Vantage Travel, the Boston-based company now in bankruptcy court, owes a stunning $108 million to customers who paid in advance for trips that were later canceled or postponed, according to court filings.
Besides the $108 million it owes to customers, Vantage is $62 million in debt to vessel managers and other vendors and suppliers, for total liabilities of more than $170 million, the filings say.
Of the $108 million owed to customers, $80 million is for trips that have been indefinitely postponed, $23 million for trips that were canceled, and $5 million for approved travel insurance claims against the company, the filing says.
But Vantage, a Boston travel mainstay for 40 years, has only a tiny fraction of what it owes customers in cash — $4,207, the filings say.
Bankruptcy proceedings are intended to allow creditors like the thousands of Vantage customers to get at least a portion of what is owed to them. But under the terms of a sale of Vantage’s remaining assets proposed by the company, its customers would apparently get no cash refunds.
Instead, they would be offered a maximum 20 percent credit toward future trips with the Singapore-based company that has agreed to pay $1 million for Vantage’s customer list, the company’s only remaining substantial asset.
In filings in US Bankruptcy Court in Boston, Greg DelGreco, Vantage’s chief operating officer, said the offer of a credit was the best Vantage could do for customers, and that otherwise they would “receive nothing for their claims against” the company.
Vantage “is confident” that the offer of future travel credits “provides the best treatment possible to its customers under [Vantage’s] difficult financial circumstances,” DelGreco wrote.
One of Vantage’s lawyers said in the filings that consumer claims for their deposits are usually considered a priority in bankruptcy proceedings, but that in Vantage’s case “it is extremely unlikely that there will be assets available to pay even a fraction” of consumer claims.
In its filings, Vantage is asking Judge Janet E. Bostwick to approve of the sale of Vantage’s remaining assets, which includes the agreement to provide credits for customers who are owed refunds estimated to average about $20,000.
But Ronald W. Dunbar Jr., a lawyer representing a group of customers, said his clients want their money back.
“They don’t want a 20 percent coupon for some possible trip many months or years in the future,” he said. “Many of the customers are seniors. They don’t want a promise. They want cash refunds so they can get on with their lives.”
Dunbar said the big question he wants answered in the bankruptcy proceeding is what did Vantage do with the tens of millions of dollars that customers paid to the company in advance for now canceled or postponed trips.
“Vantage got paid many millions of dollars for trips that never happened,” he said. “Where did all that money go?”
That question is apparently not answered in the hundreds of pages of documents filed in court, according to a filing by Eric K. Bradford, counsel to the Office of US Trustee, whose role is to enforce bankruptcy laws, according to an online description of a trustee’s responsibilities.
According to Bradford, Vantage’s filings “provide little information about [Vantage’s] … financial transactions” prior to its bankruptcy filing.
Rob Hert, who last year paid Vantage $30,000 for a now-postponed safari he planned to take with his 81-year-old mother, said customers “want a thorough financial audit, first and foremost.”
Hert is an organizer of a group of customers fighting for refunds. He called the offer of future credits “ridiculous.”
Under the proposal, customers who accepted the 20 percent credit would have to pay 80 percent of the cost of their trips, which, on top of what they already paid to Vantage, would be unaffordable to some, he said. Besides, customers are totally unfamiliar with the company that would operate those trips, United Travel Pte. Ltd., based in Singapore, he said.
Hert also said his group is very concerned about the voluminous personal data customers have provided to Vantage, including bank and credit card information.
“Is it going to be adequately protected?” he asked.
An e-mail seeking comment from DelGreco and other Vantage executives and lawyers went unanswered.
In bankruptcy cases, there are two basic types of creditors: secured and unsecured. Secured creditors are lenders who obtained collateral to secure their loans and who are paid first from remaining in assets in the event of a bankruptcy. Unsecured creditors — including Vantage customers — get paid only after all secured creditors get their money.
And the only secured creditors in Vantage’s case are the founder of the company, Hank Lewis, and a trust established by Lewis. Lewis and the trust loaned Vantage $35 million, beginning in 2021, the filings say.
Its “single most valuable asset,” according to Bradford, is a list of past and prospective customers, including contact information. There are more than 3.7 million names on that list.
On the day last week that Vantage announced it was filing for bankruptcy, it also disclosed it had reached an agreement in which United Travel would purchase the customer list for $1 million.
It has been a stunning downfall for Vantage, a once well-regarded high-end international travel company. Founded in 1983 by Lewis, it specialized in tours for relatively small groups; its most popular leased ships were outfitted for fewer than 180 passengers. On ocean and river cruises, and on land expeditions, Vantage emphasized cultural exploration for “discerning travelers,” according to its website. It also catered to women traveling solo.
As recently as 2019, Vantage offered customers a menu of 65 river and ocean cruises and land excursions around the world. It operated about 500 tours annually.
Vantage, based in offices on Canal Street, employed about 70 people to market and book travel packages with third-party operators and to arrange air transportation, travel insurance, hotel accommodations, and other details. As of June 20, Vantage had laid off all employees except DelGreco and four other top executives and postponed all trips for at least three months “in light of our impending transaction,” according to an internal company memo.
Vantage pointed to the COVID pandemic as a source of its troubles. “As was the case throughout the travel industry, COVID-19 had a substantial impact on [Vantage’s] operations,” DelGreco wrote, saying the company’s revenue plummeted from $130 million in 2019 to $10 million in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. (It received $4.3 million in federal payroll protection program grants, the filings say.)
As its finances worsened, Vantage used “cash reserves generated by pre-pandemic bookings to fund its working capital needs,” the filings say.
“[Vantage’s] finances have continued to decline, and its cash reserves have been exhausted,” the filings say. “As a result, [Vantage] has been postponing trips for the past several weeks, because of a lack of funds needed to operate those trips to conclusion.”
Dating back to at least 2021, Vantage customers have complained of getting the runaround when they demanded refunds. The Globe, for example, published a story in 2021 about two local couples who had been fighting for about 18 months for $46,000 owed to them by Vantage for a canceled safari to Africa. (After the Globe got involved on their behalf, Vantage refunded the couples’ money.)
Since 2020, more than 1,150 customers have filed consumer complaints against Vantage with the office of Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell. That office has mediated on behalf of about 85 Massachusetts residents, recovering more than $1.3 million in refunds. (The office accepts complaints from out-of-state consumers but urges them to contact their own state’s attorney general for assistance.)
In recent years, Vantage provided little information to customers about its precarious financial condition. But, in private, company executives for almost two years were working with an investment bank in search of a buyer or funding source, ultimately leading to the $1 million offer from United Travel, the court filings say.
Lawyers for Vantage have asked the bankruptcy court to quickly approve the sale of its assets to United Travel because a “growing amount of negative publicity” could threaten the deal with United Travel.