“We’re really close, it really is like a family,” Tyler Thompson, a senior at San Marcos High School said talking about his high school’s band program.
Tyler’s senior year was going to end with what some have called ‘the band trip of a lifetime’, a chance to tour and perform across Tokyo, Japan this summer.
“We were all excited,” Tyler’s mom Susan said.
For the parents of these band students, it all began last January when they attended meetings held by their individual schools. Students and parents from San Marcos, Del Norte, Mission Hills and Eastlake high schools listened as band directors pitched what they were calling the “International Festival of Wind and Percussion.”
Also in attendance at the meeting via Skype to answer questions was Brad Matheson, the owner of the travel tour company behind executing the trip, Harmony International.
According to the Harmony International informational packet and contract handed out to parents, the trip to Japan would take place from July 11-18 this year and would include a number of concerts in Tokyo.
Students would have the chance to meet and perform with Japanese high-school students and to play at Tokyo Disneyland, according to the packet parents received.
To see the packet parents received, click here.
The cost per person was $3,687 and included round-trip airfare, meals, “sightseeing excursions” and individual, up to two million dollar medical insurance policies, the packet cites. Since the participant price was based on figures like airfare and exchange rates as well as tariffs, Harmony International stated the price could fluctuate and in the event of the price increasing by more than 15%, the participant could cancel their reservation and receive a refund at that time.
“It was going to be an experience the kids wouldn’t forget,” Brandy Martinoli said. Brandy and her daughter, who also attends San Marcos High School, joined nearly 70 other students and parents who signed up to go.
“They [Harmony International] had set up payment plans,” Brandy said, “You paid the initial fee and every other month they had a fee so they actually outlined how much you owed every month.”
As an incentive to sign-up quickly, Harmony International told parents at the initial meeting they would receive “free trip insurance” if they signed up by March of last year.
Months went by and parents say communicating with the company was rough. The parents said their questions about the trip would often go weeks unanswered and Harmony International ‘Project Managers’, assigned to the Japan trip, would change every few months. Parents would only find out about this change when they received auto-reply emails saying the person they had been speaking with no longer worked for the company.
Band directors tell NBC 7 Responds during these months they were in communication with schools in Japan, working out the schedules for the performances and considered the Harmony International communication issues to be isolated.
Brandy, Susan, and other parents say the first sign of something odd came at the end of August last year.
“It was August 31, they actually sent an email out saying you could no longer pay with a credit card, you could only pay with PayPal or check,” Brandy said.
NBC 7 Responds spoke with over 20 parents from all four schools and all said the notice gave them pause but since the trip was moving forward, they brushed it aside and mailed in their checks.
In February, Brandy had to cancel the trip for her and her daughter. According to the Harmony International contract, Brandy had canceled the trip in the acceptable window of time to receive back $1900 of what she had paid.
“Nobody responded to my emails, nobody responded to my voice messages and I left voice messages on all of their machines, I received nothing,” Brandy said.
Brandy said she still has not received any of her deposit back after canceling her reservation back in February and she’s not alone. NBC 7 Responds spoke with a parent of a student at Eastlake High School who said they canceled their student’s reservation back in November but they too have not received a refund, despite their emails and phone calls to Harmony International. Susan Thompson also canceled in March and said she couldn’t get her money back either.
“And I’ve followed up several times and each time I emailed everyone else in the company and I haven’t gotten any responses,” Susan said.
In the month that followed, Harmony International told band directors if the trip were to continue, parents would have to pay an additional $700 per person. The band directors told parents they refused and asked the company to refund everyone’s money.
At this point, parents had paid a collective amount of more than $150,000, according to band directors at the schools.
Harmony International sent an email to parents on April 19, saying the trip would not be moving forward as planned. The email didn’t mention anything about refunds.
The same day the email was sent, parents say Harmony International’s website was taken down and the company’s social media accounts were deleted. Parents have since been told details about refunds have been turned over to a Georgia-based attorney.
“We have families that have paid them $10,000 and who knows if they’ll see any of that money, it’s terrible,” Susan said.
Some parents held onto the incentive that had gotten them to sign up quickly in the first place, the free trip insurance Harmony International offered at the original meeting. Those parents were hoping the insurance would help pay the refunds but parents tell us Harmony International never took out those insurance policies.
“I can't even begin to imagine why the company didn't follow through with the purchase the insurance policies,” Matt Armstrong, former band director at San Marcos High School and one of the organizers of the event said in an email to NBC 7 Responds, “To say that this outcome is shocking is a massive understatement.”
Band directors and organizers said prior to this trip, Harmony International had a good reputation for executing international trips according to other schools and universities they had spoken with. Armstrong told NBC 7 Responds in an email that there was no “financial impetus” for the band directors and organizers involved with the event.
“I also want to be very clear that none of the directors/artistic directors were paid for this,” Armstrong said in the email.
“This is so upsetting for all of us and at this point, I truly hope that all of the families are able to recover their money,” Jennifer Kitelinger, band director for Del Norte High School, told NBC 7 Responds in an email.
Erika Orcutt, the attorney representing Harmony International, sent NBC 7 Responds this statement regarding the trip to Japan, “Harmony International has successfully produced over 200 trips to 5 different continents and 30 different countries, with more than 7,000 participants throughout its 10 years in business. We regret that the July 2017 trip to Japan had to be canceled. Unfortunately, there were not enough participants signed up to meet the minimum requirements for the trip. We understand the disappointment and frustration felt by those who were planning to attend. Regrettably, after a decade in business, Harmony International will be going out of business. We have been in direct communication with the individual participants and will be meeting with them in person next week to further discuss the financial ramifications of this situation."
NBC 7 Responds has learned the address Harmony International listed as their company headquarters, and the address the company gave parents when requiring they make payments by check, is a P.O. Box in Kennesaw, GA, according to an employee at Pak Mail on Baker Road.
The owners of Harmony International, Brad and Margie Matheson, own several businesses out of Key West, Florida, according to business license filings. According to the business’ website, Harmony Yacht Vacations organizes trips between Cuba and Key West. One LLC, Harmony Sailing Academy, was created on January 20 of this year and lists Brad Matheson as a manager for the business.
Parents who made trip payments with their credit or debit cards are now disputing those charges and some are receiving credits from their card companies. Parents who paid with checks, unfortunately, have no recourse at this point.
Brandy and Susan said it’s one thing to take money from adults but from the kids is “just wrong.” NBC 7 Responds spoke to the parent of a San Marcos High School sophomore who said the student raised $2,700 for the reservation himself, through working and holiday gifts.
“I really don’t know how they can live with themselves,” Susan said.
Parents tell NBC 7 Responds they have filed complaints against Harmony International with both the California Attorney General’s office and the Federal Trade Commission. Both agencies recommend parents file complaints with their offices.
“California consumers who have concerns with a travel agent or other seller of travel should file a complaint with our office, with the state attorney general of the state where the travel agent is located, or with both,” Jennifer Molina with the California Attorney General’s office told NBC 7 Responds.
To file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, click here.
To file a complaint with the California Attorney General’s office, click here.
To file a complaint with the Georgia Attorney General’s office, click here.