Scores of UAE residents are up in arms against a popular leisure club that they claim is refusing to refund their membership fees despite being unable to avail of its services. Agitated members are blowing the fuse, claiming they were "misled and cheated by phoney holiday offers".
Complainants interviewed by Khaleej Times said they paid membership fees of up to Dh40,000 to make their holiday dreams come true after falling for what they term was an "aggressive marketing campaign" by Country Club, which runs facilities in India and the UAE, among other countries.
"It was a trap that my family and I walked into. I lost nearly Dh30,000 on free holidays that were never there. They blatantly lied to us," alleged Mukesh Nathani, a cardiologist who lives in Ras Al Khaimah.
Another complainant, Pakistani national Mohamed Ameer, a project manager in Abu Dhabi, claimed he was coerced into paying nearly Dh40,000, after being promised a full refund. "It is almost a year, and I am yet to receive a single penny from them."
Jubin Joseph, who also claims to have fallen for the holiday scheme, alleged he was charged Dh17,000 instead of the Dh7,000 he had agreed to for a three-year membership. "What they tell you and what they deliver are totally contradictory. I have been knocking on all doors to get my money back but without results so far," said Joseph, who added he has resorted to "legal means".
However, when contacted by KT, Country Club's Abu Dhabi branch manager said the membership fee is "non-refundable" and that this is clearly mentioned in all contracts. "People should read the contract before they sign on the dotted line. Our non-refund policy is clear," said Mohammed Abdul Suban.
When asked about customer complaints regarding unfulfilled holiday offers, Suban said: "Nobody can do genuine business. I mean to be 100 per cent genuine is not possible if you want to run a profitable business. We are not telling lies. But some gaps in information will be there. People should be smart enough and educated to understand that."
The branch manager also confirmed that Country Club wound up its sales operations in the UAE about six months ago "due to over demand". "We are not selling memberships anymore in the UAE. Some staff members are still based in the UAE for customer care."
Further KT investigations revealed that the Department of Economic Development (DED) has sealed the Country Club's office and gym facility in the Khalidiya area's Shining Tower.
In a written statement to KT, the Consumer Protection Department of the DED said the club's office was sealed due to non-compliance and exercise of additional activity not linked with a licence, which is offering service discounts and reservations for hotels.
But the club maintained that the shutters were down as they decided not to renew their contract. A new gym facility for members is up and running on the Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed street in Abu Dhabi.
Club members who are fighting long-drawn battles to get their money back alleged that the advertised free holidays had hidden costs or they turned out to be "unpleasant experiences without any value for money".
"I became a life-time member of Country Club in 2016 after attending a presentation about their holiday schemes. They showed fantastic holiday facilities across the world, including the Maldives, and I really thought it would be great for my family. Within six months, when I approached them to book a Maldives package, they flatly denied having any property there," Nathani said.
When he finally managed to book a Sri Lankan holiday through Country Club, the cardiologist maintains he was "horrified" to see the "poor facilities". "It was not even a two-star hotel, that too somewhere in the interiors. And we had to pay taxes, which came to almost the same amount that I would have paid otherwise."
Another member, who requested anonymity, claimed the club denied him free holidays in Georgia, stating they didn't own properties in all destinations. "I was asked to cough up almost 40 per cent of the room charges as facility fee as it was a Country Club-managed property."
Mohammed Ameer, who claims to have had similar experiences, said he has reached his wits' end chasing the club for a refund. "I had paid Dh22,000 initially. After six months, their salesman promised me a full refund if I coughed up another Dh17,500 as a special offer for Pakistani nationals. I have an official email from them, promising refund by December 2017. Now they are refusing to pay, saying the salesman lied. Is that my problem?"
Foray into the UAE
According to its website, the Country Club was established in 1989 in India and is a 'leisure and entertainment conglomerate' that offers member-exclusive holiday packages and fitness facilities. "The club has over 50 ownership clubs, resorts and hotels in India, Middle East, Bangkok and Sri Lanka," states its website.
It opened its first facility in Dubai in 2011 and started a UAE-wide campaign for club membership, offering yearly free family holidays and gym facilities for members and their families.
Abu Dhabi branch manager Suban said the club currently has up to 100,000 members in the UAE.
How the club operates
>Club staff approach and collect contact numbers when people fill up forms for raffle draws and discounts
>Tele-marketers contact customers, saying they have won a prize
>Customers are asked to attend a one-hour marketing session in order to claim their prize
>During the session, the club's sales team convinces customers to become members to avail of free holidays and fitness club access
>The terms and conditions mentioned in the contract are rarely read by members, and by the time they have a rethink, they have parted with their money
Why Country Club office was sealed
According to the Department of Economic Development, the Country Club office in Abu Dhabi's Khalidiya area was closed due to:
>Article (72): Failure to comply with the pledge to return amount within 60 days as on 3/08/2017 based on a consumer complaint. (CAS-15860-N4X8X9)
>Article (30): Non-compliance with the terms and conditions prescribed for the establishment's premises (expiry of licence)
>The exercise of additional activity not linked without a licence: Service discounts and reservations for hotels
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