Charleston business adds sign after compliance with city law questioned
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - With tourism season underway in the Lowcountry the City of Charleston has protections in place to keep visitors informed about local businesses, but not all were being followed.
A new 24-inch by 36-inch sign sits in the window of Vacation Inspirations LLC, located at 229 Meeting Street, as required by city code. The vacation club business promises discounted travel packages to its members after they attend a presentation and sign a non-cancelable agreement.
As recently as last week, the business did not appear to be compliant with city ordinance 21-233, which requires that all vacation time share solicitors, vacation club membership solicitors, vacation time share sellers and vacation club membership sellers display signs stating, among other things, the words “This business is not affiliated with the City of Charleston or the Charleston Visitor Reception and Transportation Center or Charleston Area Convention and Visitor Bureau” and they must be clearly readable.
Sec_21_233 by Live 5 News on Scribd
Rosita Lacey signed one of these contracts in 2017. Lacey and her husband came to Charleston for his birthday and purchased a $5,000 membership after what they say was a very convincing presentation.
“I’m not saying that this business doesn’t work for some people, because if it does, I’m happy for them,” she said. “I feel everyone was taken advantage of that filed a complaint.”
After the contract was signed, she found the business’ promises were too good to be true, so she asked for a refund.
“I told them I would be picketing in front of their business,” she said.
That’s when she got paid back in full.
But she knows she’s only one of very few who have gotten all their money back.
A previous report from November revealed the nearly one hundred or so complaints filed against the business with the state; that number has since increased.
Out of 18 complaints that were reviewed, two customers received a full refund and four others received partial refunds.
Jeff Pumilia, the director of member services, stated that the complaints represent a small number and they have thousands of happy customers.
READ MORE: Vacation club connected to prior settlements over consumer complaints
“I just couldn’t live with the fact that so many people put their dreams into the fact that they would be vacationing, and vacationing in a beautiful place for a discount. And instead, they got nothing,” Lacey said.
Lacey did her own research to find the signage requirement in the city ordinance.
“My husband thought that it was the Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “And so, we went into the place and found out when we were in there that it wasn’t, but they had all these flyers and everything that made it looks look that way. And there were no signs in the window stating otherwise. Because of that, we listened to what they had to say.”
At the business on April 11, there were no clear signs in the windows that could be seen from the sidewalk or inside. None of the employees could point out signage in line with the ordinance either.
The business’ attorney, David Levine, wrote in an email on Sunday that signs would be in place no later than the following Tuesday, explaining that a “sign had been up for years” and was possibly removed when the company relocated during the pandemic when their building lease expired.
The signs were put up on Monday.
“The intent has always been to be in compliance with the relevant requirements,” he said.
Dan Riccio, the director of livability and tourism for the city, said they have received one complaint about the lack of signage but none about aggressive solicitation tactics, which are also illegal in city limits as outlined in Sec. 21-232, in the last few years.
But he does agree that the lack of signage does not follow the law and should have been addressed earlier.
“There’s no excuse. You know, things changed in 2019 and 2020,” Riccio said. “And we pivoted in a huge opposite direction in which we were heading.”
He says that he had visited the business in the past and has seen a sign but also believes it was insufficient.
Lacey previously emailed Riccio, a former attorney for the city and even sent a letter to Mayor John Tecklenburg in years past asking for a solution.
“I love the City of Charleston, but I’m embarrassed for the City of Charleston, because they did not do what they should have done,” Lacey said. “Six years I’ve been asking them to do something. And for six years, they did nothing knowing that they should and so someone’s at fault, and it’s not the people who went in there, thinking that it was one thing, and it turned out another.”
Lynda and Jeff Fisher of Reno, Nevada, say that’s what happened to them. The couple visited Charleston in November and attended the presentation at 229 Meeting St. after going to what they thought was an official City of Charleston Visitor Center on Highway 17.
They were promised free sightseeing tours in exchange for their time at the presentation and asked to put down a deposit of $20, in cash. They then signed a contract.
They also claim they checked off a line on their membership agreement form agreeing they signed after experiencing high-pressure sales tactics but were told to change it by an agent.
Levine states that Vacation Inspirations will not sign off on a new membership if potential customers feel there was undue pressure. Once the Fishers were informed, they could not go ahead with the purchase, the answers were changed.
“If a member believes there was undue pressure, by all means they should not sign,” Levine said.
After comparing quotes from the business and directly from the provider, the Fishers say the significant savings promised were nowhere to be found.
“Everything was identical apples to apples, and the quote retail that Viking [Cruises] gave me was a $1 difference on the $12,000. So, there was no benefit to the membership, no wholesale pricing,” Jeff Fisher said.
According to Levine, the issue is a result of miscommunication. He says they were quoted for an Ocean cruise, not a river cruise and the quote they received “was over $1,200 less than what Viking told them directly because of the rewards of our membership” and they are actively working with the couple to address the problem.
“Biggest mistakes I ever made in my life,” Lynda Fisher said in reference to signing up for a membership.
The Fishers stopped at the Charleston Tourist Center, located at 3937 Savannah Highway.
There is no signage identifying the business as separate from the city that can be seen from the outside, but it’s unclear if this location is required to follow the same rules as vacation clubs and timeshares within city limits.
Levine says that this company is not owned by Vacation Inspirations but does send referrals to them.
No one was at the business to answer questions during an in-person visit on Thursday. Phone numbers found online were disconnected and an email to the business bounced back.
“The initial issue was buyer’s remorse. Mr. Pumilia made it clear to Ms. Fisher that if she were to file a credit card dispute, the Company would abide by a decision from the credit card process. Instead, she moved forward and filed the dispute,” Levine said in a statement. " After speaking with Mr. Pumilia, the Fishers attempted to withdraw the dispute; however Capital One told them that it was too late to withdraw. Ultimately the dispute was decided by the credit card process in favor of Vacation Inspirations,” he added.
“I don’t see this as a failure,” Riccio said. “But I see this as a time that we can relook at something and readdress it to where it doesn’t happen in the future again.”
Julia Copeland, the attorney for the city of Charleston, released this statement:
Through a combination of ordinance changes and tough enforcement measures in the early- and mid-2010s, the city has reduced the number of violations involving time-share operators from dozens to one in the past six years. However, we are always working to ensure that residents and visitors alike are able to shop safely throughout the city, and are always reviewing our ordinances and procedures with that goal in mind.
Copyright 2023 WCSC. All rights reserved.