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September 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Thumbs Down: Wakatobi’s Bad Behavior

and thumbs up for the Aggressor’s honorable behavior

from the September, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent reader Marc Pinto (Denver, CO) had gone all out and reserved the Master Cabin on the Pelagian, the liveaboard run by the dive resort, Wakatobi, in southeastern Indonesia. However, it wasn't until he arrived in Bali in late March, a day before the Pelagian was to set sail, when Pinto learned from a Wakatobi representative that the boat was still in dry dock - - in Singapore, two sailing days away. Pinto told us, "He then mentioned that the main office knew before I left the U.S. that the boat would not be ready, but they made no attempt to contact me."

Wakatobi manager Imanuel Baldwin offered him full refund of the Pelagian charges, or the option to try the land resort for a week, with a money-back guarantee if Pinto didn't enjoy his stay. Because Pinto was already out thousands in airfare, had traveled double-digit hours to dive and had set aside the vacation time, he was really left with no choice other than to stay on land and dive Wakatobi. Apparently, to appease Pinto, Baldwin suggested he have a drink with Valentin Maeder, brother to Wakatobi owner, Lorenz Maeder, and head of Wakatobi's reservations office in Singapore. Pinto was not appeased, as Valentin told him, "how his people were warning him they needed to call the passengers of the subsequent cruise to let them know the boat wasn't yet ready, but he said he 'enjoyed the challenges' and didn't see the need to contact them. Turns out, he got lucky because the boat arrived the morning we left, just in time for the next cruise. But anecdotally, we later heard this was the third time Pelagian passengers have gotten to Indonesia, only to find the boat was not available."

Pinto was offered free drinks and massages during his Wakatobi stay, plus a discounted future trip on the Pelagian. However, there was a catch: "I had to keep the concessions confidential from the other five affected Pelagian passengers. That doesn't seem like the right way to deal with similarly situated guests." At week's end, Pinto, an honorable guy, told Wakatobi it wasn't what he had signed up for, "but it didn't seem right to pay them nothing, so I offered to pay Wakatobi half the going rate for our one-week stay, and asked for a refund of the rest." Since Pinto returned to the U.S., he has heard nothing from Wakatobi about getting his money back. "They have ignored the multiple e-mails I sent to its back office and the resort's manager.

"I tried to do the reasonable thing and
split the cost of the land portion with
Wakatobi, but now two groups there
have ignored me for months."

"I know things break, and I accept that as part of travelling to remote destinations. But this is different. Wakatobi deceived me into coming down, knowing it didn't have the boat. Having paid $14,000 in airfare, we had no practical alternative but to try their land resort (we were going there for a few days after the Pelagian anyway). I can only assume it was a deliberate decision not to contact us, after what Valentin told me. They offered a complete money-back guarantee in writing. I tried to do the reasonable thing and split the cost of the land portion with them, but now two groups within Wakatobi have ignored me for months." Pinto then decided to contest all the Wakatobi charges he had put on his Visa card.

When we contacted Wakatobi, we got a response from Crispin Jones in Guest Services. "Due to an unforeseen resonance issue affecting the Pelagian towards the end of her docking period, and an inability to immediately pinpoint the cause, we were unable to deliver the cruise. Instead, we offered to substitute the Pelagian cruise with a package of far greater value at the resort." But no mention of why Wakatobi didn't contact Pinto before he left the U.S. to give him a choice of canceling entirely.

Jones said Pinto was to return for a discounted early sail in 2012, and the refund would be credited to that booking. Not true, says Pinto. "In all my e-mails, I said I wanted the refund, as they had agreed on, and then we'd deal with the next trip on its own merits. I would immediately post a deposit once I got home and figure out the best date with our friends. There was never anything remotely close to an understanding about crediting the trip cost."

Regarding Pinto's contesting the credit-card payments he made to Wakatobi, Jones says, "even though the figure contested far outstripped the value of the refund Mr. Pinto had agreed on, we decided the gracious path would be to authorize the return of those funds paid rather than refute the claim. This was handled promptly. We were further surprised when we heard word that the perhaps-emboldened Mr. Pinto was now contesting the initial payment." No mention of why the resort never replied to Pinto's e-mails, though. (Pinto says Visa's investigation took several months to resolve the charges.)

Jones says no one else complained, and "agreements were reached with the other parties affected, and two of the five even commented that their vacation far exceeded the high expectations they had when they booked, in spite of not boarding Pelagian." However, we wonder what agreements were reached, and whether they were better than what Pinto got. Besides, trying to paint Pinto as the only dissatisfied customer to cover up their failure to deliver is tacky.

If a resort prides itself on doing everything it can to give customers excellent treatment, this must include giving them bad news - - in advance -- so they have time to make the changes that work best for them. It's clear Wakatobi knew the Pelagian would not be sailing before Pinto boarded his plane. Rather than contact him at home so he could cancel if he chose, they waited until he arrived at the airport -- out of pocket $14, 000 - - and had a captive guest. The request for Pinto to stay mum on concessions, the lack of equal treatment and openness for the other short-changed Pelagian customers, and the lack of response to Pinto's e-mails, even if it was to disagree with him, are all appalling behavior. While Valentin Maeder may enjoy challenges, it's unconscionable to withhold booking information to avoid refunds. That's not a challenge, its deceit.

Visa agreed to credit most of the Wakatobi charges, but Pinto's initial deposit of $1,400 wasn't credited, because he paid it more than a year before he returned from Wakatobi, and Visa's 12-month refund limit had by then expired.

Compare Wakatobi's customer service to that Pinto got from the Aggressor Fleet. He was scheduled to board the Turks Aggressor on August 5. "In a freakish coincidence, the boat got stuck in Miami after scheduled maintenance, and Tropical Storm Emily was looming. Two days before the trip, Aggressor reached out to us. We, of course, cancelled that trip, and Aggressor immediately reimbursed us without question, grumble, or any hassle for our air-cancellation penalties and hotel deposit. They then offered a full refund of the trip. As an alternate, they were holding two cabins on the Belize Aggressor and would have paid to reroute us there. They also gave us each a $500 coupon for a discount off a future trip. Finally, they were willing to waive the minimum-number-of-guests requirement on another week we were considering. They did all that in a day. That's the way to deal with customers. We know things happen; it's how dive operators deal with things when the chips are down that separates the high-quality ones from the rest of the pack."

- - Vanessa Richardson

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