Whilst our Continental European neighbours experienced summers with record-high temperatures, our recollection of the UK summer was that it was full of rain and below-average weather. To help its customers deal with this, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, more commonly known as the Alton Towers Theme Park, launched a “Rainy Day Guarantee” between March and July.
Sounds great! So how did things go off the rails with this offer?
Alton Towers' website, seen on 3rd July 2023, stated that “If the weather affects [our] ride offering during your visit to Alton Towers Theme Park, you can return for FREE." An offer sure to cause a splash!
Under the heading “What happens if it rains at Alton Towers?” text stated “[…] Unfortunately, wet weather conditions can disrupt our rides and attractions. In some cases, we have to close certain rides to preserve the guest experience and until the bad weather passes. We cannot predetermine ride closures, but we will provide real-time updates on the Alton Towers app. If the weather affects the ride offering during your date out at Alton Towers, you can benefit from our Rainy Day Guarantee. This means that guests with qualifying tickets can return to the theme park another day, to enjoy your favourite rides in the sunshine! Qualifying Rainy Day Guarantee tickets: Online 1 day pass, Online 2 day pass (1 day only), Short break 1 day pass, Short break 2 day pass (1 day only) […]”.
Further text explained why weather may affect the availability of rides, as well as terms and conditions.
A cloud over the Guarantee
The ASA launched its investigation following a complaint from a member of the public who attended Alton Towers on a rainy summer's day and, when they tried to rely on it, were told that the guarantee did not apply, despite the rain causing ride closures on the day of their visit.
Alton Towers' response
Alton Towers explained the guarantee only kicked in after an hour of “continuous” rain.
On the day of complainant's visit, their weather records showed “intermittent light rain showers over a four-hour period and one continuous heavy downpour which lasted for 27 minutes.” This caused Alton Towers to pause four rides for a total of 1hour 52min.
Alton Towers accepted that its current T&Cs did not specify activation of the Rainy Day Guarantee on the basis of the amount of rain and its direct impact on ride availability. Alton Towers promised to review their guarantee and reconsider how it will communicate this message to consumers.
The ASA acknowledged that there were only 27 minutes of “continuous rain” and, when combined with the intermittent closures, did not trigger the “Rainy Day” guarantee. It considered the fact the guarantee only applied when there was “continuous rain” over a certain duration to be material information likely to affect consumer's understanding of the guarantee, and therefore omitting that information was materially misleading.
A storm of controversy
Given how few sunny summer days we had this year, a Rainy Day Guarantee would provide real peace of mind to those committing to a potentially expensive, pre-booked day of outdoor activities. It was acceptable for Alton Towers to set its own qualifying criteria, as long as it was reasonable. But the fact these very important caveats weren't communicated to consumers clearly enough left the consumer with a misleading impression of the offer, and unable to rely on it when it came to the crunch. It shows that advertisers must not only consider the terms of any offers or guarantees carefully, but must communicate the most significant and important elements clearly to consumers… lest they fell they have been… ahem… taken for a ride.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising), 3.9 (Qualification) and 3.54 (Guarantees and after-sales service).