A Houston entrepreneur says he will never return to the Bahamas unless it is to view “the ruins of the Baha Mar disaster”, after the enforced cancellation of his wedding left him $100,000 “out of pocket”.
Dr Arpan Gupta, owner of a residential construction firm, told Tribune Business that he and his fiancee had been left “completely shattered” by the demise of their nuptials, which had been scheduled for June at Baha Mar’s SLS hotel.
And he revealed that this emptiness had been exacerbated by the subsequent struggle to obtain compensation from SLS and Baha Mar, not only for themselves but the 110 close friends and family members who had all booked flights and hotel rooms to be present.
Dr Gupta said that rather than treat the couple and their guests as individuals, SLS ultimately decided to treat them as a group, leaving himself and his wife-to-be to seek compensation on behalf of all their family and friends, too.
He added that after weeks of negotiations and ‘back and forth’, SLS ultimately offered a mixture of cash and credits for ‘future stay’ at their Baha Mar property.
Yet Dr Gupta told Tribune Business that the cash component offered would not even cover the cost of everybody’s air fare. He added that the situation was now disrupting family relationships and friendships, as his guests were becoming increasingly concerned to recover their funds.
A well-known contractor in his Texan home city, Dr Gupta said he found it unbelievable that both Baha Mar and SLS could “not look out the window” and realise the $3.5 billion development was not going to hit its opening targets.
Describing the situation as “a complete mess”, Dr Gupta said he would not return to the Bahamas unless it was to “see the site of some disaster like Chernobyl”. He thus compared the Baha Mar saga to the Soviet nuclear power plant that exploded in 1986.
Dr Gupta’s story illustrates the ‘human toll’ that Baha Mar’s delayed opening is exacting on the hundreds of potential guests who have either had to cancel or revise their travel/vacation plans.
And it also highlights the potential damage that has been done to both Baha Mar’s and the Bahamas’ tourism brands, and the significant ground the developer, its three resort labels and the Ministry of Tourism may have to make up to ensure there is no long-term damage.
However, there had been no breakthrough in the “Mexican stand-off” between Baha Mar and its main contractor, China Construction America, prior to the weekend.
Tribune Business revealed exclusively last month how China Construction had ‘slowed down’ its work rate on the Baha Mar project due to a dispute with the developer over how much it should have been paid in February.
The Chinese contractor wants to receive the payment it believes is due before giving Baha Mar’s developers, the Izmirlian family, a projected opening date for the $3.5 billion. All this was confirmed by Prime Minister Perry Christie last week.
Robert Sands, Baha Mar’s senior vice-president of government and external affairs, would only confirm that the two sides were still talking.
“I’m only aware that they’re still meeting at this point in time,” he told Tribune Business.
When asked about Dr Gupta’s plight, Mr Sands said he was unable to speak to the case of individual guests.
“We have committed to looking after their interests,” he said of all visitors impacted by Baha Mar’s problems. “We’ve always said we that we understand that vacation time is treasured by individuals, and we will accommodate affected guests with options that best suit their needs.”
Dr Gupta told Tribune Business that he and his fiancee were originally going to book their wedding at Atlantis, until they learnt Baha Mar was opening and “got all excited” about the fresh product.
He said he initially contacted SLS in January 2015, and agreed the contract for the June wedding the following month, in the knowledge Baha Mar was due to open on March 27.
“From the very beginning things seemed to be a little bit off and disorganised,” Dr Gupta recalled. “They didn’t have menus and prices.
“In March, the news came out that they were being delayed. I was like: ‘Are you guys going to be open in June?’”
Dr Gupta said he was reassured by Julian Treadwell, Director of Sales and Marketing for SLS at Baha Mar, that everything would be fine. This was despite the project already missing two planned open dates - December 2014 and March 27 this year.
“They were telling us as late as April 17 that everything was going to be open, and there would be no problem opening for the wedding,” Dr Gupta added.
“I begged them, I pleaded with them. But they would not send us pictures or let us walk the property. I said: ‘Give me some guidance. This is our biggest event in the world’.”
After three days of e-mailing, Mr Gupta said Mr Treadwell ultimately acknowledged in mid-late April that the Baha Mar project would not be open in time to facilitate his June wedding.
He was given forms and instructions on how to apply for compensation, and ultimately put in contact with an SLS area vice-president. It was then that the hotel brand sought to treat Dr Gupta and all his guests collectively, rather than individually.
The Houston-based entrepreneuer said the cash component of the final compensation offer was less than one-third of his personal outlay, and would not even cover his guests’ collective air fares.
He was also informed by SLS that their Baha Mar property would now open on September 7, and that the brand was speaking to the developers.
“They said: ‘We could maybe do something for a wedding in November, but won’t confirm or book anything until much later’,” Dr Gupta said. “How can I tell 100 people in September to book for November?”
SLS executives then promised to speak to Baha Mar’s chief operating officer, Paul Pusateri, to work out an arrangement. But their failure to subsequently inform Dr Gupta about the outcome of these discussions prompted him to speak out.
The Texas-based entrepreneuer told Tribune Business he felt he was being ‘strung along’, and that Baha Mar and SLS were presently “shutting out everyone asking for a refund”.
He added: “We’re out about $100,000 when all is said and done. I’m in the hole for cheques I’ve written that are worth about $110,000.
“We’re out of pocket between everything. We just want to make everyone whole, and are willing to eat our losses until much later.
“They’re actually making both my fiancee and I look bad. They said in the e-mail that no one would lose a dime. We did all these things, filled out the paperwork and are now having to field calls from people, saying: ‘What’s going on? Where’s the refund?’ They’ve left us holding the bag and looking bad.”
Questioning when somebody would take responsibility, Dr Gupta said: “Why couldn’t SLS look out the window on April 15 and see the place was not going to open? I absolutely do not understand.
“They [SLS and Baha Mar] knew without a shadow of a doubt two months before any scheduled date that they were going to open.
“I build $1.5 million custom homes and town homes in Houston. I know within two weeks of scrutiny when it’s going to finish. With a $3.5 billion resort, I think you could just look out the window and look at the pictures and tell if it’s ready.”
Asked what he and his fiancee intended to do now, Dr Gupta told Tribune Business: “We actually don’t have any plans right now. They’ve completely shattered every expectation, goal and desire we had.
“It’s hard to muster up the energy, excitement and invitations all over again. It’s difficult to do. It’s like breaking up with someone, picking up the pieces and then moving on again. It’s as if you’re life is on hold.
“Our number one priority is to get our guests their money back. It’s a huge burden and responsibility on our shoulders. Then we’ll worry about ourselves.”
Asked whether he would consider a Bahamas vacation again, Dr Gupta told Tribune Business: “Sad to say, we believed in it [Baha Mar] so much, I really think we would, but more like seeing the site of some disaster like Chernobyl, as opposed to enjoying it like a museum.
“I think it’s a complete mess. I would not go to the Bahamas again unless it was to see the ruins of Baha Mar. I’ve been to the Bahamas before, stayed at Atlantis, and had a great experience, but after this one it just feels like a crime has occurred and there’s witnesses not saying anything.
“There’s no trust now. I can’t imagine going anytime soon. You just took the wind out of someone’s sails. We’re talking about just doing a small wedding. That’s less of a headache just to be done with it,” he added.
“You feel that if you do that, Baha Mar has won, but at the same time it’s more costly to organise a destination wedding. It should be the best day of my fiancee’s life. She’s an incredible woman and has handled it very well, but it’s very disappointing for everyone and our guests.”
Dr Gupta emphasised that he did not want to resort to legal action, and wanted to be known for ranking among Houston’s ‘Top 40 businessmen under 40’ rather than taking on Baha Mar.
“I actually do not want to [go to court], but it looks like the only way to get it resolved,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s a huge waste of my time, and we can forget about the wedding.
“We’re going to be running around the legal system for a long time to come. We’re going to have to go that route. I don’t see what else to do.”