For the nearly 750 students who booked spring break getaways to Punta Cana, a popular tourist area in the Dominican Republic, with Massachusetts-based travel agency StudentCity, overbooked hotels, sewage leaks and dangerous encounters were not exactly what they had anticipated.
Be Live Hotel Management — the hotel chain that was scheduled to host the students — notified StudentCity on Feb. 21 that it didn’t have enough vacant rooms to house all the students scheduled to arrive for spring break, according to Jason Chute, StudentCity’s director of operations.
Chute said the company notified the travelers on Feb. 24 of the shortage, noting that StudentCity resorted to various measures to alleviate the problem in the three-day span, including sending additional employees to the site to negotiate with Be Live Hotel management.
“We actually dispatched a management team to Punta Cana,” Chute said. “We thought we’d basically be able to resolve it and get all the rooms into the hotel. It was not until the morning of the arrival that we realized the management was not going to, under any circumstance, accommodate all the rooms at the Be Live Grand so we basically, until the 11th hour, were negotiating with them to get the rooms into the property.”
The group of students was subsequently split and a portion was relocated to the nearby Presidential Suites, where the travelers said they experienced broken locks and overflowing sewage in the bathrooms, before they were relocated to either the Barcelo Dominican Beach or Occidental Grand resorts.
Despite the change in accommodations and increased security measures, students on the trip still expressed discontent and frustration with the situation and StudentCity’s lack of assistance.
LSA senior Daniel Cohen-Arcamone said in a telephone interview from Punta Cana that the handling of the situation was “extremely unprofessional” and noted that he has felt unsafe since arriving in the Dominican Republic, particularly during a night on the beach when he encountered an unidentified man with a gun.
“On the beach on the first night, I was just walking down the beach with a friend of mine, and all of a sudden there’s a guy with a shotgun who just comes up to me and tells me in Spanish not to go any further … that was really scary,” he said.
While Cohen-Arcamone said he understands that mix-ups happen, he felt vulnerable traveling to a foreign country without adequate shelter and lack of emergency resources upon arrival.
“That’s the most frustrating part for me, that normally when something happens to me, I can take control of my own situation and do something to remedy it, but I felt completely helpless because I’m in a foreign country, didn’t have my phone, didn’t have Internet, I couldn’t do anything,” he said.
While accommodations at the Barcelo Dominican Beach and Occidental Grand resorts are closer to what the students anticipated on their trips, Cohen-Arcamone said it’s still not quite the collegiate spring break they had in mind, since the resort appears to be more designed for families than college students.
“It’s just really kind of awkward trying to have a spring break with families with little children around,” Cohen-Arcamone said.
Business senior Brandon Lebowitz said that before being relocated to the new resorts, students experienced extreme overcrowding and lack of resources at the Presidential Suites.
“Some people had 18 people in rooms that were only supposed to fit 6 or 8 people total, so it’s just a terrible situation there,” Lebowitz said. “It wasn’t really an all-inclusive resort — there weren’t really any restaurants, they didn’t really have any bars, it wasn’t made for being an all-inclusive resort — it was made for being condos basically, so it was upsetting in the sense that we paid for one thing and were given something completely different.”
Chute said StudentCity employees were shown the new accommodations at Presidential Suite, but none of the complaints mentioned by students were visible at the time.
“They went over to the property and we were shown some of the units which were very nice condos,” he said. “There was no indication of any of those problems. However, we heard the same reports, that’s why we worked as fast as we could all weekend to get everyone reallocated into other resorts, which as of this morning anybody and everybody who wanted to leave presidential suites has been accommodated.”
He added that Be Live Hotel made no effort to notify StudentCity prior to Feb. 21 that it lacked sufficient rooms for the students, and noted that StudentCity hoped to have the problem solved by the time the students arrived.
“The hotel didn’t notify us and for whatever reason the hotel must have messed up their inventory because when the notified us, they were not only overbooked by our rooms but by another hundred rooms and basically for whatever reason isolated that handful of our rooms to say that these rooms need to get moved,” Chute said.
Concerned parents and students began expressing their frustration on the company’s Facebook page in the past few days, writing pleas for help and urging the company to offer reimbursements. Many posters noted specifically that emergency contact phone numbers had not been working effectively, and that there was a lack of StudentCity representatives able to help the travelers, as promised with the students’ arrangements.
Chute said the inability to reach the emergency line was due to an influx in calls when the students had landed, and the company has since worked to increase accessibility.
“The initial problem was just the volume of calls coming in from parents and whatnot,” he said. “ … We have issued more phones and additional emergency lines have been posted in the hotel lobbies.”
In response to claims that the company has conned University students and their families, Chute said that StudentCity’s efforts to accommodate for the students is indicative that the company had not anticipated the pitfalls and is doing everything in their power to account for inadequate service.
“If it was a scam we wouldn’t have re-accommodated them,” Chute said. “We paid for the rooms in full at Be Live and then they got bumped and we have now re-accommodated and repaid for about 300 people to go to other hotels. If this were a scam, we wouldn’t have done this. We’re devastated by what happened, and it’s not acceptable … we take this very serious and we’re doing everything we can.”
Lebowitz said, however, that he has heard of people on the trip who have already booked plane tickets to return back to the United States, adding that he plans to work with his credit card company to get a full refund for his trip if StudentCity fails to provide him with compensation.
“I can confidentially say that I do not intend on paying one cent for this trip,” Lebowitz said. “I’m going to dispute the credit card charges with Visa when I get home. I perceive it as deception and fraud.”
Chute said StudentCity is still developing compensation plans, but is offering a full refund for the trip for students that choose to leave by Tuesday, and an additional $700 for their flight home. For students who decide to stay in Punta Cana, Chute said the company will have a compensation opportunity available within the next 2 to 3 days, adding that it will be valued at more than the original $250 voucher for a future StudentCity vacation that was initially offered to students.