Spokane area travel agents are warning consumers that their savings could take a permanent vacation if they become involved in a Californiabased multilevel marketing operation.
Travel agents began fielding calls last week from confused consumers who received faxes from Jetaway/NuConcepts in Travel, a local, independent distributor for Nu-Concepts of Huntington Beach, Calif.
Jetaway/Nu-Concepts is selling a package of travel agent benefits that can turn anyone into a certified agent for $475.
The package offers travel-agent ID cards that entitle holders to “incredible discounts” on leisure and business travel and free upgrades on airfare, hotels and car rentals. It also promises commissions to NuConcepts agents who lure others to join their ranks.
The problem, travel agents say, is that the photo ID cards are not from certified travel associations; reservation clerks are unlikely to honor the cards, and consumers will be out the cash.
“The reality is that you have to have a minimum number of hours, you have to earn a minimum number of dollars selling travel and you have to be employed a year to qualify for the real card and the real discounts,” said Hugh “Flip” Himmelreich, vice president of Century Travel in Spokane.
Owners of legitimate agencies in Washington must post a $20,000 bond, work at least 20 hours per week and continually pass random financial audits and background checks to maintain certification with International Airlines Travel Agency Network. They must also register with national or international associations and airline reservation rosters, Himmelreich said.
“What these folks are telling you is that you can have all the benefits of a travel agent with only $475,” Himmelreich said. “That’s a bold-faced lie.”
Jeff Soukup, local distributor and senior marketing director for Jetaway/Nu-Concepts, did not answer telephone calls Friday.
The Better Business Bureau of the Inland Northwest hasn’t received any complaints about Jetaway/NuConcepts, but trade magazines in the travel industry have been blasting Nu-Concepts for more than a year.
The April 7 edition of Travel Management Daily announced that the International Airlines Travel Agent Network put a temporary restraining order on Nu-Concepts to forbid the company from using ITAN’s logo on its ID cards. NuConcepts also borrowed the logo of the American Society of Travel Agents, another established travel agency association, the magazine reported.
Corinne Fowler of NonStop Travel North in Spokane said Nu-Concepts is only the most recent multilevel marketer to come to Spokane. She worries that Nu-Concepts’ advertisements give consumers the wrong impression: that agents have access to unfathomable discounts and innumerable freebies, and that they’re in business to cash in on benefits instead of to serve clients.
“The discounts those places promise don’t exist, even for legitimate agencies,” Fowler said.
Stan Bosco, director of consumer affairs for the 25,000-member American Society of Travel Agents, said multilevel marketing operations are rife industry-wide. Most promise consumers too-good-to-be-true benefits and generous commissions for enticing others to sign up for benefits, Bosco said.
Although they’re not technically illegal, they are ethically questionable, he said.
The effects of multilevel marketing operations reach beyond the pocketbooks of disgruntled consumers, local travel agents said.
“We’re not worried about competition as much as our reputation. They’re ruining our reputation as professionals,” said Judy Martin of J. Martin Travel of Spokane.