Saturday, February 23, 2013

Selling a Regent Seven Seas Cruise: Do Travel Agents Have Any Liability to Their Clients?

Over the past two days I attended the International Forum of Travel and Tourism Advocates' (IFTTA) North American Conference.  As a member, I presented a talk on "Whether Regent Seven Seas Cruises' "Free","Free", "Free" Marketing Violates Consumer Fraud or Other Consumer Travel Laws?" If you didn't understand my disdain for Regent's business practices before you will now!

During my presentation I asked of the audience questions such as:
  • How there could be "free" air or hotels when you get a credit if you don't use them?;
  • How can there be "free" pre-paid gratuities since you can't pre-pay for something that is free?
  • How can you have "free" unlimited shore excursions when the shore excursions have limit capacity and are not of the quality Regent offered when they weren't allegedly free (30 guest on one bus vs. today's 50 passengers x 4 buses going to the a location)?
  • How can you have the highest cruise fares in the industry (obviously used to pay for all of this "free" stuff) when the rate on arguably similar lines offering arguably similar experiences except for the "free" air, hotel and tours?
In other words, there is a significant difference between offering a "More Fully Inclusive" Experience rather than a "Luxury" one with "Free" stuff. 

And, of course, there is the issue of whether having 200 passengers arriving at a tourist location is a "luxury" or "six star" experience.  There is a difference between what is called "puffery" and dishonesty.  So using the term "trip of a lifetime" or "beautiful" may well be fine, but "luxurious" may cross the line from puffery to misleading.

Now, before going further, I want to mention that earlier in the day another attorney discussed the potential liability travel agents may have to clients for not providing them with the necessary information to make an informed choice. 

One travel lawyer, the Honorable Thomas Dickenson, in his treatise, Travel Law, asserts that there is wide-ranging liability for all travel agents. Other travel lawyers, including Alexander Anolik, Esquire - a conference attendee - disagrees and believes there should be different levels of potential liability based upon what type of travel agent you deal with. (By the way, both are, like me, members of IFTTA, and they are true "heavyweights" in travel law.)

This led to a rather lively discussion about whether there should be two different types of travel agents:  Travel Consultants and Fulfillment Agents and the standards they should be held to.  What's the difference? 
  • "Fulfilment Agents" are internet companies like Cruise.com, Vacations-to-Go, Expedia, Travelocity, etc., as well as a number of travel agents that we refer to as "Order Takers". These entities have personnel that really don't have much knowledge about  cruises, hotels, etc., and pretty much only provide you with the marketing information provided by the cruise line...and you, the traveling public, make your own decisions without any real input from the Fulfillment Agent

  • "Travel Consultants", like Goldring Travel, offer information based upon personal knowledge, experience and research...and you, the traveling public, rely upon this additional information when making your vacation decisions.
Now, with Goldring Travel clearly being a Travel Consultant, it raises the issue of, "What are my duties to you as a cruise client?"  It is my opinion that I have an obligation NOT to provide you with what I believe is misleading or false advertising...and I obviously believe Regent Seven Seas Cruises advertisements are false and misleading. 

Take a moment to read this recent review of a Regent Seven Seas Cruise review posted on Cruise Critic by someone who booked through an internet cruise agency: It Sounded Much Better Than It Was.

Now, take a look at the case of Vallery v. Bermuda Star Line, Inc., 141 Misc.2d 395 (1988), 532 N.Y.S. 2nd 965 (1988).

The similarities (and, in fact, the worse scenario on the Regent cruise) are fairly shocking.  In case you don't want to read that whole decision, in the Bermuda Star Line case the court stated, in relevant part:

General Business Law § 349 (a) provides that: "Deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in this state are hereby declared unlawful."  Section 350 provides that: "False advertising in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in this state are hereby declared unlawful."...Deceptive acts and practices and false advertising may be established by one's capacity to deceive or mislead (Matter of State of New York v Colorado State Christian Coll. of Church of Inner Power, 76 Misc.2d 50).
The test as to whether the representation is deceptive or misleading is measured not against the standard of a reasonable person but against the public, including the unwary or unthinking consumers who buy on impulse motivated by appearances and general impressions as affected by advertising and sales representations. The test is not whether the average man would be deceived but the individual consumer's sensitivity and vulnerability are to be considered in determining the validity of the advertising or sales representations. (People v Volkswagen of Am., 47 A.D.2d 868; Beslity v Manhattan Honda, 120 Misc.2d 848; Geismar v Abraham & Strauss, 109 Misc.2d 495.)
In the instant case, claimants were induced into purchasing tickets for the Bermuda cruise from the printed material and pictures in the brochure, and the representations made by defendant's agent.  The brochure provides that the S. S. Bermuda Star is "a very special kind of luxury" with "impeccable taste, in the design and furnishings of the beautifully appointed lounges, dining room and cabins." The vessel is described as a "first class ship."
The printed description of the staterooms in defendant's brochure and the representations made by its agent misled claimants to believe that the category 1 cabins were beautiful and luxurious staterooms and that was the type of cabin claimants contracted for...Claimants offered into evidence a picture of their cabin which did not resemble the pictures of staterooms in the brochure. The category 1 is listed as an "extra spacious deluxe" cabin and is the most expensive cabin on the S. S. Bermuda Star.

So here is Eric Goldring, of Goldring Travel, sitting with a stack of Regent Seven Seas Cruise brochures and other marketing materials that are more than troublesome.  What do I do knowing that a prospective client is going to be relying on my advice (or may claim to be if things go terribly wrong) or even that I may be knowing distributing false and misleading advertising? 

The IFTTA audience, after chuckling at some of the Regent statements and my comments, was uniform in not coming to Regent's defense and with suggestions that it is up to the various States Attorney Generals to go after Regent Seven Seas for its misleading advertising.  But there was one attorney there who represented one of large internet cruise agencies who essentially said, "I would tell me client to offer the materials and just let the customer make their own decision."  Yes, that right, the idea is for you, the customer, to do all the work and the internet cruise agency to collect a nice commission for doing nothing...and then saying, "You have nobody to blame but yourself!"

What Goldring Travel does is simple.  Until the appropriate government agencies start cracking down on Regent Seven Seas Cruises false and misleading advertising, I will write articles like this to inform my clients and go through the exercise I have many times explaining to my clients that Regent not only isn't giving you anything for "free" it is actually charging you more than what you would pay if you bought the same (actually better) airfare, hotels and tours on your own and sailed on another cruise line (premium or luxury).

I have written a number of times about the falsity of not only Regent Seven Seas Cruises "free" marketing, but also of it being a great value when compared to Celebrity and Holland America.  You can read my articles on this as well.  Here are two:

Why You Need A Knowledgeable Travel Agent - Regent Seven Seas, Using "Fuzzy Math", Goes After the Premium, Not Luxury, Market


Regent Seven Seas vs. Holland America - Really? Let's Talk Ethics

So for those of you that complain that I criticize Regent Seven Seas Cruises because I am a Seabourn loyalist, know that you are wrong.  I criticize Regent because I have an obligation to be make sure that I am not a party to selling my clients something other than what they actually desire or, possibly more importantly, think they are getting. 

But in the end, if they desire an overpriced cruise with uneven service because it is the most fully inclusive experience I will gladly sell it to them.  Note:  There is not a single client that has come to me, been educated and then - after the misleading marketing was stripped away - booked a Regent cruise.  Not one.

So if you are interested in having a true Travel Consultant provide you with real information, real insight and honest opinion, call or email Goldring Travel. 

Remember, if you don't, you just may have nobody to blame but yourself!