PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — Bay County-based travel company Bookit.com, which left some customers stranded as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, has received a federal paycheck protection loan for $1-to -2 million.
Government records show Bookit.com employed 168 people. But a company statement to News 13 suggests they have no plans to use the money to rehire the employees they laid-off earlier this year.
Instead, the money will apparently be used to keep a team of 35 employees, and to pay back customers, according to Ryan Tennyson, Bookit’s interim chief financial officer.
“Bookit.com suspended selling travel packages in March in response to travel bans and resort closings due to the Corona Virus. The company closed its corporate office in Panama City Beach, but it continues to operate, and hopes to resume its activities as a full service travel agency once some semblance of order returns to the international travel industry,” Tennyson wrote in a statement to News 13. “The remaining administrative and support staff (approximately 35 full time employees) continues to work through the refund process for our guests (they are working remotely due to the Corona Virus), and to date 70% of our displaced travelers have been refunded.”
We contacted the Small Business Administration which oversees all the PPP loans. SBA officials declined to comment specifically on Bookit.com, referring us instead to a section of their website that offers information about loan forgiveness.
“The loan will be fully forgiven if the funds are used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities (due to likely high subscription, at least 60% of the forgiven amount must have been used for payroll),” the website states.
There is nothing in the guidelines that states the money can be used to pay refunds to customers.
While some might believe Bookit is violating the spirit of a program, it is unclear if it violates the letter of the law. Tennyson argued that the company is in compliance.
“We are working diligently to conclude the process,” Tennyson wrote. “The costs of those efforts are funded in part from our PPP loan proceeds, which are being deployed in a manner that fully complies with the requirements of the program.”
At the same time Bookit.com received federal bailout money, hundreds and possibly thousands of the company’s customers say they are still trying to get refunds out of the company.
Leigh Anne Belcher, one of the administrators on a Facebook group called “Scammed by Bookit,” said the company stranded her and her daughter in the Dominican Republic when it shut down in March. Belcher had to pay a total $3,100 to the hotel and the airline so she could leave the property and fly home.
Then she spent months dealing with Bookit and her credit card company in order to get back the money she paid Bookit, which was supposed to pay the hotel and the airline. Belcher said she just recently received a refund from her credit card company. But others are still trying. About 2,500 people are part of the Facebook group and according to Belcher, most are still fighting to get refunds.
Others say they paid for trips that never happened because of the pandemic, but still have not received refunds. Many of those who did get refunds say it did not come directly from Bookit, but because they disputed the charges to credit card companies and banks.
Belcher said that if the company really does have employees handling this issue then they should start issuing refunds.
“They need to take the onus back on themselves,” Belcher said. “Rather than making people jump through all these hoops.”
More than a dozen other people shared similar stories with News 13 about their Bookit experiences.
Meanwhile, Arthur Finlaw, the CEO and a shareholder of Bookit.com is dabbling in real estate under the Bookit name.
“A company owned by a group of investors (including Mr. Finlaw) under the name of Bookit Holdings II recently sold a parcel of land and reinvested the proceeds into two income-producing condominiums,” Tennyson wrote. “The transactions were not related in any way to Bookit.com.”
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is currently investigating Bookit.com. The Massachussetts Attorney General has already filed a lawsuit against the company.