With very little news coverage, a major travel company with its headquarters in Sarasota, has shut down. This retail agency, employed many agents both in house and outside agents, even in other cities, were referred to as additional offices. At one time, they had satellite offices in Ft Myers, The Villages in Florida and elsewhere.
I haven’t heard about a company this size closing up in a very long time. For years, the travel section of our local newspaper ran their weekly ads. I should state that this travel section is usually only one or two pages every Sunday – not exactly the New York Times outpouring of destinations and full page ads.
They even had their own buses to take people to the cruise ports or to do their days trips. You know when we agents are invited for a cruise ship inspection. This company would take a bus full of their clients at $15-$25 a head offering a day on a cruise ship with buffet lunch. My complaints to cruise lines about this were rebuffed. They didn’t seem to care that fifty people were bumping the passengers from the buffet lines and taking over the chaises and the pool.
Their promos of cruises or tours combined with air and pre/post packages were offered at rates that most agencies could not compete. Over the years I would get calls, even from my regular clients saying - “I want to book this package, can you match their rate.?“ I couldn’t match it, but I did call this company and ask if they would pay me a commission if I made the booking with them. They did offer a ridiculously low commission, but I wanted to keep my clients and did book with them – twice.
For two reasons, I never worked with them again. One, the commission was not regularly sent out. After calling them a few times, I found the best way was to drive to their main office and plant myself there until a check was written.
But more important, my clients came back with complaints. Perhaps it was because I take pride in my personalized attention to their needs. But with this company- they get only what is advertised in the package- and we all know that people do ask for special dining, bedding, and pre/post in a good location, cabin numbers provided with final docs, etc. And speaking of documents- they should be available timely and not just before departure. I don’t deal well with companies who furnish the important info just five days before departure- especially with airfare with no seat assignments.
First of all, this company always encouraged cash discounts for payment up front without credit cards. Yes, major suppliers like Viking River Cruises offer that as well, but Viking offers a refund policy. But this company, obviously just kept the money, and not use an escrow account, and final payment was not refundable. When they shut their doors, the truth about where the money became apparent. Large groups booked with MSC and other companies found their payments were never sent to the cruise lines. Space had been cancelled and their clients were left with nothing.
Using Facebook, the owner of this now defunct company gave his version of why he suddenly shut down. He blamed the Hurricanes, the travel ban for Cuba, as well as his agents who worked for him. He said he will sell his assets and needs time to make refunds. But nowhere did he state what has happened to the hundreds of thousand dollars he had collected and not paid to the cruise lines.
First of all, the Hurricanes were Caribbean, Fla and Texas based- not in Europe.
The travel ban for Cuba is for individual travel, not companies who have cultural programs in effect to get the visas. And all the cruise lines are still promoting and expanding their visits to Cuba.
And to blame his agents. Seems like some agent were aware of the financial problems, and perhaps to protect their clients and their own commissions, pulled their orders and placed them with companies that were solid.
So where were the refunds?
Why am I wasting this space writing about the demise of this company that had been in business for over twenty years. It’s a great marketing lesson for all of us.
How can you benefit from this? I know I am reaching out a bit, but if every agent reads this and THEN calls your local newspaper and say- “now is the time for you to run a column about how travelers should choose a travel agent.
Give them examples, like not to buy the travel insurance form companies who have their own coverage- check for clauses about default. If agencies discourage credit cards- the consumer should understand the lack of protection for refunds. If a company offers packages, consumers can easily find out the ratings and locations of the properties. If seating on airplanes are not provided, ask why. Frequent flier programs versus bulk rates. Imagine flights to and from Europe or Asia and forfeiting the mileage can be okay, if the consumer is forewarned. Are there any upgrades possible with the cruise line? How about the tours offered- any changes substituted? And most important- does the agency have an escrow account in place to assure the final payment is secure. Provide a phone number for your local State Consumer office where people can check out a company. The Better Business Bureau only provides info on their members- so that is not the best place to call.
If you belong to a consortium, contact their marketing department and see if they can help you in contacting local media.
In my case, I am answering consumer calls about this agency asking for help. I only wish that an organization like CLIA or IATA would do a PR campaign on how to have confidence working with a travel agent and its agency.