With the sale of its remaining assets in bankruptcy court last month, Vantage Travel went out of business, bringing to an ignominious end one of Boston’s oldest and most successful international travel companies.
But the battle continues for the thousands of Vantage customers who are still owed large refunds for trips the company postponed or canceled.
Attorneys general in New York and Pennsylvania have set their sights on Vantage’s founder and longtime owner Hank Lewis, suing him personally in an effort to recoup some of the $108 million owed to customers whose trips never happened.
And while the corporation he founded is bankrupt, a check of court records through last week showed no filing by Lewis for personal bankruptcy.
New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a suit on Sep. 13 against Lewis personally, and Vantage as a corporation.
“By virtue of the conduct alleged … [Lewis and Vantage] have engaged in repeated and persistent fraudulent conduct,” the suit says.
In June, Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry filed a similar suit that accuses Lewis personally (and Vantage corporately) of engaging in unlawful “deceptive and unfair business practices.”
Yet, the Massachusetts attorney general has not filed suit against Lewis or Vantage. Instead, the AG’s office chose to go after Vantage while it was still in business. But that approach has resulted in just about a dozen settlements for Mass. residents for less than $200,000.
Since 2020, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has received more than 1,500 complaints about Vantage, including 134 from Massachusetts residents. Thirty of those in-state complaints were resolved without the attorney general’s help, and of the remaining 104 complaints, the attorney general’s office helped mediate 13 for a total of $162,000 in refunds, or about $12,500 each.
The attorney general’s office also successfully mediated on behalf of 72 out-of-state residents for a total or almost $1.2 million, or about $16,500 each.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell said the office opted to pressure Vantage to make refunds while it was still in business, rather than sue the company, as a strategy most likely to produce quick results. Campbell’s predecessor as attorney general, now-Governor Maura Healey, oversaw the issue through the end of 2022.
Almost 80 complaints are still pending at the attorney general’s office. But since Vantage filed for voluntary bankruptcy on June 29, Campbell’s office has been blocked from mediating those complaints due to bankruptcy rules and the company’s recent sale to an Australian travel company.
But Campbell’s office supports the efforts of the New York and Pennsylvania attorneys general and is in regular contact with them, according to her office.
Last month, under the supervision of the bankruptcy court, Vantage sold its customer list and the Vantage name to Pacific Travel Partners, a subsidiary of the Australia-based Aurora Expeditions, for $2 million.
But the bankruptcy case is not closed. A committee representing creditors, including the thousands of customers who are owed refunds, is investigating whether assets controlled by other Lewis-owned companies should be subject to distribution to creditors.
The New York and Pennsylvania lawsuits against Vantage as a corporation are stayed for now under bankruptcy rules. And even if the stay were to be lifted, the company has few, if any, remaining assets to satisfy any eventual court judgment against it, bankruptcy court filings show.
But it’s a different story for Lewis.
“The bankruptcy of a company may protect it from lawsuits, but it doesn’t protect the owner from being sued personally,” said Francis C. Morrissey, a bankruptcy lawyer and Boston University adjunct law professor.
“If the owner of a company personally has money, he’s got exposure,” he said.
Founded by Lewis 40 years ago, Vantage operated expensive river and ocean cruises and land tours around the world, with a customer base of predominantly travelers 60 and older. He was Vantage’s president, treasurer, secretary, chairman, sole director, CEO, and CFO, according to the recently filed suits.
Multiple emails seeking comment on behalf of Lewis were sent to Lewis’s bankruptcy attorneys, who are listed in filings by the New York attorney general’s office with its lawsuit, but were not answered. An email to Lewis at his former Vantage address “could not be delivered,” and there was no response to emails to other Vantage executives seeking comment on Lewis’s behalf.
The New York suit alleges that for more than three years, Vantage, with Lewis at the helm, repeatedly canceled scheduled trips, but instead of acknowledging them as cancellations, called them “postponement.”
The suit says calling them postponements opened the door for Vantage to refuse refunds while instead offering future travel credits, which the suit says violated the company’s own agreement with customers to provide “prompt refunds” for a canceled trip.
The suit cites the example of a 92-year-old woman who paid Vantage more than $20,000 in advance for a cruise scheduled for August 2022.
“Vantage canceled the trip, claiming that it had merely been ‘postponed’ until a year later,” the suit says, noting that the customer by then would have been one month shy of her 94th birthday.
“Vantage told this consumer that she could not get a refund because the trip was not canceled,” the suit says.
When the customer protested she couldn’t wait another year for the trip, Vantage offered her an earlier one.
“But then five weeks before that departure, Vantage again supposedly ‘postponed’ that trip” for more than a year, the suit says.
Vantage offered the woman a credit for future travel “but refused to provide a refund,” the suit says.
In another example, the New York suit cites a couple who wanted to cancel due to a recently diagnosed medical condition. But when they called to demand a refund of $18,000, a Vantage representative told them the company didn’t have to provide a cash refund under a new government policy meant to protect struggling travel companies, allowing them to instead offer a voucher for future travel, the suit says.
There was no such government policy, the suit says.
The New York suit says Lewis had “knowledge of and participated in the deceptive practices … and is therefore liable for” them.
“In emails to consumers who cancelled their trips due to Covid-19, Lewis repeatedly mentioned a ‘risk-free cancellation policy’ for future trips and offered credits or other incentives for consumers to book new trips, which Lewis knew or should have known could not be fulfilled,” the suit says.
In almost every communication, Lewis mentioned the high volume of calls to Vantage’s customer service line and often added that this was “resulting in unusually long wait times,” the suit says.
Despite Lewis’s awareness that consumers could not promptly reach customer service to discuss “postponed” trips, this problem was not rectified, the suit says.
The New York suit seeks an unspecified amount in “restitution and damages” for aggrieved consumers. It doesn’t say how many New Yorkers are owed refunds, but makes reference to 31 customers listed in a “representative sample” provided by Vantage under subpoena.
The Pennsylvania suit seeks “restitution to all customers who have suffered losses” without a specific number. When the suit was filed, the attorney general’s office asked anyone who may be a victim to contact that office.
The Pennsylvania attorney general, in her lawsuit, says Lewis and Vantage promised “‘risk-free’ travel, but in reality, [they] misapply their [contractual] terms and conditions by taking large sums of consumers’ monies and then fail to provide meaningful relief for consumers when they cannot travel.”
“Vantage took advantage of older Pennsylvanians by continuing to hold their refunds hostage,” Henry said in announcing the suit.
“If Pennsylvania consumers pay for goods or services and get nothing in return, our office will fight for those victims,” she said.