This is a cautionary tale about two travel suppliers who went out of business and left customers and travel agents in the lurch for thousands of dollars — and how to protect yourself so it doesn’t happen to you.
For travel agent Barbara Khan, it started when a customer asked if she would need hiking boots for her trip to Glacier National Park. Khan picked up the phone and called her contact at Revealed America, a well-respected tour operator through whom she had booked the $9,500 vacation for a family of six.
She really wasn’t concerned when the voicemail said her contact was no longer with the company; she called another contact, left a message, and moved on with the 100 other things she had to do that day. But when a week went by with no reply, she called again. This time, she followed the instructions for customers who are in the middle of a trip and need assistance — and began to worry when the answering machine said that mailbox was full.
Next Khan went to the website and copied down every email address for every human contact she could find, and sent everyone a message saying, “I have been trying to reach you. I have a client traveling in two weeks and I have no documentation.” Soon her email was full of auto-replies saying each person was no longer with the company.
Next she hit the Virtuoso website preferred-supplier page — only to find Revealed America was no longer listed. She called Virtuoso, which had been alerted of the issue in February and had placed Heritage Tours and Revealed America on probation. Virtuoso told both they would need financial assurances from them to continue their relationship. Both Heritage and Revealed decided to terminate their Virtuoso relationship in April.
According to Virtuoso's Matthew Upchurch, the Virtuoso team "reached out to more than 40 Virtuoso agency owners and managers who had business booked through these companies and made them aware" after the end of their relationship, but was unable to assist with securing commission because neither was a preferred partner any longer. Virtuoso did work with members directly on individual issues and reminded members of "the importance of travel insurance and payment by credit card to offer protection," Upchurch said.
At Travel Central in New Orleans, meanwhile, Courtney Abramovitz was having a better experience. Her clients, two couples headed for Yellowstone and Grand Teton, had just made a final payment on their $8,400 trip when she got a “do not book” email from Signature.
Eight minutes later, after 5 p.m. on a Friday, she recalled, she emailed Revealed America to cancel the final payment and not charge the card. A reply email from Revealed America said, “I will start canceling and have copied in our CEO and CFO; you will be working with them in regard to refunds.”
But Abramovitz never heard from them again. She did hear from many other agents, though — at least six with whom she spoke directly — saying the bookings they thought they had made through Revealed America were not, in fact, made, and the money was gone; “clients were showing up at hotels and freaking out, and the front desk had no idea what was going on.”
On Monday, Abramovitz did just what Signature had suggested she do: She called the properties, which were not booked, and then the credit card company to dispute the charges and stop payment. Meanwhile, she rebooked the trip with another tour operator, Excursionist, whom she says has been wonderful to work with.
Signature told Abramovitz that some travel insurance companies were covering the loss and some were not. Their advice? “Dispute the credit card, reassure your client that you are super- involved and will get them rebooked, handle it without going into too much detail.”
“I was very, very upset,” Abramovitz says. “These are great clients. But Signature did a phenomenal job. They told us about the issue and gave us so much support; they said, ‘We are going to help you handle it,’ and guided us. I told the clients that we had a little hiccup, but we will take care of it. As far as they are concerned, I think it’s over and done with, and they don’t even care. But I never heard from Revealed America again.”
Indeed, Revealed America apparently is no more. Travel Market Report has called, emailed and Facebook-messaged the company; its sister company, Heritage Tours; and its owner, JG Worldwide, publisher of the LG Black Book, to no avail.
File under ‘Why You Need a Travel Agent’
For the customers, it was a lucky thing they had booked with a travel agent rather than directly with Revealed America. Abramovitz got their money back from the credit card company; Khan called and got written confirmations of the bookings from each hotel, then tracked down the tour companies and got confirmations for the four excursions they had booked. All her bookings had been made; she is out just the $800 commission she would have earned.
Others were less fortunate. April Hicks’ agency has been told it will not receive reimbursement from the insurance company for the booking it made, and the bank is denying the claim because it was paid with a debit card rather than a credit card. “We are fighting the bank, and our E&O insurance does not cover us,” she said. “Very bad results so far.”
Media accounts mention a cancer patient and his wife who paid $17,000 for a trip to Portugal — only to discover that Heritage Tours had paid hotels for just two nights of the nine they would be traveling.
Khan, meanwhile, has complained to Virtuoso and filed a complaint against Revealed America with the office of the attorney general of Washington state. Next she will file one against JG Worldwide and its owner, Jena Gardner. “But I’m not holding my breath,” she said.
She will, however, “absolutely be adding this” to the travel-insurance stories she tells customers. “And if I ever run across those guys, I will punch them in the nose.”
Indeed, that may well be the only recourse. Lisa Chambers Fletcher noted that she has been informed that third-party Supplier Default travel insurance will not cover this case, because the supplier was not in true default at the time of the service lapse. “So basically the only hope is to challenge the credit card charge as fraudulent, since the money was collected but never paid to the vendor.”
Correction: A previous version of this article had stated that Virtuoso was unable to assist travel agent Barbara Khan after she was impacted. Virtuoso, which had proactively reached out to more than 40 Virtuoso agency owners and managers who had business booked through the operators, was unable to assist Khan with commission protection as neither company was a preferred partner, but would have been able to help with client assistance.