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Archive for January, 2008

Jewelry justice? Case solved in Santorini

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 21 - 2008

Last April I told the story of Courtney Thompson, who spent $24,000 on jewelry for his wife while on a cruise stop in Santorini, Greece. When Thompson returned home to Florida, two appraisers valued the jewelry – a necklace, a bracelet, a ring and several pairs of earrings — at less than $9,000. As Tripso’s cruise ombudsman, I looked into the case for Thompson, but I was unable to help. Recently all that changed.

In October, I received a phone call from Thompson saying that the owner of the jewelry store had contacted him to work out a resolution. Thompson was thrilled. He had waged a battle with the jewelry store, the cruise line, and the cruise line’s shopping partner, Onboard Media, since June 2006 – and had gotten nowhere. But recently my story, which had been picked up by MSNBC, made its way to Greece and set some waves in motion. Here are the results.

The jeweler’s side of the story

A few days after hearing from Thompson, I had my first conversation with Alexandros Rogavopolous, owner of Alexandros Jewellers in Santorini. I had tried to contact Rogavopolous many times before the first story was published, but he never returned my messages. Now he had a lot to say.

Two reasons for the earlier lack of communication immediately became clear: There is a big language barrier, and Rogavopolous’ store closes for the season from the end of October until April. Rogavopolous feels that both factors contributed to his employees’ failure to pass along my messages and Thompson’s.

Still, why did it take more than 18 months to solve this problem? The problem was that Rogavopolous felt he had no problem at all.

In fact, Rogavopolous thought he had taken care of Thompson’s issues a year earlier, four months after Thompson made his purchases. He says there was a price error on the necklace and that it was a simple case of “price tag misplacement.” Rogavopolous claims that two similar necklaces were marked incorrectly: the one with more diamonds was marked lower, and the one with fewer diamonds (the one Thompson purchased) was marked higher. He says that as soon as Thompson lodged his complaint, the store audited the price list and the invoices and confirmed the mistake.

“My store does inventory in October and I discovered a tag problem with Mr. Courtney’s necklace,” Rogavopolous explained (Rogavopolous always refers to Thompson as “Mr. Courtney”). “Since our firm was directly responsible for the mistake, after an agreement with the customer, we instantly returned the price difference of $3,500.”

Indeed, there had been a credit on Thompson’s credit card for $3,500 (2,800 euros), but Thompson didn’t know the credit was from Alexandros Jewellers because American Express did not list the credit as such. Thompson thought it was a courtesy credit from the card company for the jewelry dispute. He still had a beef with Rogavopolous, but Rogavopolous thought they were done. “After October 24, 2006, I thought I had no problems with Mr. Courtney,” says Rogavopolous.

Though he was happy they had settled their dispute, Rogavopolous still had a big problem with Thompson’s two certified appraisals. Rogavopolous makes one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces that he considers to be works of art. “You go to local jeweler and they are not going to appreciate what I make,” he says. “You buy jewelry at Cartier and you take to local jeweler and they are going to appraise it at half price. Mr. Courtney’s appraisals were ridiculously low.” Still, Rogavopolous felt that he had to put Thompson’s issue behind him. So, on November 1, 2007, Courtney Thompson received a check for $12,500.

A relieved Thompson says, “I am just glad the matter is put behind us both.”

Mistakes were made

Rogavopolous wants to clear the air on two other matters that arose in my story last year. First, he was very upset that Thompson said his store was closed when Thompson ran back to the store to question the sale before the ship left port. The ship’s jeweler had advised Thompson that the jewelry was not worth what he’d paid for it. Finding the store closed – and before the posted closing time — Thompson thought he was a victim of fraud.

But Rogavopolous faxed me several time-stamped sales receipts indicating that the store was not closed at all. When I told Thompson this, he conceded that he had been completely exhausted from running up the hill into town and that it was “quite possible” he had gone to the wrong store.

The other matter Rogavopolous wanted clear up was why he left Onboard Media’s group of recommended merchants in Santorini. “I was not kicked out of the program,” Rogavopolous says. Indeed, he says he left voluntarily, because was it was costing him too much money.

Onboard Media contracts with Celebrity Cruises to run its “Guaranteed Shopping Program” in Santorini. According to Rogavopolous, Onboard Media gets 10 percent of every sale made to cruise passengers, plus an additional 5 percent to cover advertising costs on board the ships. “Every time the ship come in I send them [Onboard Media] a check for $5,000, $6,000 — sometimes more,” Rogavopolous complained. “Onboard Media are pimps to the cruise tourists.”

Rogavopolous says my article led to a “conspiracy attempt” by Onboard Media to destroy his business. He says he has proof that Onboard Media printed the story from MSNBC and sent it to all its retail partners on Santorini. He says his competitors then showed the article to cruise tourists in an effort to steer them away from his shop.

The strange story got even stranger in September 2007, when, according to Rogavopolous, Onboard Media’s executive director of sales and marketing, Rod Musum, came to Alexandros Jewellers to discuss business and to persuade the store to come back into Onboard Media’s shopping program. According to Rogavopolous, when he confronted Musum with his accusations about printing the article and distributing it to his competitors, Musum replied it was “business” and they were trying to “protect” their customers. Rogavopolous says he then offered to throw Musum “off a cliff.”

Are Rogavopolous’ accusations for real or is it all sour grapes? I contacted Onboard Media for its side of the story. Turns out this Greek is telling no myths.

Onboard Media speaks

I spoke with Sarah Beth Reno, vice president of operations for Onboard Media, who said the company was happy to hear that Thompson finally received a full price adjustment from Alexandros Jewellers.

When I inquired about the circumstances of the store’s leaving Onboard Media’s shopping program, she said, “At the end of the 2005 Europe season, we had outstanding customer service claims that Alexandros Jewellers refused to close according to our customer service guidelines. This was the primary reason we decided not to include Alexandros Jewellers in the program for the 2006 season. We cannot comment as to whether or not Mr. Rogavopolous would have decided to participate, providing we would have allowed him.” As for the commissions paid to Onboard Media to be in their shopping program she said, “We cannot comment on the dollar amounts paid for advertising due to confidentiality.”

Reno confirmed that the MSNBC article was sent to certain retailers in the Onboard Media program “as a cautionary measure.” She added, “We cannot comment as to whom may have been showing the article to tourists in Santorini. We do know that many guests came onboard the vessels with this particular article to show to our shopping guides.”

As for the confrontation in Rogavopolous’ store, Reno would not confirm the identity of the agent, saying only that, “Our sales representative for Greece did enter Alexandros Jewellers in September 2007 to see if he could convince Mr. Rogavopolous to offer Mr. Courtney Thompson a refund. During that meeting Alexandros did inform our sales associate that the refund had been sent to Mr. Thompson.”

Rogavopolous vehemently denies that Musum – or whoever it was — came in to discuss Thompson. “He never mentioned him,” says Rogavopolous. “He came in to get me back in the program. They miss the commissions from my store.” Oddly, in this instance, Rogavopolous has an ally in Thompson. “Onboard Media did nothing to help me when I asked them,” Thompson says. “Then they say they sent someone all the way to Greece on my behalf. It’s crazy.”

In the end, Reno opines that if Alexandros Jewellers had done the right thing from the beginning, the entire situation could have been avoided. “We believe your article was the catalyst in convincing Mr. Rogavopolous to offer the refund,” says Reno. Courtney Thompson concurs with that assessment.

As for Rogavopolous, he’s just happy his side of the story has been told.

Filled Under Ombudsman, What's New?

Bloggers Cruise – Football and formal night

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 20 - 2008

Football fans on Carnival Freedom’s deck (photo by Anita Dunham-Potter) It’s a cool, cloudy, and rough day at sea. As I walked around the ship this morning people were looking a bit haggard. Was it seasickness or hangovers? I am inclined to believe it was the latter – people were partying hardy last night .

John’s “Morning Show” was a riot and is always a good way to start off the morning. Because of the not so stellar weather working out in the gym this morning was impossible. Every piece of equipment was being used and for a long time. I gave up after 20 minutes of waiting and took a long walk on the jogging track. I am hoping the Splendor has a bigger gym.

Blogging from the Bloggers Cruise — all geeks on deck (Photo by Anita Dunham-Potter)Tonight is formal night along with the two championship NFL games. There are a lot of football fans onboard, and the chilly weather on deck is not keeping them from watching the Patriots-Chargers and Packers-Giants game on the big screen. I saw a lot of blankets out on deck. Still it’s a lot warmer on the Carnival Freedom than it is in Green Bay or Foxboro.

Up next Cozumel.

Filled Under Blog

Tahiti’s new sweetie

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 20 - 2008

Star Flyer gets a movable feast in Tahiti (Photo courtesy of Star Clippers) Star Flyer’s arrival to its new homeport of Papeete, Tahiti in December was a welcoming filled with pomp and circumstance. Fire boats jetting water and outriggers ushered the ship into the port, while local dignitaries and hundreds of well-wishers greeted the ship pierside along with performances by traditional Tahitian musicians and dancers.

Local dance troupe O Tahiti E performed quayside, followed by a plaque exchange between the ship’s master, Captain Bruno Borowka, and Marc Collins, Tahiti’s Minister of Tourism. Star Clippers Vice President Eric Krafft, son of owner and President Mikael Krafft, also attended the kick-off of the Tahiti program.

“We have never been welcomed like this before and we are overjoyed by how enthusiastically the Tahitians embraced us upon our arrival,” said Eric Krafft, vice president for Star Clippers. “Everyone at Star Clippers is excited that the Tahiti itineraries are under way, and the incredible booking response from our guests tells us that the French Polynesia program is going to be successful for years to come.”

Dec. 30, 2007, the ship began sailing year-round seven-, 10- and 11-night round-trip Papeete cruises.

The eight ports of call that compose the destination-intense itineraries take the ship to the Society and Tuamotus islands. Along the way, sunset departures, cruising in crystalline lagoons and opportunities to dive and snorkel in some of the most spectacular sites in the world enhance every itinerary. And shore excursions are designed to introduce guests to the fascinating culture and history of the Polynesian people.

Star Flyer sails a seven-night, round-trip Papeete itinerary that calls at Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora, and Cook Bay and Opunohu Bay, Moorea, with an overnight in Papeete before disembarkation.

The 10-night round-trip Papeete cruise takes Star Flyer to the Society Islands and Tuamotu Atolls, with special cruising in the Rangiroa Lagoon. The ship calls at Fakarava, Rangiroa, Bora Bora, Raiatea, Taha’a, Huahine and Moorea. The 11-night voyage adds an overnight call at Huahine.

Filled Under Blog

Suckered in Santorini

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 20 - 2008

(Originally published April 30, 2007) 

Last summer, Courtney Thompson and his wife were enjoying a blissful European cruise aboard Celebrity Cruises‘ Millennium. While doing a little shopping during a port stop in Santorini, Greece, the Thompsons came upon Alexandros Jewellers. The store had some beautiful jewelry items that the Thompsons admired; it also displayed a sign stating that the shop was a member of Celebrity’s “Guaranteed Shopping Program.” The Thompsons purchased a necklace, bracelet, ring and several sets of earrings at a total cost of $24,000.

When the Thompsons reboarded the Millennium, the ship’s shopping director was horrified to see their Alexandros Jewellers shopping bag. You can imagine the Thompsons’ dismay when the director informed them that Alexandros Jewellers was no longer part of Celebrity’s shopping program because of complaints from past Celebrity guests alleging fraud. Indeed, Alexandros Jewellers was not listed on the shopping flier that Celebrity had distributed to its passengers.

Courtney Thompson says, “I had a shopping map of Santorini, but I left it on the tour bus. I saw the recommended shopping sign in Alexandros Jewellers’ store window. I didn’t think I needed it.”

The shopping director took the Thompsons to the ship’s jeweler, who confirmed the Thompsons’ growing fear: The jewelry wasn’t worth nearly what they had paid for it. Since the ship was in port for a few more hours, Thompson decided to run back to the store. But when he reached the store, it was closed — earlier than the closing time posted in the window. Thompson felt sick to his stomach.

One Hellenic mess

Realizing time was of the essence, Thompson made phone calls and sent e-mails from the ship to Alexandros Jewellers, Celebrity’s customer service department and Onboard Media, the company in charge of Celebrity’s shopping program. When the Thompsons returned home to Florida, they had the jewelry appraised. The certified appraisal value was $8,800, a far cry from the $24,000 the Thompsons had paid. The appraiser noted that Alexandros Jewellers misrepresented the carat weights and clarity of most of the stones. For the diamond necklace, Alexandros documented the weight to be 4.5 carats; the appraiser said it was 2.25 carats. Moreover, the quality of the gemstones was sub-par.

“The entire Alexandros paperwork was fraudulent,” says Thompson.

After trying unsuccessfully to resolve the issue with Alexandros Jewellers, the Thompsons contacted their credit card company, American Express. Unfortunately, because the purchase was made overseas, American Express could not resolve the issue. Indeed, the Fair Credit Billing Act does not guarantee you a refund if you have a problem with items charged outside the United States.

“We found out what the ‘American’ in American Express means,” Thompson says, ruefully.

The Thompsons then sent letters to Celebrity executives and filed a claim with Onboard Media. Celebrity denied responsibility and referred the complaint to Onboard Media. Onboard Media also denied responsibility, on the grounds that Alexandros Jewellers was not a member of its recommended shopping program. After many months of fruitless inquiry, the Thompsons contacted Tripso for help.

Celebrity and Onboard Media speak

I tried to contact Alexandros Jewellers but my calls were never answered. Celebrity and Onboard Media did get back to me.

Celebrity spokeswoman Lyan Sierra-Caro said, “It’s unfortunate that the guest purchased the jewelry from a store that was not part of our Guaranteed Shopping Program. It was unfortunate that the store owner misrepresented himself, but that is why we tell all our guests to visit stores that our “Discovery Shopping” guides discuss in their port lectures or in-stateroom video, and that are listed in our shopping maps distributed on board.”

I spoke with Sarah Beth Reno, vice president of operations for Onboard Media, who said, “Alexandros Jewellers does not participate in the Port Shopping Program and therefore our 60-day guarantee does not apply.”

When I inquired about the company’s former relationship with the store, Reno said, “Alexandros Jewellers was part of the program during the 2003 to 2005 Europe sailing seasons. During the 2005 season, there was some difficulty in getting the store to adhere to the customer service procedures on specific purchases. Even though all claims with Alexandros Jewellers were ultimately closed to the guests’ satisfaction, it was decided to discontinue the relationship with this retailer. From the Europe season of 2006 onward, the store was not part of the program.”

When I mentioned the Thompsons’ claim that the jeweler displayed a sign in the window stating it was part of Celebrity’s shopping program, I asked why there wasn’t an attempt to have the sign removed and why the passengers were not warned about the merchant. While Reno didn’t answer those questions specifically, she did state: “We do not interfere with a retailer’s business practices if they are not part of the program. If guests wish to shop in stores that participate in the program, we advise them to carefully review each shopping map to ensure a store is part of the program.”

Recommended stores: the real story

One of the major appeals of cruising is the opportunity to shop in tax-free port towns. In the early days of cruising, cruise directors were the masters of this domain. They had special relationships with many of the best shops and they often mentioned specific retailers in their “port talks.” In time, merchants came to understand the cruise directors’ power of influence and sought an advantage by paying them to be mentioned. In this way, port talks became shopping talks.

Today, particular merchants are still mentioned in the port talks and shopping talks, but now the merchant selection is controlled by the cruise line, which usually outsources its in-port shopping operations to companies that specialize in retail partnerships. Onboard Media, a division of LVMH (Louis Vuitton – Moët Hennessy), is one of those companies and has been working with Celebrity Cruises since 1992.

Onboard Media’s retail partners advertise their products on board Celebrity’s ships through television and magazine ads and in the shipboard shopping lectures. According to Reno, all advertisers pay an advertising fee to participate in the program and are required to offer a 60-day guarantee to buyers for any merchandise problems (the guarantee does not cover buyer’s remorse or customer negligence); in the event of a problem, Onboard Media’s customer service department assists guests and works with the retailer to resolve it.

Onboard Media also checks up on its current members. “There is continual quality control once a retailer is accepted in the program, which consists of secret shopping, tracking customer service claims, and meetings with the retailer,” Reno says.

How to prevent a trinket tragedy

So, how can you keep this from happening to you?

I’ve used onboard shopping programs for years with no problem whatsoever. The programs offer a measure of assurance, but you do need to keep your wits about you. Research the items you are looking to purchase beforehand with a local retailer and arm yourself with knowledge of quality specifications and price points. Use recommended retailers from the cruise line (carry that shopping sheet with you!) or follow the recommendation of trusted guidebooks. You can often find recommendations on places to shop posted by satisfied customers on cruise boards like Cruise Mates and Cruise Critic.

As for the Thompsons, they are no longer fans of the program or of Celebrity Cruises.

“They beat it into your head through the tour talks and through the cabin television to look for the sign and buy in confidence,” Courtney Thompson says. “I saw the sign, I bought in confidence, and I got screwed.”

Filled Under Ombudsman

Blogging from the “Bloggers Cruise”

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 19 - 2008

John Heald talking to the Bloggers (Photo by Anita Dunham-Potter)It’s a great first night onboard the Carnival Freedom as we’re moving along at a fair clip on our way to Cozumel, Mexico. I am thrilled we have a day at sea tomorrow – it’s always great to ease into a cruise then to start off on a sprint.
Earlier today I finally had the opportunity to meet so many of the folks that post on John Heald’s blog. What a terrific group of people. Approximately 80 bloggers are onboard and they are all here for one thing and one ‘thingy’ only – John Heald. He is their rock star, and rightfully so. This man has a worldwide posse and it’s all due to his infectious personality and genuine affection for the guests onboard.

Bloggers Cruise LogoNow, here’s some exciting news about the 2009 “Bloggers Cruise” it will be on the totally revamped Fantasy sailing from New Orleans. Additionally, John and Carnival have hooked up with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s charity foundation called “Making it Right,” which helps the ongoing efforts to rebuild New Orleans. It is hoped that many bloggers going on that cruise will be able to come into New Orleans prior to sailing in order to help out with the rebuilding efforts. I think this is a terrific and noble idea – sign me up!

Now, Angelina Jolie – will she be the godmother of the new Carnival Splendor? Carnival officials currently onboard my cruise will neither confirm nor deny if she is indeed doing the honors. Nevertheless, with all the big smiles I got after asking “is she” I came away with the impression that it’s a done deal and she’s onboard. Stay tuned for more blogs from the “Bloggers Cruise”…

Filled Under Blog

Glass blowing and chowing down in Alaska

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 19 - 2008

Cruise ship plying the waters of Alaska’s Inside PassageIn the past, cruising has been viewed as a relaxing and sedentary vacation. Thankfully, today’s cruise vacations encompass a broad spectrum of activities and onshore excursions allowing cruise travelers a choice to be active or relaxed.

And so Princess Cruises has announced its new shore excursions for the 2008 Alaska cruise season that will appeal to both the active and relaxed traveler. In total, cruise vacationers will have a choice of 37 new activities.

“We’ve worked closely with many local tour providers to showcase the wide array of rich culture, wildlife and natural beauty that can be experienced by our passengers,” commented Charlie Ball, president of Princess Tours.

He added that it was a “delight” to offer passengers new ways in which to experience Alaska.

Travelers can opt to learn the art of glass blowing, eat at an Alaskan chef’s table, take a zipline tour and discover how a commercial fishing vessel operates.

Sounds good to me!

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