May 6, 2011 in Business

Ambassadors program loses BBB accreditation

By The Spokesman-Review
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The Better Business Bureau for Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana has pulled the accreditation of Spokane-based Ambassadors Group’s People to People travel program.

Publicly traded Ambassadors lost that status when the local BBB board voted last week to drop the company’s specialty-travel program’s favorable rating. That action came several months after Ambassadors signed a voluntary compliance agreement with the Iowa attorney general’s office.

Ambassadors, a for-profit company with main offices near the Spokane airport, appealed that action by the BBB, which is a business association that shares information with its members and the public.

The BBB accreditation vote specifically cited the December 2010 voluntary compliance agreement that Ambassadors signed with the Iowa attorney general’s office in December 2010.

That agreement admitted no wrongdoing but included a formal statement by Ambassadors that it would stop sending invitations to students suggesting they were invited in part by the former governor of Iowa.

Ambassadors operates “People to People” educational travel programs for students as well as business travel programs for adults.

The 2010 Iowa action was the second involving that state’s attorney general. In 2006, Iowa’s consumer protection office flagged Ambassadors after an Iowa mother complained the company sent marketing material to her son, saying he was recommended by teachers to join the travel program. The son had died many years earlier.

No wrongdoing was admitted in the 2006 case, as well.

The 2010 compliance agreement in Iowa was about a different but related issue. The Iowa attorney general flagged the company because its marketing letters “falsely suggested” the governor of Iowa was involved in selecting recipients of travel offers.

Ambassadors paid $50,000 to the Iowa consumer protection office in signing the 2010 agreement.

The Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana BBB has a standards committee of six board members, and that board recommended Ambassadors’ accreditation be revoked, said BBB President and CEO Jan Quintrall.

Meredith Banka, vice president of marketing for Ambassadors, said the company will continue appealing that action. The company’s officers feel the BBB’s action was “totally disproportionate” to the facts involving the two Iowa cases, Banka said.

Quintrall said the regional BBB has issued about 2,800 accreditations, which amount to a seal of approval.

It uses standards applied across the country, which note that “government actions” can affect the grade a company has with the BBB.

Each government “action” can be deemed minor, moderate or major; in this case, the BBB’s committee designated the second Iowa agreement as major, Quintrall said.

Companies that fall below a “B” grade lose accreditation, she said. Ambassadors fell to a “D” with the 2010 Iowa agreement, she said.

Ambassadors first earned its accreditation with the BBB in 1982 and has maintained its status until now.

The BBB website notes the company has generated about 37 complaints in the past three years. Quintrall said that’s a small number for a company its size. All of those complaints have been answered and are considered cleared, she said.

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