I'm inspired to share a recent experience with "Vacations to Go" (also known as "Vacation Professionals", "VIP Travel Reservations", or "Sky Travel) as a cautionary tale for family, friends, or anyone who wants to avoid a scam.
Among the piles of mail we returned to after our wonderful honeymoon was a very official looking piece of mail informing me that I was eligible to receive two free round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in the U.S. and that if I called within 72 hours (of what?), I'd also receive a free week of a rental car. Sandy and I suspected a scam right away, but we'd had a relatively nice experience sitting through a Marriott Vacations timeshare presentation the week before and we figured we could at least listen to their spiel and maybe get a free trip out of it.
We called the 800 number on the card and after answering some simple questions (Married? Over $40K income?) we were "qualified" to sit through a 90-minute Travel Service presentation after which we would receive our free gifts. We attended the session on 5/1/2008, at 6:00PM ET, with seven other couples (the room was set up to handle 9 couples in three rows of three -- not sure if some just didn't show up, or they couldn't book it).
The presentation was given in a low-rise office building in Methuen and the first thing that struck me was how very temporary the entire operation looked. They claimed to have been in the space for over a year, but from the cheap furnishings, to the bare walls, to the stick-on letter signage, it looked like this place could have been put together yesterday and could disappear tomorrow.
We were greeted by our "guide" named Ethan who confessed that he was as young as he looked (20 years old), and that he hoped to complete college some day. He couldn't tell us much about the presentation we were about to see, but he did want to hear about our travel and vacation preferences and plans. During this "interview" we were offered water, coffee or tea. The phone screener said there would be "refreshments." I guess water, coffee and tea qualify, but here again, Marriott Vacations did a much nicer job.
After about five minutes we were led into another room and the presentation began. The presenter claimed to be from North Carolina, a former time-share owner in Aruba, and now a presenter for Vacation Professionals. He said it would be faster if he just talked to us, rather than showing a presentation from what looked like a projector hanging from the ceiling. He began is patter with a plea to "keep an open mind," and a reminder that what he was pitching was absolutely not a "timeshare." By a show of hands apparently everyone in the room had been to a timeshare presentation before and one couple indicated they owned one in Aruba. Since we never talked to the other couples, it's impossible to tell how many of them if any were shills for the company.
There were words in stick-on letters on the white-board at the front of the room and the presenter seemed to jump around them and explain the "Vacation Professionals" deal on things like Vacation Packages, Resorts, and Cruises. For each vacation category he'd consult a three-ring binder full of price quotes and scribble numbers on the board showing how buying a $8995 membership in this vacation club would allow you to get huge discounts on the prices you could get on the same vacation from Expedia or through a travel agent.
To bolster his claims of legitimacy, the presenter pointed to a cheaply-framed (sagging on the wall) Vacation Professionals poster and said the company was a member of IATAN (International Airlines Travel Agent Network) (why not the American Society of Travel Agents?) and Cruise Lines International Association. I'm not sure if he actually claimed membership in these groups, he just had their logo on a poster. The same with a poster showing cruise line names. It was across the room, but I recognized Carnival, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean logos.
The presenter asked a lot of rhetorical questions (e.g. Are you ready to burn your suitcases and never take another vacation? Do you think you'll spend $9000 in your lifetime on vacation travel?), but rarely waited for an answer from the audience. One woman adamently didn't want to cruise, but the presenter didn't let that slow down his description of the great deal to be had on an Alaskan cruise, even staying in a full suite!
To summarize their deal: Vacation Professionals (a.k.a. Travel To Go, VIP Travel Reservations, or Sky Travel -- that's another thing, what IS their name?) will sell you vacation packages at "wholesale prices" cutting out a consolidator and a retail agency if you join the club for a fee and pay an annual membership price.
Frankly, between the presenter's shady appearance, fast-talking, and crazy math (the average price of a Vacation Professionals one-week package is $525, and $525 divided by 7 days comes to just $69/day he wrote!), I was tuning out and doodling on the notepad to my wife after 15 minutes. At just about 7:30PM, the presenter said the greeter would be coming back into the room to see if we had any questions about the deal, but before he did that, he wanted to show us the full deal: for TODAY ONLY (red flag up!), for $8000 (special discount for everyone in the room!), we could get a lifetime membership in this amazing club for us and "10 branches" (?!) of our family! If we didn't want to buy today, the deal was $9000 with considerably fewer benefits.
So little Ethan asked us if we were ready to buy. No, we demured, we just wanted to get our gift and leave. Ethan then waved to the supervisor (closer) who checked again on our objections. We were throwing objections faster than he could swat them away, however, so after about two minutes of this, he threw his paper on the table and walked away so he could talk to another mark.
We were then introduced to the "gifter" who took us to another office to receive our gifts. Would it surprise anyone to learn at this point that they didn't hand over airline vouchers? Instead we were given an "Activation Form" titled "FLY U.S.A." with 14 steps or restrictions on the "gift." First, we would have to complete the form and "mail it by certified mail to the address listed below. Please include a refundable deposit of $50.00 per person in the form of a money order or cashiers [sic] check only." Step 2 explained, "When you receive your reservation request form please choose your travel dates allowing at least 60 days before your first travel request, and 45 days between each consecutive date." Huh?!
We took the gift "Activation forms" and left with a chuckle. Then we started to wonder how many people really fall for his stuff. The presenter claimed that 36% of people who attend his presentations buy a package, but I can't imagine it's that many.
Two things my parents taught me served me well in this whole experience:
1. Never by ANYTHING, EVER if the price is only for "Today"
2. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
We spent 90 minutes, maybe 120 if you include travel time, and got nothing for it except a fun shared experience and a cautionary tale for others. We celebrated with dinner at the fabulous Chateau restaurant and talked about our REAL vacation plans.