Vantage Travel was also pilloried on two newly created Facebook group pages as customers who lost as much as $50,000 vented their anger at the company and its founder and owner, Hank Lewis.
But now Vantage Explorations, a new company created out of the ashes of the bankrupt company, is embracing its Vantage Travel roots to sell tours around the world, while conspicuously ignoring the bankruptcy and the lost $100 million.
Already, Vantage Explorations, owned by a company based in Australia, is sailing guests on polar expeditions of Antarctica, and has new cruises scheduled to Latin America and Scotland in the spring and to the Mediterranean next year.
In one recent email sent to prospective customers (as well as this Globe reporter), Vantage Explorations extols the virtues of Vantage Travel, a company that indisputably stiffed almost 10,000 customers, including many seniors.
The email, festooned with an array of color photos of alluring tourist destinations, begins: “For nearly 40 years, Vantage Travel has curated extraordinary experiences, leading over half a million travelers on unforgettable river and small ocean ship cruises, small-group land adventures, and safaris across all seven continents.”
But nowhere in its five-paragraph email does Vantage Explorations mention that its predecessor company went bankrupt at the expense of customers.
The email makes only the most oblique reference, saying Vantage Travel’s “assets found a new home” in 2023 with Pacific Travel Partners, which operates Vantage Explorations and is owned by Australia-based Aurora Expeditions. The company spent $2 million at a bankruptcy auction for what amounted to Vantage’s only asset: its extensive list of customers. It also got the right to use its name.
“Today, we proudly operate as Vantage Explorations, continuing our legacy of delivering unparalleled journeys and exploration to passionate travelers like you,” the email says.
“There was a lot of surprise that the new owners are using the Vantage brand at all, given how tarnished it is, let alone touting its 40-year history,” said Marnie Brown, who helps administer a Facebook group of unhappy former Vantage Travel customers. “All you have to do is make a quick search online to see about the bankruptcy.”
“I think that email will be off-putting to a lot of people,” said Michelle Couch-Friedman, a consumer advocate who is closely tracking the Vantage Travel saga.
“But I’m sure the idea is to court the customers on Vantage Travel’s contact list,” she said.
Asked about his company’s omission of references to the bankruptcy, Michael Heath, CEO of Aurora, repeated the kind of praise for Vantage Travel that is contained in the company’s marketing email. “So far the reaction to Vantage Explorations has been very positive,” he added.
Andrew N. Smith, a marketing professor at Suffolk University’s Sawyer School of Business, said it’s understandable why Vantage Explorations would gloss over the Vantage Travel bankruptcy.
“I can understand its apprehension about mentioning bankruptcy,” he said. “From a marketing standpoint, there is no benefit of introducing this negative meaning into the equation. [Vantage Explorations] needs to communicate the change in corporate structure and then shift to a more customer-focused message about the romance of travel.”
Tobe Berkovitz, a veteran media consultant and professor emeritus at Boston University, said Aurora is pursuing a smart strategy, especially by blasting out emails to its voluminous customer list.
“It’s a great contact list of people who have actually traveled with Vantage Travel or have shown interest in them,” he said. “It’s gold.”
For those who lost money in the bankruptcy, the email may “stick in their craw,” Berkovitz said. “But if you’re not one of them, you may well be very interested in Vantage Explorations.”
The Vantage Travel bankruptcy case is ongoing, with a bankruptcy estate trustee searching for additional assets that may belong to the bankrupted company for possible distribution to creditors like the jilted customers.
Judge Janet E. Bostwick of US Bankruptcy Court in Boston approved the sale of Vantage Travel’s name and contact list to Aurora, along with a provision that gives Vantage Travel customers whose trips were cancelled a limited amount of credits toward traveling with Vantage Explorations. Customers can use credits to pay for up to one-half on ocean trips and up to 20 percent on river trips. The credits will expire after five years.
While there’s little expectation that Vantage Travel will provide any significant refunds to former customers, there may be some hope that Lewis, the company owner, will be held responsible.
The attorneys general in New York and Pennsylvania have sued him personally in an effort to recoup some of the millions owed to customers.
“By virtue of the conduct alleged … [Lewis and Vantage] have engaged in repeated and persistent fraudulent conduct,” according to the suit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Asked for an update, a spokesperson for the New York attorney general’s office said “Lewis has retained counsel and the litigation is ongoing.”
Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry last year filed a similar suit that accuses Lewis personally (and Vantage corporately) of engaging in unlawful “deceptive and unfair business practices.”
A spokesperson for that office said the suit is ongoing.
The office of Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell supports the efforts of the New York and Pennsylvania attorneys general and is in regular contact with them, according to a spokesperson for that office.
Multiple emails seeking comment on behalf of Lewis were sent to Lewis’s bankruptcy attorneys, who were listed in filings in the New York 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.
Rob Hert, who last year paid Vantage Travel $30,000 for a now-cancelled safari he planned to take with his 81-year-old mother, said he continues to closely follow the bankruptcy case and litigation against Lewis.
But he said he has no real problem with Vantage Explorations’ marketing campaign.
“It’s very crafty, not getting into the weeds about the bankruptcy,” he said. “But Vantage Explorations is not the enemy. They’re acting in their best business interest. I understand. What we want is justice from Vantage Travel and Hank Lewis.”