchase it at auction. Some do more work vetting donors than others. If you can, try to find out an organization's vetting process before bidding on a hunt. Here at The Hunting Report, subscribers who oversee the donations program for their local conservation organizations often contact us for reports and background information on potential donors, and we're always happy to help out.
At DSC, Carter says they have spent 30 years fine-tuning their donations program. "We only accept hunt donations from exhibitors, and each donation is carefully vetted for value and ethics," he says. DSC conducts it auctions during its annual convention in Dallas and mails a catalog of the hunts to be auctioned at the event. That gives their members the opportunity to do a little research before the event, which The Hunting Report recommends. DSC also provides member references in the exhibitor's description, and of course interested hunters can meet the outfitter in their booth prior to the auction. This kind of transparency goes a long way in helping potential buyers make good decisions on which auction hunts to pursue.
That said, we have seen our share of bad operators find their way onto convention floors and make donations to various organizations. By bad, we mean duplicitous, careless/reckless, corner-cutting and even illegal operators who don't produce, put their clients at risk or simply jerk them around until their house of cards finally comes down around their ears. If your hunt turns out to be with one of those operators, definitely let the organization that sold the hunt know. While they may not be able to do anything about simple disagreements, unethical behavior must be reported.
Also, file a report with The Hunting Report. It's one of the benefits of being a subscriber. We don't charge extra to handle a complaint; we'll attempt to make the operator give account; and we'll make the entire file available to interested hunters. There are no sealed files at The Hunting Report. We believe full disclosure is the best route to making an informed decision about where to spend your hard-earned money and time.
Noel Wolfe of Oregon knows just how wrong an auction hunt can go. Despite his best efforts to check things out, his very first safari ended up in a different area than agreed upon and with a different PH, one he says came to hunt with a borrowed gun and borrowed boots! Against his better judgment, Wolfe and his party went hunting, and he was almost killed by a Cape buffalo. While we originally covered that story in 2000 (Article 591), you may find Wolfe's latest retelling of great interest.
Caveats aside, most auction hunts go just fine. "The percentage of good hunts we have auctioned far outweighs the bad ones," says Carter. And he encourages hunters to report on those hunts. "We want to hear if a hunt was fantastic," he says. DSC has a report system for hunters to provide feedback on auction hunts, as do most hunting conservation organizations. And, of course, The Hunting Report takes those reports as well, investigates them and provides expanded reports on them in the publication.
The bottom line is that auction hunts are a great way to support our favorite organizations. DSC, for example, has used auction proceeds to fund more than $3 million in programs supporting conservation, hunting education and other efforts. I encourage hunters to support these efforts, but also to follow these tips and use The Hunting Report to find the hunts that are right for you. Now, go hunting! - Barbara Crown, Editor
(Postscript: Dallas Safari Club's Convention & Expo will be held January 3-6, 2013. To learn more about the event and available auction opportunities visit their web site at http://www.biggame.org/.)
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