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Source: Washington State News

Voyageurs International will pay 235 Washington high school students and their families more than $464,000 to reimburse for unlawful cancellation fees

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced that music travel company Voyageurs International must pay more than $464,000 for full refunds to 235 Washington students who signed up for the company’s 2020 European tours.

The Colorado-based company, which organizes yearly tours to Europe for high-school musicians, unlawfully charged each of the 235 Washington students at least $1,900 in cancellation penalties after the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the company cancelling its July 2020 European tours. The company also illegally retained an additional $775 fee, for a total of $2,675 per student, from 23 students who signed up to extend their tour to Greece.

Where a travel agency like Voyageurs cancels a consumer’s travel, Washington law allows the travel agency to recoup its losses by charging consumers cancellation penalties if the company was appropriately transparent with the consumer about the potential for those penalties. When the travel agency cancels, the law prohibits travel agencies from charging cancellation penalties greater than those the company incurs from its third-party vendors — such as airlines or hotels. Voyageurs failed to lawfully disclose the risk of penalties and illegally charged consumers penalties greater than what the company incurred from its vendors.

Voyageurs deceived its customers by sending them a letter claiming the company “paid out more than $1,900 per student for the upcoming tour season that it cannot recoup.” That statement was false. In reality, the company was able to recoup more than 60 percent of what it charged consumers.

“Avoiding travel during a worldwide pandemic is the right thing to do,” Ferguson said. “Deceiving consumers about the costs incurred is not. Today, we ensured these hardworking families will get their money back.”

Under the consent decree, filed in King County Superior Court, Voyageurs is legally required to pay the full refund amount to the Attorney General’s Office. The office will then contact the Washington students and their families directly to set up their full refund. Questions about this refund may be directed to Khalid Ali in the Consumer Protection Division at Khalid.Ali@atg.wa.gov.

Ferguson’s complaint, filed with the consent decree, asserts that Voyageurs’ conduct violated the Sellers of Travel Act and the Consumer Protection Act.

Voyageurs failed to properly disclose cancellation penalties imposed by its travel vendors, such as airlines and hotels, as required by Sellers of Travel Act, which regulates travel agencies and tour companies like Voyageurs.

Moreover, Voyageurs deceived Washington families by providing false information about cancellation costs the company incurred in a letter to families canceling the trip — a violation of the Consumer Protection Act’s prohibition on unfair and deceptive business practices.

The Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation into Voyageurs’ conduct after receiving 23 complaints from Washington families describing the burden of this fee during a pandemic. Some students earned the money to pay for the trip themselves, and were disheartened to hear they had to forfeit a sizeable portion of the trip cost in addition to the trip itself, which they had been looking forward to for months.

As one parent wrote: “While this [cancellation] is understandable given the pandemic, the company is keeping $1900 as a cancellation fee, and students are forfeiting any money paid towards the Greece extension (my daughter’s favorite country, and she chose to add this to her trip). …She fundraised and earned money for this once in a lifetime opportunity and we were devastated when it was canceled rather than postponed a year. To pour salt in her wounds, the company has not refunded the full amount paid by this hard-working young woman.”

Another Washington consumer wrote in a complaint: “I can’t understand the punitive fees families are being charged through no fault of their own. …Many families are struggling to pay bills and keep their jobs and should not be additionally burdened with over-reaching cancellation fees at this time.”

As a result of today’s announcement, these consumers will receive full restitution.

Ambassadors of Music tours

Voyageurs International formed in 1970 in Colorado. The for-profit company organizes and facilitates European travel tours, dubbed “Ambassadors of Music,” for high-school music students from at least 14 states, including Washington. Typically, the students are nominated by a teacher to participate in an Ambassadors of Music tour.

More than 3,200 students nationwide signed up for the 2020 tours. The students signed up for the tour in the summer of 2019, before the pandemic began. The tours cost a minimum of $6,345 for a 16-day trip to Europe. Students also had an option to sign up for a $2,075 four-day trip extension to Greece.

As part of the application for the trip, students and their parents were required to sign an application and contract that outlined a cancellation fee schedule imposed on students who cancel their participation in the trip. The company’s contract seeks to retain between $700 all the way up to the total cost of the trip, depending on how soon before the trip students cancel.

Under Washington law, if travel agencies like Voyageurs cancel a trip, they can only charge consumers for the cancellation penalties imposed by its third-party vendors — such as airlines or hotels — and only if those penalties are timely and properly disclosed in a written statement to the consumer.

On March 17, 2020, a co-owner of the company, Gilford Mahaffy, sent a letter to the participants that unilaterally canceled the 2020 European tour in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same letter, Mahaffy told students and parents that Voyageurs would be keeping $1,900 of the funds paid for the tour as a “cancellation fee” and would not be refunding any of the $2,075 Greece extension. The company later returned $1,300 to the students who paid for the Greece tour and did not refund the remaining $775.

The letter claimed the company “has paid out more than $1,900 per student for the upcoming tour season that it cannot recoup.” In reality, the company was able to recoup more than 60 percent of what it charged consumers.

Legal requirements

The COVID-19 pandemic made international travel unsafe. Washington’s Sellers of Travel Act, which regulates travel agencies and tour companies like Voyageurs, is designed to protect consumers during unexpected cancellations.

Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts Voyageurs violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act and the Sellers of Travel Act when it retained $1,900 to $2,675 in cancellation fees after it canceled the trip. Under this law, if a travel agency cancels a trip, it can only retain the amount they were unable to recoup from third-party travel vendors like airlines and hotels if it timely and properly in writing discloses the unrecoverable charges to consumers.

Voyageurs retained much more than that. In the letter to students announcing the cancellation, the company claimed its cancellation fee was comprised of costs paid by Voyageurs on the consumer’s behalf that Voyageurs could not recoup — a statement that is simply not true. In reality, the company was able to recoup more than 60 percent of the cancellation fees it imposed on the students. Ferguson asserts Voyageurs violated the Consumer Protection Act when it misled consumers in its cancellation letters.

Under the Sellers of Travel Act, companies like Voyageurs must provide full refunds if they do not properly and timely disclose to consumers the cancellation penalties imposed by third-party vendors. Travel agencies must disclose known information at or before a consumer’s first payment (within three business days if payment is not made in person) and must thereafter provide any further details as soon as that information is received from third-party vendors. Voyageurs did not make these disclosures, nor did it provide consumers with a legally required written statement informing consumers of their cancellation rights under Washington law.

Today’s court order makes the company legally responsible for full refunds to the students and their families. It also requires them to follow the Sellers of Travel Act and the Consumer Protection Act if it does business in Washington in the future.

Assistant Attorneys General Breena Roos and Daniel Allen are leading the case for Washington.

The Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division enforces the Consumer Protection Act and other statutes to help keep the Washington marketplace free of unfair and deceptive practices. The division investigates and files legal actions to stop unfair and deceptive practices, recovers refunds for consumers, seeks penalties and recovers costs and fees to ensure that wrongdoers pay for their actions.

Consumers may report any unfair or deceptive business practices to the Consumer Protection Division by filing a complaint at https://www.atg.wa.gov/file-complaint.

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The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.

Media Contact:

Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.aho@atg.wa.gov

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