It smacks of American Pentecostal evangelism: a well-spoken, good-looking charmer cracks jokes in several official South African languages as he moves to music across the stage against a backdrop of scenes of stylish living projected in vivid colour to a crowd of pensioners.
Lured to the show by promises of mystery gifts and other pleasures, they watch intently, seemingly hypnotised by the honeyed tones of the master of ceremonies.
I am in the audience, here to observe how one’s hard-earned cash can be handed over as a trade-off for life-long discounted travel and luxurious holiday accommodation across the globe.
Hello Vacation Hub International (VHI), the winner of an international award for the Best Vacation Club.
It all started in November last year with one of those dreaded phone calls where an anonymous voice announced my name and would not take no for an answer to a fabulous proposal. A “friend” whom I had met once during an interview a year earlier, had kindly nominated me to receive a gift, said the caller in a distinctively Durban accent.
My amazing present was waiting at a well-known landmark hotel in Pretoria.
Here’s my way out I thought as I explained very politely that I lived 1,000km away from the capital city. Give it to someone else, I suggested, and no, I do not actually recall this friend you are talking about.
But to get VHI off my back was easier said than done. Four months later, another caller, this time in Cape-Afrikaans, informed me my gift was waiting for collection in Mossel Bay. We go the extra mile, he declared triumphantly. All that was needed from me was to market VHI’s amazing holiday packages among my friends. Mr Cape-Afrikaans assured me there was no catch: this was not timeshare and the gift was nothing less than two free holidays for me and my friends. Now who could say no to that?
The Mossel Bay venue was once again an upmarket hotel, and my gift would be handed to me by the company’s regional manager. The appointment was set for the following Wednesday and over the next few days I was reminded several times not to be late for this important get-together. An hour before the big do I was asked whether I would have tea or coffee during the audience with the regional manager.
Whether by coincidence or design, I found myself next to the only other single woman in the conference venue. We were surrounded by around ten senior-citizen couples, all anxiously awaiting the VHI gospel message to be spread to other eager beavers in return for a free gift. The lights dimmed and the spotlight panned to an opening in the curtains. Voila! Out stepped the regional manager to the roll of a drum. For the life of me I cannot remember his name but his quackery was overpowering.
“Thanks for taking the time to learn a little more about VHI. When was the last time you travelled? Where did you go? How much did you pay? We can guarantee a fantastic 80% discount for you! Fact is, if you travel, Vacation Hub International is a must in your life (another drum roll).
From his smart phone he apprised us of the lowered price that VHI was able to offer to its members. Members? Who said anything about members, I said to the woman next to me. She looked at me blankly.
We sat mesmerised during a Power Point presentation on the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon and the splendour on board a giant cruise liner traversing the Mediterranean.
“The days of a VHI member having to call Juan from Mexico to cancel or amend a booking are gone,” declared the regional manager, quoting almost verbatim from the VHI website. “Not only do we ensure that you will be getting the best available rates at the time of your quotation, but we pride ourselves on being a complete solution for all your travel needs.”
Forty minutes into the presentation each one of us was introduced to a sales consultant who, up until then, had been hiding in the shadows behind us, ready to pounce. My chap was a decent clean-cut type, a bit inexperienced for a hard-core journo like me. He kicked off in Centurion Afrikaans: “Which package are you interested in?”
“The cheapest,” I said, “one that I can afford on my Sassa pension.”
The half-price offer was R70,000 but it was only valid for that day if I signed there and then. The down payment to be paid immediately was R14,000.
While the word Sassa did not seem to ring a bell with my consultant, my claim of poverty eventually convinced him that he was wasting his time. I escaped to fresh air and sunlight, but not before I received my “free” gift which was a glossy pamphlet with a unique number that I had to use when activating my free holidays. How exciting, I thought.
But it bothered me a bit that those hapless pensioners in there were probably not able to tell a white lie about only having a meagre Sassa pension and could be totally helpless in resisting the smooth-talking VHI sales people. After all, the VHI website openly boasts that families are unable to “resist the financial logic of being part of a membership program.”
Twitter confirmed my doubts about the sales pitch I had witnessed. I was not just cynical and prejudiced, it seems.
“Avoid this company at all costs,” warned Kevin in Aug 2013.
“***SCAM ALERT!***,” cautioned Zaheerah with stars and exclamation marks in June 2018.
So, at home I logged on to the trusted Hello Peter website. The list of complaints about the company’s selling process was endless. It went as far back as 2015!
Shafiek called it his worst experience ever. “The sales agent advised that we could cancel the contract if we were not happy and the only amount payable would be R469.00. We sent an email two days after signing, advising them of our cancellation with a copy of the deposit slip, and every day thereafter and until today, weeks later, we have not received any correspondence.”
Michael signed up as a member on 22 January 2019.
“I wanted to pay the full amount upfront and their agent told me that I could not. I had to pay a deposit of R9,199.00 and thereafter R1,688.58 for 24 months.
“The agent took my wife and I to a dark room to sign the contract and pay the deposit. When I arrived home and after reading everything I realised that the VHI agent did not disclose the reliance benefits contribution of R449.00 for 120 months to me. I immediately emailed a cancellation letter. My bank reversed the deposit but they deducted it again and they refuse to pay back my deposit.”
Cindy and her husband attended a presentation in January 2019. “We were told that we pay a lump sum that night, thereafter for 24 months we pay a monthly fee. Thereafter payment stops. After 10 years we get all our money back yet have membership for 15 years. This got us interested.”
They signed the contract but later learned from VHI that the monthly payment did not stop after 24 months and that it was their word against that of the agent, unless they had proof of what he said. So in February Cindy attended another presentation and recorded the conversation with the second agent. He also said the monthly payment was for 24 months only.
“Not a cent after 24 months and I have 15 years membership. I have a 3 months period in which I can cancel the contract and will get a refund back on the lump sum I paid. I have given VHI time to investigate this matter, supplied them with ALL the evidence yet to date they have not come back with a solution.”
Chase wrote that his family was excited to join VHI because they were promised that accommodation would always be available.
“Each time we query they want to FORCE us onto something we don’t want, so we decided to cancel as this is not suitable for us. So now we have to pay a cancellation fee of 50% of the total contract, which is R18,096 plus another R18,096 for the remaining months of the contract, which is the amount we paid on joining and not once we have used it.”
The standard reply from VHI to each of the many complaints was, “We regret your complaint, will do a full and thorough investigation and will contact you shortly to make sure you receive feedback on all your concerns.”
As for the gift that triggered my interest and resulted in this story, it was nothing like what was promised. There were only three places to choose from and only one was available. You also had to eat breakfast and dinner at the place and pay upfront for that.
It took quite a few emails before I was able to validate my voucher. My unique number was missing one digit and this also applied to the many people who once again took their complaints to Hello Peter.
“SCAM, SCAM, SCAM,” explodes Barbara Reid in capital letters. “I tried to register and am told I have one free night and one I have to pay for.”
“Definitely a scam,” says Diane Naicker. “Two hours of my time.”
According to its website Vacation Hub International is a membership-based wholesale travel club and lifestyle company, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Somerset West based Onyx Group Holdings (Pty) Ltd. The group’s website says its success is mainly due to Meridian Travel Services (MTS), a registered tour operator also wholly owned by Onyx.
The website claims VHI has 61,505 “happy clients” and have made 419,031 bookings in five years.
Records at the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) show the directors of all three entities as Craig Ernest Browne, Theresa Vanessa le Grange and Thilo Elkehard Lippert.
|Theresa le Grange|
In terms of section 16 of the Consumer Protection Act, a consumer who bought goods as a result of direct marketing has a five-day cooling off period after receiving the goods.
The goods can be returned, the contract cancelled without a penalty and the payment refunded.
VHI responded: “VHI acts in accordance with the Consumer Protection Act,” says Hannelie Jacobs, the company’s client service manager.
“When a new member signs on he or she gets a duplicate of the contract, which contains a detailed explanation about the cancellation procedure. It stipulates that half of the contract is due if cancelled after the five-day cooling off period but that has to be done in writing.”
Jacobs claims that 70% of references to VHI on Hello Peter are from clients who had positive experiences and only 30% are actual complaints.
“Such a high percentage of positive feedback is better than what most well-known retailers are able to achieve.”
However, Noseweek could not find any positive references to the VHI sales presentations or to the subsequent cancellation of contracts on Hello Peter.
The positive feedback Jacobs refers to is only about travel experiences and the tourist attractions that VHI members visited.
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