Susan Gregory and her partners spent 10 years building their pottery studio into a viable business on Charleston's Meeting Street.
But in June, Cone 10 Studios had to pack up and find a new home just as the Spoleto arts festival was boosting their sales to the best level in years, Gregory said. The reason: A vacation club offered their landlord more money to turn the spot into a visitor center selling discount travel memberships, she said.
Cone 10 found a new location on Morrison Drive, but Gregory remains frustrated at being edged out by an industry that has gobbled up a host of prime downtown spots in recent years. The peninsula is now home to at least nine privately run visitor information centers that dispense advice and vouchers in return for a sales pitch for time shares and vacation clubs.
"Now, instead of a longtime visitor coming to a clay gallery where pots are made ... they will be pressured by one more salesman," Gregory said. "It just seems wrong."
Wholesale Travel Connection, which took Gregory's spot, had its accreditation suspended by the Better Business Bureau last week for failing to respond to one or more customer complaints filed with the bureau, according to the consumer agency's website.
William Putnam, one of the partners in Wholesale Travel Connection, said Friday that the loss of the bureau's accreditation was because of complaints from just two customers out of thousands who come to the company. He said his company has refunded the two customers their money, and he anticipates regaining the company's "A" rating with the bureau as soon as this coming week.
Putnam said Wholesale Travel did not offer a high rent rate to take over the building from Cone 10, but merely offered to pay what the owners wanted for rent. And, he said, Wholesale offered to let a couple of the pottery makers display their ware for free in the store windows.
Putnam and others in the industry steadfastly maintained that these businesses provide a valuable service to tourists and serve as an economic engine in Charleston. He said his company's tourist assistants are well trained. "I'll put them up against any," he said. He also contended that his business helps bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to Charleston in spin-off spending from his thousands of customers. He conceded, however, that he had no firm figures on which to base that estimate.
Bill Macchio, who publishes the Charleston Vacation Guide, supports Putnam's estimate. "They really bring a lot of people to Charleston."
Still, Gregory's concerns were echoed by several people who contacted The Post and Courier in response to a recent article detailing the rise of these storefront visitor centers. Several readers complained about being hounded by salesmen on city sidewalks or subjected to high-pressure pitches to buy expensive vacation packages.
Mike Metcalfe of Canada fell in love with Charleston's ambience and friendly citizenry during a spring visit. His only regret was venturing into what he thought was an official city welcome center and being steered to a vacation club presentation. He said he endured a "hard-sell" sales pitch before finally escaping.
"Charleston is a wonderful city and yet, these time-share shills may result in it being given an unfair reputation," Metcalfe wrote in a letter to the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Regrettably, too many visitors leave, never to return and would likely share their tale of woe with others."
Putnam said Metcalfe signed a registration with Wholesale Travel Connection that clearly stated he must attend a sales presentation that would last 60 minutes. And, he said, Metcalfe signed another statement acknowledging that he received a $50 meal certificate to a downtown restaurant, two carriage tour rides and a refund of his $20 registration fee.
Putnam also insisted that his company does not use "hard-sell" tactics. Everyone who goes through the sales presentation knows from the beginning that they will get an average of $75 to $100 in payments and or coupons for attending the 60- to 90-minute presentations, and they have "no obligation to buy." That's a pretty good return for their time, he said.
Those involved in the vacation sales industry insist these operations bring thousands of visitors to Charleston that directly benefit tour operations, restaurants and a host of other businesses. They also offer a host of testimonials from folks who seem pleased with their experience.
Count Dennis Sharp among them. The sales manager from Virginia said he signed on last year with The Vacation Station after attending a presentation that "was exactly what they said it would be." He paid $4,000 to join the club and has been pleasantly surprised by the travel offerings and the money he's saved.
"It's a pretty straightforward program, and they couldn't be any easier to work with," he said. "I've gotten a great deal of satisfaction from it."
Others, however, have a decidedly different take.
Jim Rowe of Mount Pleasant said he went to a Vacation Station presentation in February after being promised round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in the country. He and his wife had no intention of buying anything. They just wanted the tickets so they could visit their daughters in Seattle. But after sitting through a "high pressured" pitch, they left empty-handed, he said.
Rowe said he kept pressing for his reward and eventually was referred to an Arizona company that requested a $100 payment to release the plane tickets. He said he paid the money, but again, no tickets.
When contacted by The Post and Courier last week, Vacation Station representatives said they had not been informed of the problem. Chief executive officer Randy Gardner apologized for Rowe's inconvenience and vowed to get him the two plane tickets, as promised.
Lisa and Dave Sinco of South Dakota had hoped to get similar satisfaction from Festiva Resorts. She said they wandered into Festiva's downtown welcome center during a recent visit thinking it was the city's official visitor center, which is next door. After giving them maps and advice, the Sincos said, Festiva's staff talked them into attending a presentation at Church Street Inn, where they bought a time share package for $17,000. They quickly came to regret the purchase, but Festiva wouldn't let them out of the deal, they said.
"I find it appalling how Festiva can operate so close to the Visitor's Center and be allowed to easily prey on unsuspecting tourists," she said.
The city erected a sign in front of the Festiva center directing people to the official visitors center, but several people, like Sinco, said they still got confused.
Sara Bader, Festiva's director of corporate communications, said Festiva chose the location primarily for its convenience to customers entering the city and is not trying to fool anyone, as the building is clearly marked as a Festiva operation. Festiva has hosted nearly 4,000 guests at its Church Street Inn location this year and brought 1,000 more visitors into the city for day trips. The company expects to hand out $400,000 in vouchers this year that promote local attractions, she said.
As for the Sincos, Bader said, the company is in the process of releasing them from their contract and refunding their money, even though they were past the period of opting out of their contract. "We are going above and beyond our contractual obligations to resolve her issues," she said.
Dave Sinco said Festiva has pledged to refund their money, but he still feels the company gave them the runaround.
Gregory, of Cone 10 Studios, has had no personal dealings with any of the vacation-oriented businesses, and she would like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But she has encountered uncomfortable sidewalk sales pitches and has heard of other businesses being squeezed out by the industry. She just wonders if this is really the image Charleston wants to cultivate.
"There are a lot of things that the city is so careful about, and it seems like this should be one of them," she said. "You have to ask: 'What do you want the tourists to see us as?' "
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or email@example.com.