Ever since Tom Harper River Journeys abruptly shut its doors in early May, affected travelers, travel agents and the river cruise lines for which the Newton, Mass.-based river cruise reseller sold inventory have been scrambling to pick up the pieces.

Mary Ann Strasheim, owner of Omaha, Neb.-based Custom Cruises & Travel, had two clients scheduled for a sailing in May that had been booked through Tom Harper on the Zambezi Queen, a luxury river cruise vessel on Botswana’s Chobe River.

Strasheim got an email alert from ASTA on May 15 warning that Tom Harper had closed. She said she immediately checked with the airline her clients were booked on.

“All their stuff had been canceled,” Strasheim said.

As she worked to get her clients rebooked, the company that operates the Zambezi Queen asked Strasheim if she could help find and rebook other Tom Harper passengers.

Together with Murray Gardiner, co-owner of Cape Town, South Africa-based ground operator Giltedge Travel, which works with the Zambezi Queen, she has been trying to track down affected passengers and to help salvage their Africa river cruise trips based solely on passenger lists provided by the Zambezi Queen, plus some basic passenger information.

Gardiner said that he and Strasheim have managed to salvage eight Tom Harper clients’ trips on the May departure of the Zambezi Queen. But, he said, there are 11  Tom Harper-booked cabins on the Zambezi Queen that have been canceled for a July departure, 14 cabins in September and another 14 in October, and they are still working to track down those passengers or to resell those cabins to minimize the losses.

“We are confident we will be able to resell 90% of them, so the financial loss should not be too bad,” said Gardiner, who encouraged affected agents and travelers to contact the Zambezi Queen directly.

Last month, Fred Tillary, a traveler based in Baton Rouge, La., found out one day before his Tom Harper trip to Scotland was supposed to depart that the sailing had been canceled.

“We were scheduled to leave on Friday, May 8, and Thursday afternoon as I was driving home from work, I got a call from my travel agent that she had gotten an email from Tom Harper indicating the trip had been canceled,” Tillary said.

Indeed, Tom Harper sent a letter to passengers who had booked a May sailing on the 54-passenger Lord of the Glens vessel in Scotland informing them that their trip had been canceled. 

“We failed not only you, but also missed an important deadline in our contractual obligation with the owner of the ship in Scotland,” Tom Harper CEO Bret Gordon wrote in a letter dated May 8 that was obtained by Travel Weekly.

The letter offered travelers on the canceled Scotland trip two options: a full refund of the money paid to Tom Harper and a cruise-tour certificate worth $1,000 per person toward any future Tom Harper river cruise; or if travelers transferred the money paid to the same Lochs & Rivers of Scotland journey in 2016, or any other available Tom Harper river cruise, they would receive a cruise-tour certificate worth $4,000 per person toward any additional Tom Harper River Journey.

“Since we will need to reclaim funds from suppliers as we await your response, we expect the refund process to be complete within 30 days,” the letter stated.

Tillary said he was tempted by the $4,000 offer, which together with the $4,000 due to his wife would have meant $8,000 for a future trip for the couple. But he said he wanted to speak with someone at the Tom Harper office to find out what happened with the Scotland trip before rebooking anything.

He called the Tom Harper offices on May 8 and did speak with somebody there, but he said, “They were not forthcoming at all. I called back Monday or Tuesday the following week and nobody answered the phone.”

Tillary last week was preparing to send paperwork to his travel insurance provider to try to recuperate any of the money he lost as a result of the Tom Harper closing. He said it was likely he would be able to collect, based on the policy he purchased through his travel agent.

But not everyone will be so fortunate. According to Strasheim, affected customers who paid for their Tom Harper trip with credit cards have managed to recuperate some of their losses through their credit card companies, but among those who paid with check or cash, “It’s gone.”

According to ASTA, there are a number of steps agents can take to help minimize their own and their clients’ risk in these types of situations. They include using a major credit card for the purchase, which offers some protection, and buying travel insurance that includes “supplier default” protection.

A tale of decline

Founded in 2013 by Gordon, a former Vantage Deluxe World Travel executive, Tom Harper was established as a company that sold river cruise inventory on ships throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, including on vessels owned by Haimark Travel, CroisiEurope and the Zambezi Queen.

All three cruise lines have said that whatever was booked with them through Tom Harper for 2015 has been canceled. In the meantime, Tom Harper has gone silent. Repeated calls to the company’s main line have yielded the same response, that the offices are closed.

Calls to Gordon requesting more details about the company’s current situation have not been returned, and an email to Joe Luchison, Tom Harper’s vice president of marketing, bounced back. A call to Luchison also has not been returned, and there has been no response from Tom Harper’s customer service phone line or email.

While the company’s website was still up and running last week, along with its Twitter and Instagram feeds, Tom Harper’s Facebook and YouTube pages have been taken down.

There is still no bankruptcy filing for Tom Harper Cruises LLC, the name under which Tom Harper River Journeys operated, but the Better Business Bureau has issued an alert stating that Tom Harper is no longer in business, and the company has been placed on travel insurance company Travel Guard’s financial default alert list.

In addition to running Tom Harper, Gordon last year was tapped to head up Amras Cruises, the recently established U.S. distribution arm for Munich-based Amras Cruises Worldwide. As of last month, Gordon is no longer involved with Amras, according to Rudi Joham, president at Amras Cruises Worldwide.

Amras is in the process of setting up its own company-run office in Chicago, which will take over sales, marketing and operations for Amras Cruises in the U.S. It is business as usual, Joham said, adding that Gordon’s departure and the restructuring of the sales office will not impact any current or future bookings.

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