Whistleblower: Travel club offered eye-opening journey

  • Article by: JANE FRIEDMANN
  • Updated: May 12, 2012 - 7:47 PM

 A vacation travel club offered gifts, but they weren't free, as Robert Boyd said he was led to believe. The company acknowledged the process was "a bit cumbersome."

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Robert Boyd willingly sat through a 90-minute sales pitch from a travel club in order to receive what he believed were free gifts. He cried foul well into what turned out to be a 13-step process needed to collect.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Robert Boyd has endured many 90-minute sales pitches in hotel conference rooms and collected the gifts afterward -- a three-piece luggage set, a vacuum cleaner, a set of knives. But nothing compared to the rigmarole offered by a travel club called Vacation Choices.

In February, Boyd, a 79-year-old New Brighton pastor, and his wife, Janet, went to a Bloomington hotel after being wooed with an offer of either a 7-inch touchpad tablet or a 7-inch mini-laptop as well as a bonus digital camera. Instead, the representative of Vacation Choices handed the couple a sheet of fine print explaining the 13 steps they had to go through.

After describing the tight deadlines and missteps that would disqualify you, the redemption process went like this:

You use certified mail to send a piece of paper to a third party processor.

They send you another piece of paper.

You send them an international money order for $9.95.

They send you another piece of paper.

You send them more money for postage and handling.

Only then will you get your "award."

An Internet search reveals that the no-name touchpads or laptops can be had for about $55 to $75. The camera retails for about $42, but two-thirds of reviewers on Amazon.com gave it a one-star rating.

Boyd decided to give up on the redemption process just before the international money order. He contacted Whistleblower because he was concerned that the process would be too arduous for most attendees.

I contacted the director of operations at Olympia, Wash.-based Vacation Choice, Scott McCarty. "We recognized that the redemption process for that promotion was a bit cumbersome," he acknowledged.

"Personally, there's a reason why we're not using that promotion any more," he said. "We used it for one weekend, total. We got feedback and we made a change immediately."

Boyd just hit the wrong weekend, apparently.

The company does appear to be responsive to consumer complaints. The Better Business Bureau closed 51 complaints about Vacation Choices in the past 12 months, and because the company resolved 36 of them to the customers' satisfaction, the company maintains an A rating.

Sales seminars like the one put on by Vacation Choices are not regulated by the state, according to a Minnesota Department of Commerce spokesman. Franchises, such as the hotel at which the seminar took place, are regulated by the department, but the hotel must have knowledge of misbehavior to share in any repercussions.

But is there anything actually wrong with making someone jump through elaborate hoops to get something for almost nothing?

No, unless the company fails to disclose the total cost of receiving goods or services before requiring payment, according to the federal Telemarketing Sales Rule. Minnesota has a statute specific to travel clubs, 325G.501, that requires the same as well as upfront contact information.

The mailing Boyd initially got from Vacation Choices boldly announcing his award didn't name the company or provide contact information other than a toll-free phone number. The closest it got to disclosure of terms was three words in small print: "Some restrictions apply."

Boyd also said no fees were discussed in the initial telemarketing call and when he later bowed out of the redemption process he said he still had no indication how much it would cost him.

McCarty countered that all the company's mailings contains full disclosure and a website address, though Whistleblower couldn't see either on the mailing Boyd forwarded to her. As for the sales call, "we don't go through the entire redemption process, but we do let the person know that there will be fees and or taxes associated with the promotional item."

So there you have it.

While McCarty said that if Boyd called the company it would try to make things right, Boyd says he's not as interested in receiving the product as he was in hearing the presentation.

"I'm a preacher. I deal with groups of people. I want to help them to understand. ... And so I enjoy seeing how they lead us. How the guy gets up there and can move the group," he said.

Vacation Choices apparently did move the audience, but perhaps not in the way it had hoped to, based on the "feedback" McCarty said it got.

The Minnesota attorney general's office warns consumers about prizes associated with travel packages. Find out more at www.startribune.com/a1278.

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