Travel too good to be travel Florida boiler room travel promoter is less than meets the eye By Chris Woodall Several Whistler and Pemberton businesses have received a one-page fax promoting a partially free travel package to Florida, Mexico and the Bahamas that should not be acted on, advises Roseway Travel. It’s not that the offer is illegitimate, Roseway Travel agents say, it’s just that there are so many questionable angles to the offer that Whistlerites may end up paying a lot of money for nothing. The fax in question offers four vacations — in Cancun, Mexico (five days, four nights); on Grand Bahamas Island, Bahamas (four days, three nights); in central Florida "just minutes" from Walt Disney World (four days, three nights); and at Daytona Beach, Florida (three days, two nights). All this for $374, but the fax structures the information so that you are asked to buy "2 vacations for the price of One!" Then, by "ordering today" you become eligible to "receive free" the two remaining vacation packages. The price is per person, but a minimum of two people have to take advantage of the offer. The amount is in American funds, but you don’t find this out until you telephone the 1-800 number listed at the fax’s bottom that could originate from anywhere in Canada or the U.S. The Canadian equivalent is more than $1,000 for two. The fax’s format resembles an in-house memo: plain typescript, without embellishment of a corporate logo. No company name is given up front, although you are left to guess that "Corporate Travel" is the company name because of the way it is listed at the bottom of the fax. No address is given on the fax. "Our wholesale travel department has been asked to forward this new travel information to you and your employers," says the fax, purportedly from "Sharon Miller, Travel Co-ordinator, Corporate Wholesale Division," although who "asked" for this information isn’t clear. To probe more details about a vacation offer that could be too good to be true, Pique newsmagazine — together with Roseway Travel agents Layna Mawson, Angelika Perks and Jenny Revesz — phoned the company, posed as interested vacation buyers. But Mawson had phoned earlier and talked to "Rodney". "He asked me four times to give him a credit card number so he could ‘approve’ my application," Mawson says. That set off alarm bells. "As a travel agent, we don’t take credit card numbers over the phone unless we know you," Mawson says. "We could be liable for the amount charged to the card if we don’t get a signature." "He couldn’t tell me his IATA (International Association of Travel Agents) number," recalls Mawson. "He said he could get it for me if I wanted it, but he should know it like you’d know your home phone number." Rodney also assured Mawson that the company was so legit, she could call the Better Business Bureau to verify the honesty of the company’s dealings. Rodney, however, forgot to mention two important things: what was the formal name of the company he represents and where is he located? Phoning a "BBB" is only good if you can let them know this, too. More alarm bells. The BBB’s opinion is not a guarantee that a company is on the up-and-up. The BBB can confirm that a company exists and, yes, that it does business, and yes, that it isn’t known as doing anything criminal, but that’s hardly an endorsement. When we called, we talked again to Rodney, this time over a speaker phone. Rodney works in Orlando, Florida. In the background we could distinctly hear a jumble of voices, including the occasional "yippee!" Together, the sounds were very much — to one of us who has done this kind of thing — as a typical telemarketing "boiler room." In this set up, a room full of people — each in a tiny cubicle armed with a sales pitch and a telephone — are busy fielding calls. The telemarketers get bonuses each time they make a sale, sometimes piecemeal, sometimes on an escalating rate the more deals the seller closes. A telemarketer who seals a deal is expected to call out with a "yahoo" or some such to encourage his fellows to greater efforts. When you buy into the vacation package, you have one year to make use of it, Rodney said. Except for a 60-day advance notice, we could book the actual vacation any time we wanted. "There are no ‘black-out’ periods, although we ask that you book 90 days in advance for vacations during high holidays," said Rodney. In essence, he said, your vacation was absolutely guaranteed. More alarm bells from our panel of travel agents. "Nothing is guaranteed unless your vacation is paid in full," Mawson says. "Even then, we can’t guarantee the weather, or that your flight may be cancelled, or that something may go wrong." It mystified our travel experts how this company could "guarantee" bookings at the busiest times of the year, when their experience said this just wasn’t possible. At best this company would probably re-book you to another time. At worst, you’d get the dates desired — Christmas or spring break, say — but god knows what you’d end up with for accommodation. We agreed that once they had your money, they had you. Rodney explained that the price didn’t include airfare, but that "we can arrange airfare," although he wouldn’t divulge any prices. "We guarantee the lowest corporate rates, but I’m not allowed to tell you (what they might be) because I’m not a travel agent." The vacation price is not all-inclusive. There is also a $109 (U.S.) per person port tax to go to the Bahamas, said Rodney. You are to pay this fee to the company when you set a date for your vacation. The Walt Disney World portion of the vacation would also set you back another $25 per person as a reservation fee, Rodney said. Car rental is also to be a deal. Rodney was happy to offer a 50 per cent discount off the weekly rate for a Hertz vehicle. Mawson says Florida car rental companies offer a variety of very low rates that could beat "50 per cent off" because Rodney was probably offering his discount off the top rate Hertz posts. As well, renting through Rodney meant you were stuck with a vehicle for the entire week. When we started pressing for details on cancellation policy, Rodney passed us on to "Betty the sales manager," who had the tough, broad voice of an older woman who’s smoked too many Marlboroughs. More alarm bells rang out as Betty explained that once you bought the vacation, you could do whatever you wanted except get a refund. Betty told us that we could get an extension longer than a year if we felt we weren’t able to go on vacation within that time frame. She told us we could transfer the package to anyone, but it would be up to us to collect the money from the person the package transferred to. Meantime, the vacation package fee would remain as charged against our credit card. "What if I break my leg and can’t go?" we asked. Betty talked again of getting an extension, but nothing about a refund. "What if I lose my job and can’t afford anything like a vacation" we asked, trying to pin Betty to a spot where a refund was the only way out. But Betty bested us on this point. "We’ll work with you," she said, to arrange for a different time to use the trip, but no, no sentences with the word "refund" were forthcoming. Even admitting that they might work with us, Betty allowed that "we don’t like to tell anybody that, it’s not cost effective." A regular travel agency would, at minimum, have cancellation fees that would be deducted from a package refund, our experts said. Betty does not have a cancellation fee. Instead, she came up with the "new dress" analogy. "It’s like buying a new dress that you never wear but keep in the closet," she philosophised. "How do we know if you’ve really worn it or not?" This had us puzzled, because this "dress" wasn’t going to be anywhere near our "closet" — that is, we had still to book and use a vacation to "get" the dress. As far as we were thinking, the "dress" was kept at the dressmakers, but the dressmaker wanted us to pay for it now. One of us noted that in any case, you cannot buy travel insurance unless the insurance company knows of set cancellation fees. Booking the trip was not going to be a picnic. Yes, they would take our credit card number over the phone; but no, they would not take our booking over the phone. Betty told us that when we were ready to set a date for our fabulous four vacations for the price of one... we had to put it writing and snail mail it to them. No faxes allowed, Betty said. We could courier our request and phone to alert them to expect the courier company. "I don’t like the fact you can’t call in a booking," said one of our Roseway Travel experts. We asked about Betty’s company being in Orlando, Florida. What guarantee would there be that they’d still be there a year from now? "We have a bond and insurance," Betty replied. "We have over 25 years experience in the travel industry." Judging from the number of voices we heard in the background, that could mean 25 people with one year’s experience each. But we had to buy in now. On this call, Betty said. When we protested that there were spouses to counsel, there was the boss to see about taking vacation times, Betty relented ever so slightly. "I can’t hold this offer longer than 24 hours." Betty was adamant that this offer couldn’t be held for a week. With sadness in our hearts, we let Betty go, saying that we needed more time and so we’d have to pass on this offer.