It looks like KSL Channel 5 in Salt Lake City has kicked over a journalistic hornet's nest, as horror stories about a travel club called GreatESCAPES Vacation Club begin to pour in.
The first story, which generated 138 comments on their website as of this post time, aired on Thursday November 15th, focusing on how the company employs come-ons and hard sells to get vacation deals. The results: More often than not, lawsuits, complaints and stressed-out customers.
Many customers' adventures began when they got postcards offering free trips. All they had to do was sit through the company's 90-minute sales presentation. Couples flock to the Murray office of GreatESCAPES for a presentation. The travel club says it offers members deep discounts and amazing get-aways. What customers got instead was delays, substandard accomodations, broken promises, and red tape. One customer said he got $5,000 yanked out from under him.
And these horror stories led KSL to investigate. Customers say the presentation convinced them "their ship had come in". To get the best deal, they had to join that day. But some customers say when they tried to use their memberships, they got caught in so much red tape, they couldn't even get out of Utah. So KSL asked a couple to sit in on a presentation, with a hidden camera. And what did the camera get? The sales pitch is packed with the following promises.
"There's not a way to travel for less than through GreatESCAPES."
"It's literally hundreds, thousands of dollars you can save on your vacations through GreatESCAPES."
The presenter also says members can save $1,500 on a Caribbean cruise or tour Paris and London for eight days for $887. There's also Maui in a two-bedroom condo on the beach at just $229 for the entire week.
Another salesman says the only way to get the best deal is to buy today.
"Anyone in your family can use this program; anyone who does any travel with you can use this program. It's only available today," the pitch continues. The latter phrase is the hard sell.
Dan and Jaime Adams want their $5,000 membership fee back. Jaime says the company didn't live up to its promises. Nancy Tippets claims she was pressured to upgrade her contract, told to sign for her husband, and couldn't get the Lake Powell houseboat trips the company promised. Debi Carillo had to sue to get out of her deal. She said, "I felt like I was being sold a Mercedes Benz, and when the car showed up on my porch it was a Suzuki Sidekick."
Not only did KSL find several other lawsuits, but their search of Utah's Better Business Bureau turned up 40 complaints in the past three years. State investigators say the allegations appear to be violations. They'll add the cases uncovered by KSL to complaints they're already looking into. Francine Giani, with the Utah Department of Commerce, said, "They are receiving a line, in essence, to make the quick sale, to make the purchase, to make it today."
GreatESCAPES may also be misrepresenting their connections to other segments of the travel industry, particularly Delta and Continental Airlines. When asked about it, both Delta and Continental said they have no connection to GreatESCAPES and didn't authorize the use of their logos. The state is looking into that as well.
By phone, GreatESCAPES stood by its sales practices. The chief operating officer said the company has an 85 percent customer satisfaction rating. She dismissed the Adams' claims as buyer's remorse. The company also disputes Nancy Tippets' allegations of high-pressure and forgery but agreed to let her out of the contract. They then emailed KSL the following treacly "non-statement":
"While we are disappointed in the depiction of our company in the story aired by KSL, we stand by our original statement and will continue to be responsive to consumer complaints. This includes any new concerns resulting from this story."
Please contact me should you need further feedback from GreatESCAPES. Thank you for your time."
Chief Operating Officer
Advantage/Select Travel - GreatESCAPES Vacation Club
However, as the complaints began to pour in to KSL, the station decided to do a second story on November 16th. They report they've heard from about 50 different consumers, and as result of their report, the Utah Department of Commerce is putting two investigators on the case.
Dozens of people who contacted KSL sat through the company's sales presentation and say they heard the same kinds of promises we recorded with a hidden camera. Things like, "The biggest benefit is that you get to travel at cost, everything, cruises, condo packages, Disneyland tickets, Lagoon tickets, hotel, airfare, we do everything." However, many say they've had no luck, want out of their contracts and are demanding a refund. They say vacations are tough to book or not available. They also claim the deep discounts they were promised weren't so deep, or they found better deals on their own. Even the people who managed to take trips report problems.
One person on the KSL comment board described using Great Escapes to book a condo in Maui. When they arrived, they discovered there was no reservation and no room at the inn. State investigators will also tack and log complaints posted on the KSL website, as well.
However, about half a dozen members wrote to inform KSL that they're happy with the company and have successfully used their memberships. There may indeed be some satisfied customers, but this drew an interesting comment to the story (click HERE then scroll down to the fifth comment):
Well thats crappy!
Report Comment by dashizzle @ 10:21pm - Fri Nov 16th, 2007
We just joined great escapes a month ago and now i see this on the news! Maybe we can get out of it since we just joined!? I thought it seemed like such a great deal! I noticed on the news report, they had some letters of people saying they were happy with great escapes but the girls name was selina and that's the name of the girl that sold us great escapes! hhhmmm coinsidence I think not!
The obvious implication is that perhaps one or more of the employees of Great Escapes might be posing as "satisfied customers". This led me to do so more snooping, and when I Google web-searched "Great Escapes Vacation Club", I found the Street Talk blog, and in this post there's a most interesting exchange of comments. Here are the pertinent comments:
Comment by Sableboi
We own a GreatESCAPES program and LOVE IT. We have travled carefree and at cost for several years now and always find them delightful to work with. I know when we purchased they sent us home with a copy of our contract and their policies booklet..everything presented was spelled out there. Maybe you should look over that? Anyway, we love them and would recommend them to anyone. I guess you cant please everybody!
Comment by street
Golly gee, why do I doubt your sincerity?
Comment by Sableboi
Not sure, why do you?
Comment by Sableboi
Well it is apparent that you all are skeptical about anything. I have no reason to lie about the program and actually found this blog in searching about GreatESCAPES because we just paid our dues and we have never had a problem. Truthfully, I get the same condos you all do with Timeshare, I just didnt put down $15,000.00, I only paid $6995.00 and I dont pay $500.00 in maintence Fees each year. $199.00 is all we pay, and we get so much more with the vacation club. I thought you all might like a different opinion, but I guess that’s not the case. I hope you all learn not to be so skeptical, because we did and have enjoyed the program very much. Every company has people who complain, hence why they have a BBB, but that doesnt mean every persons gripe is the gospel truth. People lie trying to get out of a contract. I work for a Credit Card company and see and hear people lying to get out of the agreement they sign with us, so I am sure this is no different. Just my opinion.
Comment by street
Sableboi, I traced your IP number and guess where it took me? Straight to GreatESCAPES in Utah. Wow, that’s some impressive credit card company you work for… NOT!! (FYI, everyone, this is just a DBA in Utah, not a corporation.)
Give the Vest family their money back. You know who they are and you know they aren’t lying. Next stop for me will be GreatESCAPES (aka Advantage Travel) headquarters in Lakeland, Florida. Maybe we’ll chat with President and CEO Joseph “Jody” St. John. Whaddaya think?
Moral of this story: Don’t give me a reason to hunt down your IP address.
GOTCHA! Sableboi was a GreatESCAPES employee POSING as a CUSTOMER. While this is no guarantee that they're doing it now, it shows they have a track record of such orchestration. I hope they hammer these guys!
KSL advises that there are two ways to file a complaint with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, the state office currently investigating Great Escapes. You can file online by clicking the DCP website, or by phone at 801-530-6601.