Cartan Tours turns Olympic dream into nightmare for travelers

The Olympic tour agent boasts “excellence in travel.” But numerous mistakes and omissions by the company left travelers gypped, stranded and at serious risk in Beijing

Shortly afterward, Partner Concepts ceded all logistics of the event – dubbed as a “press tour” for journalists – to Cartan Tours, the official Olympic general sales agent for 32 National Olympic Committees. Partner Concepts’ press tour promised tickets to the Games, hotel accommodations “convenient to the venues and other major attractions,” round-trip airport transfers, daily shuttle service between the hotel and the closest Beijing Metro station, a Great Wall tour, and access to the Casa Americas hospitality center teeming with athletes, executives and media. Amazingly, with few logistics to take care of in a flexible tour schedule – huge blocks of free time were set aside for Olympic ticket holders to attend events – Cartan fell short in every single area:

The airport transfers: Unfortunately, the day of arrival, Aug. 7, set the tone. Although I had had to reschedule my flight from Shanghai to Beijing, the letter in my pre-trip gift packet mentioned that there would be Cartan staff at all times near the Starbucks shop in all arrival terminals. Forty-five minutes on, there were plenty of Mexican athletes giving TV interviews, drivers waiting for sponsor VIPs and even USA Basketball players, but there were no Cartan staff to be found. Assuming that the flight change had something to do with it, I hailed a cab to take me to my accommodations, the Leisure City International Hotel. The driver looked at the simplified Chinese characters on the page and mentioned in Mandarin that he’d have to make a phone call to find out where the hotel was.

A helpful blue-shirted Beijing 2008 volunteer intervened. The 10th driver that he managed to flag down said he had a general sense of the area. (By this time there were still no Cartan staff members to be found.) We jumped into the cab, and the driver proceeded to stop and ask for directions several times before we finally arrived more than an hour later.

(I should add that the language barrier, for us, was minimal: Although my mom speaks two southern Chinese dialects, she knows basic Mandarin, and is fluent in reading and writing Chinese characters.)

The next morning, I confronted Don Williams, Cartan’s vice president of sales and marketing. He said that it was possible that I just “missed” the staff leading others to transportation that time. If so, why wasn’t at least one staff stationed at the Starbucks as the itinerary had stated? I also noted how difficult it had been for the drivers to locate the hotel. His response was that, of course, the drivers wouldn’t know where it was because it was new. This was not a good sign. Interestingly, Williams didn’t even blink an eye when I asked for a cash reimbursement for the fare. I wasn’t alone in this predicament; one traveler said he was also stranded in Hong Kong.

The daily shuttles: The shuttle from the hotel to the Metro station revealed how “convenient to the venues” the Leisure City really was. It was about a 10-minute drive, which meant that the reverse commute could prove problematic if a shuttle was not available. (Foreigners are not allowed to rent cars in China.) Still, there were plenty of registered cabs available – if they, as Williams said, knew where the hotel actually was – and there was quite a bit of foot traffic on the large square separating the parking area and entrance “B” of the Tiatongyuan North station.

On the evening of the Opening Ceremonies, we joined a crowd of fellow Cartan tour members to watch Zhang Yimou’s glorious visual spectacle at a dinner party at the Casa Americas hospitality center in the Novotel Peace Hotel in downtown Beijing. A couple of tour members had attended a “Welcome Dinner” the night before, where Williams had told them several times that shuttles would be running continuously until 2:30 a.m. We left early to catch the Metro in order to take the Cartan shuttle back to the hotel.

By this time it was around 11:30 p.m. Disembarking the subway turned into a rapid realization that, with low lighting near the station, the casual bustle of the daytime around Tiatongyuan North had turned into a dodgy atmosphere of unregistered drivers trying to solicit business. The registered taxi drivers from the daytime had all but disappeared, and the parking lot where the shuttle had dropped us off hours earlier was so dimly lit that it required a walk across the square to see if the shuttles were there. When it became apparent that there weren’t any, we had already been surrounded by a mob of unregistered drivers shouting at us to get into their cars. Two more women from the Cartan tour had arrived from the party via the Metro by this time, and the security guards in the station were asking us to leave and stay outdoors.

At this point I had to fend for the welfare of my mom and the two other women with us. They later said that one of the drivers had tried to grab me, but I hadn’t noticed as we tried to walk back into the station, whipping out the China Mobile phone that Cartan had given me. An unexpected touch, but all our phones must have been cheap models as they were already rapidly running out of batteries. Cartan had not provided instruction booklets with the Siemens dual-band phones, which meant that most people hadn’t been able to use them (Williams had claimed that they were very “easy” to use); fortunately I owned an older model, so I happened to know how to operate it.

I dialed the Cartan Emergency number programmed into the phone and received an automated voice message stating that the recipient’s phone was shut off. (This happened to another traveler on a different occasion.) I then called the Leisure City Hotel, and after four transfers reached an employee who spoke good enough English to warn me to stay inside the station at all times – a sign that the nighttime environment around Tiatongyuan North was well-known as a dangerous one. About 15 minutes later, the employee, escorted by two additional colleagues, entered the station to check my identity via my China Mobile number. The employee was extremely concerned that we were left in such a precarious situation. He had had to wake up an off-duty hotel bus driver to escort us home, and he worried aloud about the welfare of other Cartan travelers who needed to get back to Leisure City.

It was about 12:30 a.m., and my instinct to try to find a solution gave way to anger. Debra Lindsay, one of the designated Cartan Hotel Managers, happened to be sitting at the otherwise vacant hospitality desk as our quartet stormed through the front door of the Leisure City Hotel. Shockingly, she insisted that we had missed the shuttle that was supposedly waiting for us at the station. She was also perplexed about our security issues because she claimed that Beijing is a very “safe” city; clearly, no location-scouting had been done in the month that the Cartan staff spent in China prior to the Opening Ceremonies. Even more shockingly, Lindsay refused to issue an apology, pinning 100 percent of the blame on the hotel and the local Chinese staff whom Cartan had hired as contractors. Partner Concepts had mentioned at SEME East that the concepts of “public relations” and “marketing” were quite new to the Chinese, who clearly had worked very hard at extending their hospitality to everyone, regardless of nationality. In that context, Lindsay’s lack of diplomacy and flippant reaction spoke volumes.

The next morning, Williams tried to downplay the situation in front of his staff by calling it a “small incident,” but an informal survey on my part prompted me to reveal to them that it wasn’t “small,” nor was it isolated. Apparently there weren’t any shuttles all day, as fellow tour members were stranded in the afternoon, at night and into the wee hours of the morning following the Opening Ceremonies – as late as 3:30 a.m., several hours following my complaint to Lindsay. Again, the staff refused to apologize, blaming the contractors.

Williams later announced that evening during our Welcome Dinner that continuous return shuttles would be arranged for the Tiatongyuan North Metro station as well as from several other Cartan hotels to cover the time period when the Metro wasn’t running. This included the Novotel Peace Hotel, the venue for Casa Americas. Williams added that Cartan staff at these hotels would be informed about the new arrangements, and that Metro schedules showing the final departure times of the day would also be provided at the Leisure City hospitality desk.

Sure enough, those empty promises rang hollow the very next day, with another tour member stranded at the Metro station for an hour and a half that afternoon. That evening, after that same tour member and I watched a late-night boxing event, she, my mother and I decided to take the late-night shuttle from the Novotel Peace Hotel that Williams mentioned. Not surprisingly, the shuttle was not there and not surprisingly, the lone Cartan staff member we flagged down – the others, someone in the lobby noticed, had all disappeared – didn’t know about the shuttles at all. I called the Cartan Emergency line, and this time a woman named Cindy picked up. Cindy insisted that we take the subway. We said that, based on the Metro schedules that Cartan gave us, we would not get back in time to catch the shuttle. She insisted that we get on the Metro or take the lone Novotel-to-Leisure-City bus…at 1:30 a.m., two hours from the time of my call. Again, this conflicted with Williams’ speech and again, it appeared that we would be stranded. At one point Cindy even asked me what I wanted her to do. “Do you want me to do your job for you?” I snapped. We somehow made it home via taxi in one piece, but late enough that I slept into an early morning women’s basketball game that I had tickets for.

The shuttles TO the subway station had even stopped running, and a disgruntled couple advised us one morning not to bother to wait considering the nighttime incident that had befallen other passengers. (Turns out that word of our Tiatongyuan incident had rapidly spread.) As one business traveler smirked to his colleague on our day of departure, “We have to take a CAB to get to the Metro.”

The hotel: For the press tour, Cartan chose the Leisure City International Hotel, about 20 km north of the Forbidden City. This would not have been an issue if the aforementioned transportation logistics had been in place. We later learned that this new hotel had two different names in Chinese and that all the surrounding road names had been changed, which explained why the cab drivers didn’t know where it was. In addition, as part of a large resort property, it turned out that the Hot Springs Leisure City spa on the complex was actually a famous landmark. But no one knew this from the start, as Cartan had failed to provide its travelers maps and adequate Chinese addresses in advance. Coupled with the shuttle fiascos, a number of travelers had to reschedule their Games itineraries based on the location of the hotel, often forced to bypass events or sell unused tickets.

The Great Wall tour: Cartan’s lone “package tour” component included a day trip to the Badaling section of the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. We did not learn until the bus had taken off that both of these sites had been closed by the government during the Games. The former was replaced by the Mutianyu entrance of the Wall, but the latter was replaced by the Temple of Heaven, which the majority of the tourists on the bus had either already seen or planned to see in a prepaid tour with another company. In a “Mutiny on the Bus” episode, a Spanish-speaking tourist and I led a revolt to successfully change the destination to the Lama Temple. Had Cartan informed us in advance, we would have been able to readjust our sightseeing schedules.

On an aside, why did I lead a revolt with a Spanish-speaking tourist? Cartan came up with the brilliant (insert sarcasm) idea to conduct a simultaneous English and Spanish tour, prompting members in the latter group to please switch languages whenever English was spoken.

Tickets for the Games: Some opted for the press tour because we wanted to cover the Olympics. Some booked Cartan through their respective university alumni organizations as a way to enjoy the Games with fellow alums. Other sports fans simply wanted to soak in the atmosphere. But one thing was clear throughout: Cartan’s itineraries for these tours changed during the weeks leading up to the Games, completely omitting any mention of Olympics tickets and tricking some into thinking that their tour packages included them. The travelers who received tickets didn’t know which ones they were scheduled to attend until they arrived in China, and others had to pay extra to buy tickets from CoSport, the agency authorized by the U.S. Olympic Committee to sell tickets to U.S. residents. Unbelievably, Cartan finalized my itinerary without paying attention to the tickets that Partner Concepts provided, which meant that my rowing tickets conflicted with my Great Wall Tour. Williams made no attempt to fix this snafu until the near-assault incident at Tiatongyuan North Metro, making a couple of calls to suddenly secure tickets to the women’s team gymnastics preliminaries the next day. With tickets that readily available, why the lack of checks and balances?

Leisure City Hospitality Desk: Cartan placed a prominent Hospitality Desk in the middle of Leisure City’s lobby with the intention of providing up-to-date information about traveling in Beijing. Although the local Chinese contractors hired to staff this desk were extremely helpful up to a degree – as in, following the limited instructions they had been given – the American Cartan staff members were nowhere to be found. Instead, they were tucked away in a suite behind computers. Little to no information was provided about events at the Casa Americas, the Metro (rumors ranged from the trains stopping past midnight to running 24 hours of the day), the Olympic venues (transportation and security being the main points) and, worst of all, the very changes that Williams outlined in his rambling Welcome Dinner speeches. By the end of the trip, some travelers had distrusted Cartan’s word so much that they took cabs everywhere, hoping that they would get to where they wanted to be. News of various events, including the Casa Americas opening party, had trickled to us via word of mouth, not from Cartan themselves. Where were the event schedules? Why hadn’t I received a list of possible interview sources or a press conference schedule at Casa Americas? By this time I was wondering where the “press” was in the “press tour.”

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Right now, there are still a number of travelers on Cartan’s Beijing tours, unaware that some of the logistics now in motion are a direct result of the harrowing experiences that my fellow travelers and I endured. However, these measures should have been put in place in advance. “It isn’t as if [Cartan] didn’t know for the past six years that the Olympics were taking place in Beijing,” said one American traveler, who added that Cartan’s customer service and Olympic Games tours had dropped so much in quality since the Nagano Winter Games that he will no longer book any travel with the company.

With other travelers suffering similar issues and Lindsay’s lack of concern that I was going to publish this article, I chose to write this piece as a warning to sports fans who may be considering Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. I should note that this was not a situation of naïveté; many of the Cartan travelers were travel veterans who thought twice before shelling out thousands of dollars for their trips. (I’ve been to 22 countries so far, including North Korea and Russia when it was part of the USSR, and others’ totals exceed mine.) What makes this worse is that Cartan is tied to so many national Olympic Committees.

On paper, Cartan provided tour packages inviting sports fans to catch a piece of the Olympic spirit in a rapidly-changing Chinese metropolis. The reality? Cartan Tours left travelers fearing for their lives when it didn’t come close to delivering the few promises it pitched.