By Larry Gordon
The first time we went away with our family for Pesach was to the Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake, New York, in 1984 (approximately). The hotel was expertly managed by brothers Irwin Mehl, a’h, and Izzie Mehl, may he live and be well.
The unusual thing was that after a long nine days of yom tov that featured a lot of davening and even more eating, people lined up to check out and pay their bill before they left when yom tov was over.
That worked several decades ago at Catskills hotels such as the Stevensville, the Homowack, or the Villa Roma, but that is not the way things work anymore. Today, when you make a reservation anywhere in the world at a hotel for Pesach, before you park your car or ingest the first macaroon, you must be paid in full, absolutely and completely, without any exceptions.
About two weeks before Pesach, one such program manager told me of a client who had a balance of $8,300. The person responsible for payment, I was told, called the folks in charge and said that he was wiring them $7,500 to represent final payment. The hotel person on the other end of the phone said, “You can wire the $7,500 but you will not get a room key at the hotel until we receive the remaining balance of $800.” They received full payment, of course.
I’m not sure if it is the thoroughness and swiftness of how information travels these days, but the just-concluded yom tov seems to have been a bit rockier than usual, though you can be assured that the overwhelming number of Pesach programs ran smoothly and without a hitch. It does not appear, at least preliminarily, that payment was an issue in any of these situations, except in the reverse — that is, where people paid but thought they deserved their money back.
The greatest offenders in this area are people who either intentionally or due to circumstances beyond their control take money and then do not open their programs, leaving people stuck in a situation where they are out of big money and forced to stay at home when they were planning otherwise.
We received letters here about a program in California that let people know about two weeks before yom tov that they would not be opening for whatever reason. While that can happen due to a number of legitimate but still unfortunate circumstances, in most such instances the money paid for the Pesach program is returned.
What it comes down to is that because the nature of the industry today requires full pre-payment, just about everyone who decides to go to a program for Pesach is left at the mercy of program entrepreneurs — most of whom run their businesses honestly and cleanly. But there are the others who are simply a cross between incompetent and dishonest.
You might have seen the scene sent around on WhatsApp that showed a young woman losing it at a Pesach program in Mexico, throwing dishes filled with food at the kitchen staff of a hotel south of the border. In the same video, you hear a man becoming increasingly irate when he learned that Splenda that was available at the program and produced in Mexico contained kitniyos. If you do not eat kitniyos on Pesach that is fine, but if you discover that an honest error was made, is that reason to act like you are, at the very least, temporarily insane?
One of the biggest offenders this Pesach season was a program under the name Pardes Pesach. We received letters from people who gave the proprietors of this program in Newport Beach, California, substantial sums of money. When organizers announced that the hotel was not opening for yom tov, they became unreachable, and people who paid could not get their money back.
One of the proprietors of the program once resided in Far Rockaway. I got to know him over the years until he moved out to the Lakewood area. Rabbi Shmuel Iann told me on Monday that he and his partners had the best intentions but that another program — Regal Retreats — opened about a mile from the hotel they had contracted with and, according to Rabbi Iann, began to undersell them.
Rabbi Iann said he had collected about $500,000 from potential guests and paid that money to the hotel. He and his partners are now suing that hotel in an effort to recover money and return it to the people who were left without a Pesach program.
We reached out to Dov Osina of Regal Retreats, who had a different version of the story. He said Pardes Pesach’s Newport Beach hotel began to undersell Regal at a price that was unsustainable. Rather than raise rates, Pardes Pesach continued to sell rooms and take reservations after it became apparent that they would not be able to open for Pesach.
Mr. Osina said his program took in over 40 families that were registered in Newport Beach and did so below cost to accommodate people stuck in a desperate situation as yom tov was approaching.
If the Newport Beach hotel canceled its Pesach program, depending on what the contract says they should return the money to the people who paid for the program but got nothing.
The largest pilgrimage spot in the world, Orlando, Florida, has became dotted with large and sometimes luxury homes that people from around the country buy to rent out to tourists who want to have an audience with Mickey, see The Hulk or visit an orca.
This year, one program closed in Orlando long enough before the chag so that people could make other plans, but this group is also finding it challenging to recover money to return to their clients.
But that was not the biggest Orlando program fiasco. The biggest headache was delivered to well-meaning and unassuming guests by A Different Pesach Program, which collected hundreds of thousands of dollars but seems to have failed to pay in full the association representing the homeowners in this particular Orlando development. Here is a Facebook post from one of this program’s employees.
“A Different Pesach Program 2019 will be one for the books. Such a program requires a dedicated staff to help prepare and deliver great service. With a very limited team of 15 people, we were given multiple behind the scenes tasks to help service the guests of A Different Pesach Program in Orlando, Fl. Working from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., with little to no breaks, and limited resources, we delivered the best possible service we could give. However, a week into working the program, everything took a turn for the worse.
“We, the staff of, A Different Pesach Program in Orlando, Fl., would like to give our take on this matter. We have video evidence of the nightmare we endured once we found out that within two hours if we had not left the common areas where we were working, we were in danger of being arrested for trespassing due to non-payment. Even throughout this nightmare we were still trying to prepare dinner to deliver to our guests. We were given confirmation by Mr. Atkin that we were able to use the common areas, to then find out 10 minutes after setting up that we had to remove once again everything back to the trucks. We tried our hardest with the limited resources given to us to give the guests the experience they paid for.
“Many of us have worked this program for many years and throughout the years have become close to some of the families. We are sorry that the families had to go through this; however, we, the staff, have also been affected by this entire ordeal. We have been left without any promise of pay for the work and services that we have put into this program. All of us have gone through many hours of work in the sun and have become very concerned that the service we have already put in will not be awarded with pay. Https://www.gofundme.com/we-the-staff-of-let-my-people-stay.”
Again, the overwhelming number of programs around the world ran seamlessly and featured great celebrations of yom tov. Running Pesach programs for large groups of people entails two primary issues. One is that it is extremely pressurized, and the other is that you handle large sums of money. If you cannot manage the many aspects of the program efficiently or cannot handle the money properly, you have a combination of circumstances that spells out just one thing: big trouble for all involved.