HUDSON — Gerald McManamon got himself in a mess on Valentine's Day, so one recent day he headed south on U.S. 19 in search of answers.
He checked his paperwork and drove to an unfamiliar office building in Clearwater. He took the elevator to the sixth floor and found Suite 600, an office with opaque windows and no sign on the door.
He wandered inside. He saw no posters or signs and hardly any furniture except for a circular table and a shelf filled with award plaques. He saw only two employees, two young women, chatting. They stopped talking as he stepped forward.
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So why exactly was he here? Back up for a minute, to Valentine's Day. It was on that evening that McManamon and his wife, Jennifer, attended a presentation at a strip mall on State Road 52. They had been lured by a postcard that promised a free cruise just for listening.
They didn't know who was putting on the presentation or what exactly they were selling. But McManamon figured they'd just say "no" to the sales pitch and "thanks" for the free cruise.
The Beacon Woods resident is a 72-year-old retired high school football coach and speaks in a crisp, no-nonsense tone. He is already familiar with the travel industry: He runs a small business that takes people on golf tours to places like Scotland and Ireland. He describes himself as "very cynical."
But along with a handful of other couples, here were the McManamons, listening to a presentation about a travel club called Suncoast Vacations.
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The man doing the presentation — he "reminded me of a carnival barker," McManamon later said — spoke of the many benefits of joining the club: Cut-rate deals on air travel, car rentals and condo vacations for life.
All it took was a one-time enrollment charge - the first figure he heard was close to $7,000 — plus an annual renewal fee of about $200.
At the end of the presentation, another Suncoast representative — a "Melvin Milquetoast kind of guy" — came and sat with them. In a friendlier way than the presenter, he talked about the club. A tough-talking representative joined him a little later.
Over the course of nearly three hours, McManamon says he became convinced that he could use membership in the club for his golf tours business. And Jennifer had always wanted to travel.
"Every question we asked was answered by 'Yes, of course,' which I thought a little strange," he later wrote in a letter that went to state officials. "They seemed to promise us anything as long as we signed on the dotted line."
It was getting late, and they were getting tired. McManamon told the Suncoast representatives he wasn't paying an enrollment fee of nearly $7,000. The salesmen disappeared for a while before coming back: They had gotten permission to reduce his signup costs to just under $5,000.
Sold. The couple signed a contract that gave them three business days to cancel.
It was nearly 11 p.m. when they left.
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Less than a week later, the McManamons logged onto Suncoast Vacation's Web site with their password and found an airline ticket to Scotland for $973.
Out of curiosity, they went to a free travel Web site, Travelocity, and found a ticket for $969.
"That was our first inkling something was wrong," said Gerald McManamon.
Then came a phone call to Suncoast Vacations that wasn't returned, a welcome package that didn't answer their questions, a realization that their paperwork had two different addresses.
On the Internet, he found television news reports that said consumers who signed up with this particular club could never get the big discounts they were promised.
That was when McManamon drove to the Pinellas County addresses to see what was going on. One Largo office was closed, with no sign of life. But there was the other one, at the Clearwater office building.
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So, back to Suite 600. McManamon asked the two women if this was Suncoast Vacations.
The women said no, this is Travel Services.
McManamon played it cool. He asked if he could get some brochures. They got him a supervisor, who emerged from the back.
He asked, again, for some brochures. Said he heard this place had some great vacation deals. The supervisor said she could get him a sales representative but no printed materials.
McManamon said "never mind" and left. His gumshoeing had left him more confused than ever.
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No wonder. McManamon was dealing with more than one company. The Florida Attorney General's Office is treating Suncoast Vacations, Suncoast Incentives, United Vacation Network, Travel Services USA LLC and Capital Financial Marketing as related entities.
Suncoast Vacations, for instance, is another name for Suncoast Incentives, according to state corporation records.
Suncoast Incentive's principal is Nicholas Congleton, whose late mother, Donna Loher, owned United Vacation Network.
United Vacation Network went inactive in October 2007. Three months earlier, Travel Services was incorporated. That company's principal officer is named as "LL Revocable Trust," which has the same Largo address as United Vacation Network.
The 1-800 number for Suncoast Vacations is the same one used by United Vacation Network and, now, by Travel Services.
What is Travel Services? Christy Daniel, a service representative for Travel Services, said in an interview that her company is "completely separate" from the other companies.
Suncoast, she said, does the presentations and gets the enrollment charge. Travel Services, which gets the annual membership fees, finds low-cost travel fares and accommodations through group booking, she said. Daniel says her company also provides services to eight other companies, but she declined to name them.
Daniel said that McManamon didn't give the program enough time to work. "Ninety-eight percent of the time," she said, "we end up getting our members the accommodations."
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A dozen consumer complaints have been filed against Suncoast Incentives since last year, according to the Department of Agriculture's Consumer Services Division. Since 2005, more than 200 complaints have been filed against United Vacation Network.
United Vacation Network is also being sued by two customers in the Circuit Court of the 6th Judicial Circuit in Pinellas County. According to the couple's complaint, United Vacation was unable to provide the "considerable discounts" on travel costs that it promised in December 2005.
McManamon sent a letter to Suncoast Vacations asking for a refund of his nearly $5,000. He also sent the letter to State Sen. Mike Fasano, who forwarded it to the Florida Attorney General's Office.
Last Tuesday, the Attorney General's Economic Crime unit said it was investigating whether Suncoast Incentives — as well as United Vacation Network, Suncoast Vacations, Travel Services USA LLC and Capital Financial Marketing — had engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Congleton did not return a phone message early last week. After the state announced its investigation last Tuesday, he defended the companies to ABC Action News, saying they "have done nothing wrong."
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The St. Petersburg Times, after reporting the state investigation, received a handful of calls from residents saying they, too, had problems with one of those companies. Alberta Brackett of Dunedin, for instance, said she and her husband paid United Vacation Network $6,000 two years ago and the company has been unable to find them any deal.
"Two years later," she said, "and we've got nothing."
Meanwhile, McManamon says he doesn't know whether he'll get his money back. He acknowledges that he should have done more research before signing up. "It was absolutely stupid," he said.
But he said he didn't think his shame should stop him from warning other people to be more careful.
"Most people who make mistakes like I have," he said, "would just take the whipping and go on."
As for that free cruise? He recently got another mailing saying that he and his wife would owe about $200 a piece in port fees. They don't plan to go.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.