Vacation club connected to prior settlements over consumer complaints
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Downtown Charleston attracts millions of tourists every year, but some say that their vacations were ruined after their experience with one local business.
“I don’t know that I would voluntarily go back to Charleston to be honest,” Christopher Sawyer said. “Knowing that the city can’t even crack down on something like this.”
Sawyer and his wife traveled to South Carolina in May of 2021. He’s not alone in his experience.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth for Charleston,” Merle Teeling said.
What Sawyer and Teeling have in common is that they bought memberships from Vacation Inspirations, a vacation club business that operates in Charleston.
Drawn in by free tickets, they each attended a presentation for a vacation club membership. At that presentation, they were asked to turn off their phones.
Jeffrey Pumilia, director of member services at Vacation Inspirations, says this is to avoid distractions.
Though, customers hypothesize that it was to rope them into a contract they couldn’t get out of.
“Well when we left, of course, I bring up my cell phone and start googling Vacation Inspiration[s] and oh my gosh, it was bad review after bad review,” Teeling said. “I felt sick to my stomach.”
“It was a very well-polished scheme and all this we didn’t know who the company was prior to stepping foot in the presentation,” Sawyer said. " It really is for lack of a better term scurvy.”
The business sells memberships for $2,000 to $8,000 upfront, where customers sign a “non-cancellable” agreement immediately following the presentation.
Customers’ complaints with the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs accuse the business of a high-pressure sales situation where they were told how to fill out forms, including checking “no” when asked on the forms if they were pressured into the deal.
Pumilia denies these claims.
“We don’t force anybody to do anything. It’s all their choice,” he said.
Sawyer never used the services and was unable to cancel the transaction on his credit card.
Teeling did, however.
Though receiving rebates, she found that the deals never ended up being as good as a deal as promised.
“It wasn’t any cheaper at all, it was more,” she said.
The complaints against Vacation Inspirations, now run by Destination Travel LLC, have continued to pile on since 2014. So far, there are 95 on the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs (SCADCA) website with 72 since a prior Live 5 investigation into the business in 2015.
“Lied, conned and misrepresented and then waited to give us the rest of the story!” one reads.
Another customer writes, “[t]he presentation was so slick that, even though we like to think we’re pretty smart, even we were fooled.”
The customers’ complaints allege “misleading deceptive practices” and wanting to cancel contracts and get full refunds.
“They’re experiencing buyer’s remorse. We do everything in our power, our entire team works, you know with each member on any issue, problem or concern,” Pumilia said.
In South Carolina, customers have 3-5 days to back out of a contract deal, but only in specific cases. This includes door-to-door sales, gym memberships and vacation timeshares.
“It’s a minuscule number [of complaints]. We have tens of thousands of existing members in the same period that you provided us with for these 18 complaints, we had over 3,800 new members join,” he said. “You’re looking at less than one-half of one percent of individuals… that doesn’t even include our existing member base.”
Pumilia says 12,000 members use the service every year.
The business has existed for 16 years, but only became accredited with the Better Business Bureau in February 2022. It has an A+ rating.
In SCADA’s database, out of the 18 most recent complaints reviewed, ten had a “business adequate response.”
This means the business responded, but the customer may not have necessarily gotten what they had asked for.
The remaining eight closed with a “consumer satisfied” label. Four received a partial refund, only two appeared to get a full refund.
“If it’s an area that we don’t have legal authority over or any sort of regulation, we can’t force a business to do something,” Bailey Parker, the director of communications at SCDCA, said.
Parker says SCADA often serves only as a mediator in these types of cases.
History of Consumer Complaints
The founding members of Vacation Inspirations have settled consumer complaints in two other states.
Joseph Shirley and Randy Gardner, listed as managers under Destination Travel LLC which operates Vacation Inspirations, have also paid customer restitution, fines and attorneys’ fees in Georgia and Texas.
In 2012, under Vacation Station LLC, the pair agreed to pay at least $190,000 in civil penalties and customer restitutions to the Georgia Office of Consumer Protection.
The state’s investigation revealed the business promised free airline tickets in exchange for attending a presentation, but attendees found out afterwards they would have to pay.
The department also found the business to be unlicensed and refused to cancel memberships or give refunds.
Five years later in Texas, Shirley and Gardner agreed to pay out another nearly $75,000 for violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and other statutes, according to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
Pumilia refused to answer any questions regarding either’s involvement in the business or the settlements.
David Levine, the business’ lawyer, over the phone confirmed that they have signed consent orders in both states.
The orders did not include an admission of guilt in either case.
Levine said that mistakes were made in the past, but the company continues to move forward.
“Vacation Inspirations has served tens of thousands of satisfied members over the past decade. We pride ourselves on our ability to create wonderful vacation experiences for the families and individuals we work with. We also pride ourselves in our responsiveness to member concerns and making sure those concerns are addressed quickly and fairly,” Randy Gardner said in a statement.
Connecting with other Customers
The business offered Sawyer a partial refund, but he refused it.
“I didn’t want to sign the documentation that they had sent over because it suggested that I would be held legally liable if I said anything negative about the company,” he said. “To me, it’s more important to speak about this rather than to recoup $2,000 and not say my peace about the experience,” he said.
Sawyer has started a Facebook page Tales of Vacation Inspirations LLC Charleston South Carolina and an email firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with other customers.
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