9 On Your Side Investigates: travel company complaints
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - A Green Valley couple thought that a travel club membership would be an affordable way to help them see the world. But Dave and Barb Quigley's dream vacation never quite got off the ground.
Dave Quigley said in November of 2009 Southwest Travel invited him to a sales pitch for a travel club membership. Quigley told 9 On Your Side the company enticed him with the promise of two plane tickets and a $300 gift card. After the presentation Quigley paid over $8,000 for the membership. In return, Quigley was told he would receive discounts on tickets, cruises, and car rentals. Here's where things started to get tricky: The membership was to a second company titled Sea Land Travel.
Two months later, in January of 2010, Quigley tried to book an Alaskan cruise. He was upset by $1900 per person price. "It was cheaper for me to go out and do this on my own," said Quigley.
Quigley tried to get answers, but got no where. "You have no recourse. No where to go. No one is accountable," Quigley noted.
9 On Your Side Investigator Ian Reitz hit the phones to try and get answers. He too got the runaround and left quite a few voice messages for Southwest Travel.
When 9 On Your Side did hear back from Southwest Travel, company president Jack Keefe declined to go on camera. Instead he provided the following statement: "We will continue to make every attempt to resolve any issues or complaints received from our members in a timely and satisfactory manner."
That answer struck 9 On Your Side Investigator Ian Reitz as lame. So, Reitz went to the company's headquarters on Grant Road and Swan Road. The lights at the business were off and the door was locked. A sign on the door noted the company was "closed for the season."
So what about Sea Land Travel?
9 On Your Side called the reservation line number that was provided to Quigley at the time of purchase. The person who answered the phone identified herself as working for a yet another outfit Travel Services. She told 9 On Your Side that Travel Services "services" several travel organizations including Sea Land Travel. Then, she clammed up, and told 9 On Your Side to submit any other questions in writing.
We submitted several questions by email. Several days later, we got this response: "Travel Services guarantees performance of its product based upon the written materials and the web sites that it produces. It does not do, nor has it ever done, any direct sales to consumers."
That statement neatly sidestepped our questions.
9 On Your Side then went to the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona. The BBB had no complaints on file against Sea Land Travel. It did have 15 complaints against Southwest Travel. It also turned out that officials at the BBB didn't have luck getting their questions answered. "We have asked Mr. Keefe to come in and sit down with us. He has not taken us up on that invitation," said BBB of Southern Arizona President Kim States.
As for the Green Valley couple, Dave Quigley told 9 On Your Side he is putting this ordeal behind him. He is out several thousand dollars and never even received the promised free plane tickets and gift card.
One final note: If this sounds familiar, that's because 9 On Your Side has investigated one of these companies in the past. Late last year we checked in to a questionable travel flyer being distributed in Southern Arizona. During that investigation we discovered that the phone number being advertised on the flyer led to a second company. The second company was setting up sales meetings for a third company. The third company was Southwest Travel, which proceeded to deny any ownership connection to the other two companies.
Complaints against travel clubs are pretty common. Our advice: buyer beware.
Story Update, posted 7/12/2010:
Although Southwest Travel president Jack Keefe was only willing to give a brief written statement prior to this story being published, afterwards Keefe contacted 9 On Your Side and provided more information.
Keefe denied that it was Southwest Travel that invited the Quigleys to that November 2009 sales presentation -- but he admitted that the Quigleys' confusion was understandable. According to Keefe, when the Quigleys visited the office at Grant and Swan, the operation there belonged to a company called Destinations Ultimate. It was from that company, Keefe said, that the Quigleys bought their membership. "Sea Land Travel" was what Keefe called the "fulfillment company."
But here's the source of the confusion. According to Keefe, at the time the Quigleys visited the office, Destinations Ultimate was in the process of winding down its operation there. Five days later a new company, Southwest Travel, took its place. But the only visible change was the signage. The location, and the employees, remained the same. As Keefe explained it, when Destinations Ultimate decided to move on, it was easy for him to form his own company. "You already have the same people in place, and the products aren't very different." He said the new Southwest Travel signage was going up at about the time as Quigley's visit.
But Keefe said Southwest Travel does not service any of the contracts sold by Destinations Ultimate -- even though the same sales staff sold them -- and therefore Southwest Travel is not responsible for dealing with any complaints from those Destinations Ultimate customers.
Keefe also said it was unfair of KGUN9 News to point out that the Better Business Bureau had received 15 complaints against Southwest Travel without also pointing out that 13 of those complaints had been resolved. Keefe said most of the complaints dealt with marketing problems. He said Southwest Travel is not responsible for any promotional promises, which come from separate marketing companies. "In cases that people are led to believe that the gifts are something they are not, they are not hearing that from us, they're hearing it from the people who are booking them and bringing them in the door." But even so, Keefe said Southwest Travel usually offers to resolve such BBB complaints with some form of compensation.
Southwest Travel's rating with the Better Business Bureau is an F. According to its website, the BBB weighs many factors in rating businesses. The total number of complaints is one of those factors, regardless of whether the complaints have been resolved. Keefe insisted that practice is not fair. "I am not a big fan of the BBB. They are partial against our industry." Keefe claimed that 7,000 couples have come through his company's door and said that in light of that, 15 complaints is not a huge number.
Even so, Keefe conceded that marketing is an ongoing issue. Marketing companies setting up these kinds of sales presentations get paid only when they get someone through the door. To do that, marketing reps typically offer incentives, or "gifts," as Keefe put it. "Quality control is tough – some of these call centers are not even in the United States," Keefe said. But he said marketing calls are recorded -- and if there is a problem with marketers over-promising what the gifts will deliver, "We ask those people to be terminated."
The BBB rating for Destinations Ultimate also is an F. On its website, the Bureau reports only two complaints, but says the company responded to neither one of them.
Destinations Ultimate has now left the building. So has Southwest Travel. Keefe describes Southwest Travel's shutdown as seasonal, and temporary, due to a sharp decline in customers over the summer months.