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Taken for a Ride
Pricey travel clubs may have bilked thousands of Wisconsinites dreaming of paradise.

Thinking back on it today, Barbara Winters isn’t sure if she was scammed. Not outright. But she uses the word “gimmick,” as in, “It was such a gimmick.”

She first heard about Going Places Travel Corp. from her husband, Robert, who heard about it from a co-worker. This was 2008, and the small Brookfield company was said to be offering deep discounts on vacations.

The West Bend couple agreed to attend one of the outfit’s sales presentations – but first, they swore an oath. “We said we weren’t going to do anything,” she says. That was the plan, anyway.

But today, Barbara, 65, and Robert, 66, wish they’d never heard of Going Places. It’s one of two companies the Wisconsin Department of Justice is suing to win refunds for customers like the Winterses, who paid $5,243 to join “Castaways Vacation Club,” a discount vacation service that promised big savings but never delivered, they say.

Neither the DOJ prosecutor on the case nor the defendants will speak on the issue, but according to an affidavit filed in the lawsuit against Going Places, “thousands” of Wisconsinites have purchased memberships (typically for thousands of dollars) to “Castaways and Castaways’ sister clubs” since mid-2005.

Here’s how the Winterses say it happened to them.

After making the pledge to be cautious, they drove to a four-story office building just off Interstate 94, sat down inside a nondescript office suite, No. 101, with about a dozen other potential customers, and listened as Going Places CEO Perry Ruiz took to the floor. From his presentation, Barbara recalls a picture of an idyllic oceanside getaway and a startling promise – massive, members-only savings on condo rentals, hotel rooms and cruises.

“Who wouldn’t want a deal like that?” she says.

After the spiel, the attendees broke off in pairs with sales reps. The Winterses sat down at a desk with Ruiz’s wife, Lisa, who offered a free trip to Wisconsin Dells if they signed up today, then lowered the initial asking price (which the Winterses can’t remember) to about $5,000. Finally, she promised that the membership could be passed on to their kids, like an heirloom.

Robert caved. “That’s a good deal,” he said. “We’ll take it.”

Later, the couple fought over the expense. They took the trip to the Dells but never scheduled vacations through Castaways, not for trips to about a half-dozen locales. “Their prices were actually higher than what we were quoted by travel agents,” Barbara says.

The DOJ lawsuits accuse Going Places and Grand Vacation Club, a similar company that once used an office in Waukesha, of violating state trade laws. The DOJ also alleges that Grand Vacation Club’s president, William Bailey, and his girlfriend, Christy Spensberger, both central Illinois residents, orchestrated both companies’ sales of Castaways, “Outrigger Vacation Club,” “Phoenix Vacation Club” and “Grand Vacation Club” memberships through a third firm – Travel Services, Inc. Bailey’s defense denies this, but says Travel Services still administers memberships sold by Going Places and Grand Vacation Club.

Bailey’s lawyer, Milwaukee’s Michael Russart, provided a list of about $1 million in savings won for vacation club members over the past three years but declined to say how many clubs were included in the tabulation. “It would have been nationwide,” he says.

In 2010, the Texas attorney general sued Travel Services and a Texas company selling memberships to a “Sealand Travel Club,” but Travel Services wasn’t named in an agreement ordering customer refunds.

Meanwhile, the Winterses have no hope for a refund. And Randall Hoth, president of the Wisconsin BBB, doesn’t recommend that they hold their breath either. “A judge can order restitution, but when you’re looking at an entity with that kind of financial situation,” he says, “how are they going to enforce it?"

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