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December 29, 2010

"People to People Student Ambassador" Program Again Agrees to Modify Representations About How Student's are "Selected" for International Travel

Company also agrees to stop implying that government officials, including the Governor, are involved with selecting “invitees”

(DES MOINES, Iowa)  The marketing company for “People to People International” has formally agreed to change its practices, after Attorney General Tom Miller raised concerns about the company’s compliance with the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act.

Ambassadors Group, Inc., and Ambassador Programs, Inc., of Spokane, Washington, agreed to change the marketing of travel programs in Iowa, in an agreement called an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, which took effect Wednesday.

The for-profit tour company sends “invitations” to “eligible” students through an “admissions advisor” to become a “member” of the “official state of Iowa delegation” traveling abroad.  The latest Iowa marketing materials falsely suggest that Iowa’s governor is actively involved in selecting recipients of travel offers.

“I am concerned that parents who received these notices are led to believe that ‘People to People’ and the governor somehow selected their child, based on merit,” Miller said.  “Parents who normally would not or could not pay several thousand dollars for these trips may feel pressured to sign up simply because of the way they have been marketed.”

In fact, according to Miller, these travel programs are aggressively marketed to a broad range of potential customers, many or even most of whom are not specially selected for the “invitation.”

Under the agreement with the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, Ambassadors Group, Inc. and Ambassador Programs, Inc. agree to the following conditions for future marketing efforts in Iowa:

  • Refrain from stating or implying that a travel option or “opportunity” is because of any special recognition, honor, performance, skills, or other restrictive eligibility criteria;
  • Refrain from stating or implying that marketing efforts emanate from a non-profit entity or are somehow affiliated with governmental bodies, including implying that a governmental official or representative was involved in selecting a person for a travel offer, unless there is documentation substantiating the claim;
  • Refrain from stating or implying that a teacher, faculty member, coach, administrator, or any person associated with an educational facility, was involved in recommending or selecting a person for a travel offer, unless that person was involved and the facts can be substantiated
  • Refrain from stating or implying that a prior traveler, parent chaperone, family member, friend, or any other third party, was involved in recommending or selecting a person for a travel offer, unless that person was involved and the facts can be substantiated;
  • Commit to using certain terms with care, such as “ambassador,” “official,” “delegation,” and “represent the [country, state, city,]” because of their capacity to mislead consumers regarding the nature of connections to governmental entities or functions.

In 2005 an Iowa mother received a People to People travel solicitation claiming that her son – who had died in infancy many years earlier – had just been “recommended” for an “honor.”  In 2006, Ambassadors Group Inc. informally agreed to modify its marketing practices in Iowa, including its “Student Ambassador” travel program introductory letters and in-person presentations, following the Attorney General’s allegations that aspects of its marketing materials and practices were misleading.

Miller alleged that the company has since sent solicitation letters to Iowans that violated earlier commitments, leading to the formal agreement that took effect today.

As part of the formal agreement, Ambassadors Group, Inc., and Ambassador Programs, Inc. agree to pay the state $50,000 for its Consumer Fraud Enforcement Fund, but deny any wrongdoing.

In a letter sent to People to People International (PTPI) President and CEO Mary Eisenhower, the Consumer Protection Division alerted Eisenhower about the Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with Ambassadors Group, and conveyed the Consumer Protection Division’s concerns about past marketing practices and a desire to ensure that future PTPI programs be marketed only in a “scrupulously honest and straightforward manner.”

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