Two high-end tour operators owned by New York public relations executive Jena Gardner and her firm, JG Worldwide, have gone dark, leaving travelers stranded along with a trail of unpaid bills and commissions.

Among the complainants are a couple who said they paid Heritage Tours $17,000 for a trip to Portugal, where they had planned to relax after the husband's cancer treatment. But when they arrived, they discovered that only the first two nights' accommodations of a 10-day trip had been paid for.

Likewise, an agent who booked and paid for a $31,000 trip through Heritage's sister company, Revealed America, said she discovered a similar trail of unpaid suppliers after failing to receive the documents she needed for her clients' national parks trip set to begin July 2.

And Haisley Smith, vice president of marketing and development for Brownell Travel, said her firm is owed close to $30,000 in past due commissions and client refunds from Heritage and Revealed America dating back to October 2018. 

"Above all else, it's profoundly disappointing that long-time partners would treat their colleagues this way," Smith said. 

A number of advisors and other travel professionals from around the country confirmed on background that the problems with the companies have been ongoing for months at Heritage Tours and Revealed America, which until recently had been preferred partners with the Virtuoso, Signature and Ensemble travel agency consortia.

An official with Virtuoso said the company terminated its relationship earlier this year after being placed on probation. 

Reached last week after Smith told Travel Weekly about the unpaid commissions, Gardner said, "We are behind on a few commissions. We know that. But we are always committed to travel agency partners and getting them paid. I'm chasing quite a bit of my own JG receivables. I'll make it a priority and get it done."

Later that same day, after Cynthia and Bill Clayton of New Jersey relayed their story of booking direct and paying Heritage $17,000 for their trip to Portugal only to have to repay for their hotels and excursions on arrival, Gardner's partner, James Saleh, called to say it was a misunderstanding with the land operator and the Claytons would be reimbursed.

But Gardner and Saleh did not respond to requests for further comment this week after more advisors and people close to the company relayed tales of stranded travelers and unpaid bills and commissions.

Cynthia Clayton said that since an initial flurry of communication between Saleh and her son while they were traveling and in which Saleh promised to reimburse them, they have heard nothing more from Heritage.

"We have notified and given all the information to American Express and our travel insurance company, who are working on the problem," she said. "They can put more economic and legal pressure on the company than we can."

Clayton said the couple booked their trip directly through Heritage after Conde Nast Traveler gave it a high rating.

"We have suffered greatly on this vacation, which was supposed to be a way to relax from my husband's cancer therapy," she said. "We are both in our late 70s and have traveled widely and cannot understand how this could happen."

Travel advisor Natalie Lenrow with ETA Travel in Pennsylvania said she booked her clients on a national parks tour through Revealed America in September because it was a preferred supplier with Ensemble and offered the high-end experiences and hotels her clients were seeking. The $31,000 balance was paid in full in April, she said, but she never received any final documents.

This week, she discovered that everyone she had dealt with on the transaction had left the company, and most of the hotels and suppliers for the trip, which was set to begin July 2, had not been paid.

"Thank God they put it on a credit card, and thank God I make my clients get insurance," she said.

Unable to reach anyone at Revealed American or JG Worldwide, Lenrow said her contact at Ensemble was finally able to get a spreadsheet of the hotels and activities Revealed America had booked for her clients. But she said most of them were not paid or had been given only partial deposits, so she has spent much of this week rebooking everything on her own credit card until she can sort out reimbursements from insurance.

"One of the hotels said they had numerous reservations from Revealed," she said. "I know Ensemble has three agents who had booked trips through them and didn't even know what hotels their clients were booked in."

The company websites are still live, but no one answers the phones.

"This is beyond anything I could have ever imagined," Lenrow said, adding that it has been infuriating to be unable to get any information from the company or its executives. 

"Things happen in life," she said. "But if you're going under, have the decency to say, 'We're having a problem, and here's what we've done.'"
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Jamie Biesiada contributed to this report.

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