for your awareness!!!
Aug 21, 2005
Hard-sell tactics of travel firm draw ire
Prizes draw in many but some say it's not easy to leave even when you want to. Case gets 168 complaints
By Jeremy Au Yong
THE music was loud. Mobile phones had to be switched off. Worse, they had to be left behind when going to the toilet.
It rankled boutique owner Theresa Tan, 47, and her husband, but the couple felt it was a small price to pay for what travel firm Oriental Travel had promised them: a lucky draw prize.
The prizes ranged from a new Toyota Corolla car to a 42-inch plasma TV screen.
What followed, however, got them fuming. For two hours, they were given the hard-sell on buying a membership of a travel club which promises flight and hotel discounts of up to 25 per cent. The membership costs between $20,000 and $50,000.
Unconvinced, the couple got up to leave. That is when the tactics became unbearable, said Mrs Tan.
They made it almost impossible to leave. Each time they got up to go, the salesman insisted a supervisor had to sign them out, but went on with his spiel without making any move to get one.
'I told him I didn't want the prize and if he didn't let me leave I would call the police. Only then did he get his supervisor,' she said.
The Sunday Times heard similar stories from four others and they are among 168 people who have complained, since January this year, to the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) about Oriental Travel and its marketing partner Jue Shi.
Online forums such as Spug and VoyForums are also peppered with complaints about the two companies, which have also been criticised in two letters to The Straits Times Forum page.
Like the Tans, many say the sales tactics resemble those of timeshare companies: pressure selling, misleading information and failure to honour promises. However, the mailer said the presentation does not feature timeshare holidays.
Timeshare companies are one of the top culprits on Case's list of complaints. Last year, 2,724 complaints about timeshare companies and those using timeshare selling tactics were received. That is an average of seven a day.
Typically, what drew people was being guaranteed one of six prizes: a car or cash of $25,000, a plasma TV, a vacation, a laptop, a diamond watch and a digital camera. But the clincher was a picture on the mailer showing ESPN sports cable TV presenter John Dykes presenting a car to a Mr Toh Boon Khai on March 16, at the Leng Kee Road showroom of Borneo Motors.
However, to get the prize, couples - singles and children are not welcome - have to attend a two-hour seminar at Oriental Travel's showroom at Shaw House in Orchard Road.
Each couple is assigned a salesman while several supervisors roam from table to table.
Said Mr Mike McCormack, 60, a retired engineer: 'They just keep going on and on. And they played this deafening music which they wouldn't turn down. It took a lot out of me.'
For human resource executive Steven Chua, 46, the strangest part was how quickly they wanted a decision. 'The offer is valid only while I was in the room. How can they expect a person to put down that kind of money without spending days thinking about it?'
More twists were in store when it came to the prizes. Four out of the five couples interviewed, along with everyone who had complained in online forums, won the watch. The fifth, who joined the club, got a laptop.
To get the watch, the prize-winners said they paid $24.50 for delivery. Even then, Ms Tan said she called the company three times over two months before she got it.
She said that she was promised a diamond watch worth $1,000 from London. What she got, she added, was a watch of an unheard-of brand made by a company in Boon Keng Road called Watchmakers.
Madam Gina Ching, 34, who works in a manufacturing firm, got the laptop after she paid $15,000 to join the club last November.
Now, she wants her money back. 'Each time I wanted to travel, I had to keep calling and leave a lot of messages. And they always quoted me the market rate or a higher price until I pressed for the discount.'
She got a 20 per cent discount for a Star Cruise trip to Phuket and a price cut of less than $50 for a trip to Bangkok.
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said the complaints were being investigated. Under the Fair Trading Act, consumers can sue in the Small Claims Tribunal if they believe they have been misled.
Mr Dykes said he was a friend of Oriental Travel director Ian Holahan and was asked to give away the car. 'I don't know specifically what the business is about and I don't particularly want to get involved,' he told The Sunday Times.
Oriental Travel said it would respond only 'if deemed appropriate by those in senior management'. After one week and four phone calls, it remains mum. p> For the prize winners, the lesson is obvious. As Mr Chua, who has been waiting two months for his watch, put it: 'There's no such thing as a free lunch.'