Travel agency closure leaves eastern Iowans out money - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Travel agency closure leaves eastern Iowans out money

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

Three eastern Iowa high schools and dozens of area parents are collectively out tens of thousands of dollars after a local travel agency apparently closed for good just last week.

Integrity Travel out of Cedar Rapids was supposed to coordinate trips for Dubuque's Hempstead High School, Center Point-Urbana High School and Davenport Central High School, a combined total of more than 200 area high school students.

Now, those students and their parents are left wondering just where their money went.

Hempstead principal Lee Kolker and Center Point-Urbana superintendent Alan Marshall said they had no reason to doubt Integrity Travel.

Marshall said the company had organized successful trips for Davenport Central High School for some 16 years and came highly recommended from other educators. Kolker expressed thoughts along the same line.

All that credibility came, incredibly, crumbling to the ground in the last few days.

"We were notified on Monday from an attorney representing our travel group and said that they're no longer in operation," Kolker said, "so we're currently waiting on some information from our district lawyers, who are representing all of us at this point, to find out if there's any assets that may available."

Thirty-five students, five parents and three staff members of Hempstead High School's music department were set to travel to New York City for a week in early June. Through fundraising and personal dollars, parents and students had already paid Integrity Travel nearly $30,000 when they got the news the trip, along with the travel agency, no longer existed.

At a meeting with some 50 parents and students Tuesday night, Kolker said the district's attorney learned the only arrangements Integrity Travel had made for the trip was a purchase of $4,000, apparently for a show in New York. There were no travel or lodging arrangements.

Parent Wendy Farni-Arredondo attended the meeting. Her daughter is a senior at Hempstead and was all set for the trip.

"I had a child that was crying for two days straight, basically. She hyperventilated at a friend's house when she found out from another parent," Farni-Arredondo said. "She just felt like everything dropped. This is the last big hurrah before she's going to go to college and she's never been to New York or a big city, and she was all excited."

"Your gut's been ripped out," Kolker said, describing his reaction to the news. "I feel horrible for our students, our parents who have worked hard to do the fundraising and provided their own funds for the trip."

Center Point-Urbana High School is in a little better shape. Its trip cost $8,800. Thirty-four students were set to spend two days in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With help from insurance, Marshall said, the school expects to be out just $2,500 and the students are still going on the trip.

Overall, however, the combined loss is staggering, though most of it comes from the Davenport Central trip.

Bill Brauch is director of the Consumer Protection Division for the Iowa Attorney General's Office.

"What we're looking at, apparently, is something in the range of about $160,000 involved in the three schools we know of thus far," he said.

He said in some of these types of cases customers can get some of their money back, especially if the payments were made through a credit card. Unfortunately, however, he said it's incredibly difficult to recover all funds.

In trying to contact Integrity Travel Wednesday afternoon, both the regular and toll-free numbers rang endlessly, and pages of its website were inaccessible, or "forbidden," as the page said.

A call Wednesday afternoon to Integrity Travel's attorney Fran Henkels of Dubuque was not immediately returned.

Brauch said most of the time when any business suddenly closes and leaves customers high and dry, it's not legally fraud. The company simply didn't have enough money to stay open.

Farni-Arredondo said she feels bad for the agency's employees who undoubtedly lost their jobs. At the same time, parents at the meeting expressed incredulity that Integrity Travel would take their money as late as May 7, two parents said, just days before folding.

"To be taking money at that time, knowing there was no money," Kolker said to parents at the meeting, was his and many others' slap-in-the-face frustration.

Hempstead officials will be looking into cost tiers for alternative plans, whether a shortened trip or a trip elsewhere.

According to its website, Integrity Travel's tagline is, "Memory Making Moments." Unfortunately, this ordeal will likely be something none of the parents, students or educators involved will ever be able to forget.

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