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Regulators investigate Tampa travel agency

Florida regulators are investigating a Tampa-based travel agency accused of taking money from dozens of travelers from around the country and then not paying for their flights or hotels.

Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the state's Department of Consumer Protection, says Dynamic Leisure Group is being prodded because of complaints that it has "left a number of consumers high and dry."

The company has laid off many of its approximately 40 employees in recent weeks, had much of its office furniture repossessed by a rental company, and has been served with an eviction notice by the landlord of its Cypress Street headquarters in Tampa.

But dozens of former employees, customers and resorts have suspected trouble for months. Others are asking why the company's stock price has plunged from $8 per share in 2003 to today's 2 cents while the company posted a $12-million first-quarter loss.

Sandy Besinger, who worked for 11 months in the accounting department of one of Dynamic Leisure's subsidiaries, Changes in L'Attitudes, says she quit earlier this year because she felt uneasy about the company's attitude toward its finances.

"I saw too many things going on," she said. "Reservations not being honored, travel insurance being bought, but the insurance company not being paid, hotels not being paid. I've worked for companies that needed help, but these people were beyond help."

Dynamic Travel bought Changes in L'Attitudes in 2006 for $600,000 in cash and stock. At its peak, the home-grown company was doing $12-million per year in sales. But Ray Valdes, who started the company from his kitchen in 1985, now worries his business legacy is being tarnished.

"I feel bad for the blue-collar worker who saves for years for a dream vacation, and then gets to his resort only to find it hasn't been paid for," Valdes said.

Several former employees blame president and CEO Dan G. Brandano. The serial entrepreneur once ran the nation's sixth-largest car rental company, USA Rental Cars, before it went bankrupt in 1992.

Brandano blames the company's recent troubles and booking errors on a slow Caribbean tourism market, a series of unfortunate "technical events" in the booking process and, lately, vengeful former employees and recent TV coverage eager for a story.

"I'm not going to tell you that this situation is perfect and everything over here is rosy," Brandano said. "But we're trying."

He says passengers with future reservations are being notified and the company's Web sites are no longer taking reservations. And he is working with a creditor, Trafalgar Capital, which is owed $3-million, to reach a solution.

Brandano blames much of his troubles on Couples Resorts, which operates several hotels in Jamaica. In a public display of no-confidence, Randy Russell, the resort's vice president, posted a warning to customers on his company's Web site due to several tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bookings.

"We advised them to advise their clients that their trips were canceled — which they did not do," Russell said. "We had people arrive at the airport in Jamaica, and they were told by us that their reservation was canceled. Several of these couples were here for weddings, honeymoons."

And Nina Ocnean, a Boston social worker whose family vacation to Jamaica this month was bungled by Dynamic, sums up her frustration with the company:

"I've never been part of a scam — I've worked too hard for this kind of crap."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com.

Regulators investigate Tampa travel agency 07/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 1:06pm]
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