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Illustrative image Image Credit: GN Archives

Dubai: More than a dozen UAE residents claimed to Gulf News that they lost thousands of dirhams on travel packages purchased from a company registered here in Dubai. These customers alleged that they were duped for amounts ranging from Dh15,000 to Dh30,000. They also claimed that the promises made by the company, Novo Elite Holidays, were not fulfilled and that the firm didn’t respond to their complaints.

So, we took these claims and complaints to Novo Elite Holidays, and this is how the story unfolded.

We Novo Elite have been in industry from last 4 years and has created fantastic holiday experience for our valued clients. More than 21,000 room nights booked and more than 8,000 flight tickets as a service to fulfill our commitments, we have done many events and clients were invited for free

- Javeed Hussain Syed, Managing Director, Novo Elite Group - in an email statement to Gulf News

A ‘lucky’ draw

All the stories we documented, across the UAE, started with a routine grocery shopping trip in 2018. Shoppers at their local supermarkets were approached by promoters of the company with an exciting offer – fill up a form and enter a draw to win a gold coin and an international travel voucher. The caveat – they needed to put in detailed contact information – understandably, in case they won.

All of this was legit for the customers we spoke to, especially in the UAE where draws and lotteries are heavily regulated and monitored to ensure transparency and protection of consumers.

‘You won!’

Every single person, that we spoke to, who signed up for the draw was informed over the phone that they won the prize - a 22KT gold coin and a travel voucher. To collect their prize, all the ‘winners’ were told to come to a meeting point – in most cases a Novotel Hotel branch – at a given time.

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Customers we spoke to said they received calls saying they had won the grand prize - a gold coin and a travel voucher

In Abu Dhabi, Sam*, 31, made his first contact with the firm in 2018. His wife, while shopping, had filled out a form for a raffle draw entry and they got a call saying her entry won a gold coin and a travel voucher. To collect the gifts, Sam said, company representatives told the couple to meet them at a Novotel Hotel in Abu Dhabi. After insistent calls, Sam and his wife headed to the hotel two days later.

Novotel hotel branches were mentioned as meeting points by several Novo Elite customers we spoke to in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Gulf News contacted Novotel Hotels, a four-star chain owned by Accor group about a possible brand connection.

We are not affiliated to Novo Elite Holidays and have not been approached by them previously for meeting requests at our hotels.

- Novotel Hotels email statement to Gulf News

In an email statement, a representative from Accor Group said: “We are not affiliated to Novo Elite Holidays and have not been approached by them previously for meeting requests at our hotels.”

An ‘exclusive’, limited-time travel deal

Sam said, “Once we got there, they told us that they had many packages to offer if you want to take a look”.

He remembered that the representatives then proceeded to introduce various plans, offering hotel stays and discounted flights to many destinations including India, Malaysia, Singapore and Europe to name a few. The couple claimed to have been promised exclusive discounts on round-trip flight tickets and discounted hotel bookings across the world.

Sam said, “I was initially very reluctant to pay, but the representatives kept forcing me – insisting that the ‘exclusive’ packages offered were given to a very limited number of draw winners across the UAE – a group with as few as 60 members across the country.”

There was a catch though – the membership agreement had to be signed and paid for that very night, at that meeting, which Sam did. He was given a receipt for his payment of Dh17,000 for the three-year Silver membership plan.

“They promised to reimburse bank fees for converting the lump sum into monthly instalments, so I made the payment from my credit card,” he said. Sam also got a welcome gift, a lunch voucher, which he redeemed in Abu Dhabi.

According to an e-document shared by one of the customers, the basic Silver plan gives customers various perks that are valid for a period of up-to three calendar years applicable for a family of four (a couple and two children younger than 10). Free benefits include a six night/seven day stay with breakfast at a four-star hotel in a destination of choice, along with airport transfers and a city tour. The plan also offers free international tickets to a choice of destinations.

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“Apart from these free benefits, the firm promised “exclusive” discounts – a minimum of 10 per cent price cut on flight bookings and a minimum of 30 per cent off on hotel bookings compared to other websites,” Sam said.

No benefits?

Happy with his new exclusive offer bag of discounts, Sam promised his sister that he would take care of accommodation when her family visited Georgia. He used his online user account, the username and password of which the company representatives provided, to choose from partner hotels advertised on the site.

Some customers claimed that booking of services, flights or hotel accommodation is not possible on the online user account. They said the company requires a call or an email request to get quotes and consequently book services.

We have an online portal, Login ID & Password which is given to each client who enrolls with us, where they can go and book their desired packages. We have assigned relationships managers to each client and the relationship manager is available on email, WhatsApp and phone calls to address all their concerns.

- Email statement from Javeed Hussain Syed, Managing Director of Novo Elite Group

Sam, at the time, looked at partner hotels and tried to call for quotes. No one responded, so he sent an email request on February 24, 2018 asking for quotes on specific hotels for a set of travel dates. He followed up twice before getting a response on March 3, over a week later. Finally on March 5, the team sent him the quotes.

“They had promised discounts of 30 per cent compared to other sites, and the rates were actually higher than the others! I started getting worried. As for my sister’s trip, it was too late anyway, and she managed to book their accommodation in time,” he added.

Sam tried the services again, this time to book his flights to India.

“The prices were lower on the airline’s website, ” he said.

When we asked the representatives of Novo Elite Holidays about these accusations, they said in an email statement, “Being a travel company we have many good contractual rates from hotels & flight, however we can’t undercut fares from [airline brand website] online rates. This is explained to all clients, on many occasions we have given attractive discounts to our values clients but this is not possible every time as flight face vary and depends on season, number of passengers and destinations.”

Sam, exasperated, tried to contact the team to refund his money since none of the benefits actually worked for him. The phone numbers given didn’t work, he said, and he couldn’t get through.

Unpleasant ‘welcome’ experiences

For Hussain* (32), a UAE expat and government employee based in Fujairah, an attempt to redeem one of these ‘welcome gifts’ didn’t go well. Talking about his first experience with Novo Elite, he said “While shopping, there were some pamphlets being distributed – we filled in our contact information as they said it was free to do so and soon after, we got a message with information on a meeting point to collect our gift.”

He bought the Silver plan offered by Novo Elite in September, 2018 for Dh16,798.

The firm, based on customer accounts, offered an array of welcome gifts – such as a lunch or dinner voucher, one-time free amusement park tickets, one-night hotel stays among other free offers that could be redeemed in the UAE.

An attempt to redeem one of these ‘welcome gifts’ didn’t go well for Hussain, who has been living in the UAE for the past 9 years. He decided to take his family, including his visiting parents on a trip to Yas Island – the welcome offer he got was a set of free tickets for the entire family to visit the amusement park in Abu Dhabi.

He got the details printed and headed out from Fujairah at 7am with the entire family in tow.

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After Hussain arrived in Abu Dhabi and waited in a long queue to get into the park, he was told the tickets were invalid. Livid, Hussain called up the firm.

This was when I realised something was wrong.

- Hussain* (name changed on request) - a Novo Elite customer

Their resolution was that if he paid for the tickets, they would reimburse him.

Upset and confused, he had to explain to his family that they needed to drive back home.

“You know how far Fujairah is from Abu Dhabi; I drove all the way there and back with nothing. My parents were with me, we waited in queues to get turned away – with a bruised pride I had to turn back”, he said.

“This was when I realised something was wrong”, he said. Hussain did not pay for the tickets.

Gold and Platinum

Membership plans offered
- Silver Membership: Travel perks and discounts extending for three years for a family of four (a couple and two children younger than 10)

- Gold Membership: Travel perks and discounts extending for five years for a family of four (a couple and two children younger than 10)

- Platinum Membership: Travel perks and discounts extending for ten years for a family of four (a couple and two children younger than 10)

Dr Suwansh Mesram, 39, a practicing paediatrician based in Abu Dhabi, took up the Gold package. Mesram paid Dh30,000 for the package. He was promised similar travel perks as the Silver plan but extending for five years. In addition to that, Mesram was promised one-time free round-trip Europe tickets for the family along with airport transfers, hotel discounts and other benefits.

Mesram – an expat of two years – took his family to Europe a few months after his purchase.

“I paid for the flights myself that time, thinking I could save the promised free round-trip tickets from Novo Elite another trip time,” he told Gulf News in a phone interview.

However, he pre-arranged for airport transfers in Europe with the company.

“We did get the transfer to our first hotel from the airport. However, we had to find our own airport transport when travelling back,” he said. While there Mesram tried to claim hotel discounts and benefits promised when in Europe, but ended up paying for all of it himself.

The company representative later promised Mesram that he would get reimbursed for the differences he paid for, but that didn’t happen.

“They never pick up the phone,” Mesram said when asked about following up.

The most expensive plan, Platinum, costs over Dh40,000 and – as advertised on the company’s website – promises exclusive travel benefits extending over a period of 10 years for a family of four.

Why don’t the phones work?

In a meeting with the top management of Novo Elite Holidays, Gulf News emphasised that most complainants point to the difficulty in contacting representatives as their major issue – in addition to the fact that Novo Elite’s offices have shut down. Gulf News visited their offices on Sheikh Zayed Road to confirm the closure.

In response via email, the managing director said, “We have assigned relationships managers to each client and the relationship manager is available on email, WhatsApp and phone calls to address all their concerns. However off late we are facing some issues with [telecom service provider], as our PRI lines had some fiber optic issue and [telecom service provider] was unable to resolve. After a long struggle we finally decided to relocate the office to new location. Which has been communicated to all our clients.”

The company’s offices in Al Kharbash Tower remain closed as the company “shifts operations”.

“0% interest” instalment plans

Zero-interest Easy Payment Plans (EPP) are not new to UAE expats. However, with this firm, things went down a little differently according to first-hand accounts.

Sam in Abu Dhabi, for example, was told that if he paid with his credit card, he could convert it into monthly instalments with his bank. While there was no on-going bank offer, the company promised that once the conversion to instalments was done and a corresponding statement presented, they would reimburse the profit rate applicable within 60 days. Mesram, who paid Dh30,000 from his credit card, was also allegedly promised this ‘special deal’ by the representatives.

They promised to reimburse bank fees for converting the lump sum into monthly instalments, so I made the payment from my credit card

- Sam* (name changed on request) - a Novo Elite customer

Thereby, both of them turned their lump sum payment into monthly instalments, and as expected the bank charged a profit rate – which the firm promised to pay as email correspondence. Neither of these customers got reimbursements, though a year has now passed since the statements were presented to the firm and acknowledged.

“I have given up,” the Abu Dhabi-based doctor, Mesram, said. “Dh1500, I have accepted that as my monthly payment until the debt for this is paid off,” he added.

About this aspect, Novo Elite said in their email statement, “Novo Elite is a NON FINANCIAL organization although we have had tie up for EPP [Easy Payment Plan] with RAK Bank, ENBD & Mashreq, apart from credit cards from there bank if any client is opting for EPP we give them discount and client won’t have to pay any amount to bank.”

Other stories from UAE

John*, a 32-year old Filipino expat dealing with the same Dubai firm, was offered a payment plan wherein he could pay half – Dh7,500 – at the first meeting and then pay the rest a year later.

He wasn’t able to redeem his introductory ‘gift’ which was a travel voucher to a choice of Thailand or Malaysia. John had tried to contact the firm multiple times, but only managed to succeed in making contact once.

After not being able to get through for months, he managed to get a one-night stay at a five-star hotel in Dubai. He said, “Since then I have not been able to contact them to redeem anything else.”

The company’s representatives called John in May, almost exactly a year after his first payment. They asked him to pay the rest of the money, another Dh7,500 to keep his contract active.

John refused and told them he wasn’t happy with the services and therefore didn’t want to renew. “They didn’t call again,” he said.

“Aggressive” marketing

“I got a call on my phone, saying I won a lucky draw and that I should collect the prize from the Novotel hotel [in Dubai],” Ben* said in a phone interview with Gulf News. Ben, a Dubai expat from Kerala, went to the hotel and when he turned up, there were other ‘winners’ there.

“Mostly expats, Indians, Filipinos,” he said.

“The marketing team was very aggressive and I felt forced to sign in fear of losing an offer that sounded too good to be true,” Ben said. “The consultant spoke in our native language and tried to convince us in every possible way and the talk went for more than two hours,” he added. Ben said the promise of huge discounts and international trips made him buy the package – the Silver plan.

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There was a catch though – the membership agreement had to be signed and paid for that very night - as it was promised to be an exclusive time-limited deal for as few as 60 people in the UAE

He paid half (Dh7,500) as a preliminary payment. He said, ”I agreed for only half the amount and remaining amount shall be paid only if we were satisfied with the services.” The representative agreed to this and Ben paid the amount.

When Ben and his wife got home, they came across negative reviews about the company online and got worried.

“The very same night we called them in landline and mobile but there was no answer. We tried for days and weeks and each time a different person pick the call and said they stop taking bookings temporarily,” he said.

This continued for almost three months, Ben said, before a group of customers got together and filed DED complaints against the firm.

Getting the DED involved

After months of back and forth and lapse in communication, some of these residents decided to take legal action. A group of people met at the Bur Dubai police station to seek resolution, customers we spoke to said. However, since it was a business related case involving an active firm, Dubai Police directed all of them to take it up with the Dubai Economic Department (DED) – which they did.

“DED called for a compromise meeting and Novo Elite agreed to refund the customers amount. They called us to their Dubai head office and gave a post-dated bank transfer letter,” Ben said. Upon this DED investigation, another customer told Gulf News that he got Dh18,000 back out of his total Dh43,000 payment for the Platinum package. The other customers we spoke to said they did not get any refunds.

As is the process, after the DED tried to settle things amicably, some customers claimed that the company promised in the presence of DED officials that they would make good on the services promised – this did not materialise, according to customer accounts received by Gulf News.

The Consumer Protection sector in Dubai Economy investigates and follows up on consumer complaints with the prime objective of resolving them amicably and according to existing laws. Consumers can submit consumer complaints and follow up on them through our website (www.consumerrights.ae) and the smart application ‘Dubai Consumer’.

- Ahmad Al Zaabi, Director of Consumer Protection in Dubai Economy (in an email statemnt)

“We are working closely with DED and DTCM to address all the concerns of our clients and resolving them”, Novo Elite also said in their email statement sent to Gulf News.

Fake complaints

Novo Elite Holidays claimed that some of the complaints making the rounds online were fake. “As per our previous experiences we have encountered some fake concerns and reviews against our esteemed conglomerate which was effectively dealt by Dubai Police, DED and DTCM,” their email statement added.

About the firm

On the Novo Elite Holidays website (http://www.novoeliteholidays.com/), the ‘About Us’ section says, “Started in 2011, 's flagship brand [The firm], today has a fast growing customer base of over 2000+ happy members and 200+ exotic holiday destinations worldwide. We have created wide range of fantastic fun filled holiday experiences for our valued Members. Our consistent advocacy to quality service policies are recognized and reviewed by members globally.”

There is a ‘Testimonials’ page from satisfied customers but the accounts posted are from 2017 or earlier. The page seems to have not been updated since June 2017.

Gulf News found another website address http://www.novotrav.com with the same branding. The page title is NETT (for Novo Elite Tours and Travels) which is also the email domain (nettrez.com) used for customer correspondence in some cases. Another email domain in use by company representatives is novoelite.ae.

The Facebook page referenced by customers, Novo Elite Tours, doesn’t seem to exist anymore. 

New offices, old offices

In August, we went to the location of the agency. The offices were closed off, with multiple printed notices stuck on the doors.

The notices said, “Office shall be closed for shifting 28th of July customers can contact their relationship manager through email and call. Please visit our website www.novoeliteholidays.com. Your registration no. starting with 6388 is your username & registered mobile no is your password.” Contact details were also provided “For Urgent Inquiry”.

Novo Elite, in their email statement to Gulf News, said “… our office will be ready by 25th Sep. Wherein we will invite all our active clients address & resolve their concerns.”

We were unable to reach the company's MD on his given mobile number to confirm the opening date or any updates about the new location.

“I need closure”

Sam took a step towards finding a legal solution. He filed a case against the company with Dubai Courts earlier this year, after many failed attempts to get his money back.

When we asked him how he manages to keep abreast of the case from Abu Dhabi, where he lives, Sam said, “I have given complete power of attorney to my lawyer and we expect a judgement soon.”

Sam added, “I have not only lost money, I am also paying for the lawyer and in this case but I am not regretting doing it because I want a judgement. Even if I lose the case, at least it is an end to this situation.”

“I want to make sure no one else goes through this, if that’s the least I can do,” he said.

*Names have been changed at the customers’ request

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