Dingwall-based LHH Scotland withheld refunds from people who had holidays booked before the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak, claiming the legal set-up of their company meant they were not liable to hand out full refunds.
Major holiday lettings firms Sykes Cottages and Vacation Rentals were forced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to reverse their policies of refusing to give refunds to customers.
Other large firms, such as Airbnb, have also had full refund policies. The CMA said it expected “all companies” to follow in the footsteps of the firms it had taken enforcement action against.
Following complaints from customers, the CMA investigated LHH and last year told those awaiting refunds they had considered their complaints and, as a result, would pass the information on to the Highlands Council Trading Standards Service (HCTS) for further investigation.
Now an email sent to holidaymakers by HTCS and seen by The Scotsman has told customers who booked before the first lockdown they will be refunded.
Last year Highland Council's trading standards manager David MacKenzie said the organisation would “not hesitate to deal with” companies which did not act fairly.
HTCS said: “Highland Council Trading Standards has managed to secure payment from LHH (Scotland) Ltd for the outstanding redress owed to consumers who booked accommodation which was cancelled during the first lockdown.”
It said refunds would be processed within 14 days.
Dozens of holidaymakers who had booked through LHH Scotland contacted The Scotsman a year ago to complain they had not been refunded after their breaks were axed due to the lockdown, with some losing hundreds of pounds.
Some were offered the chance to rebook their holidays, but did not want to – or were not able to commit to a new date due to issues related to the outbreak. Others say they were told they could not rebook, but still had to forfeit their deposit.
In some cases, refunds were paid out by individual property owners, but often customers did not receive the full amount due to LHH holding part of the payment.
Customer Liz Marchant from Aberdeenshire had booked a property in South Uist with LHH for June 2020, paying a deposit of between £200 and £300.
When the first lockdown hit, she realised they wouldn't be able to go and contacted the company to discuss their options.
She said: "We couldn't have got there even if we wanted to, the ferry wouldn't have taken us, the government said not to travel and everything else.
"But when we realised this was the case, we contacted LHH and said we would be happy to rearrange and put it back a year, to which they said ‘OK, but you'll have to pay the full price for the holiday now, roughly £800’.”
In the terms and conditions attached to her original booking, Ms Marchant realised that she should not need to pay the balance for the holiday until six weeks before the trip.
She said: We're regular customers, we've been with them twice before, so we said we will pay the balance next year, but not now.”
After LHH refused, Ms Marchant decided not to rebook and asked for her deposit back.
She said: “I was told they wouldn't return it and we would have to claim on our insurance."
Ms Marchant described herself as "one of the lucky ones" because after claiming on travel insurance, she received the majority of her money back – unlike many customers – but was left £150 out of pocket. LHH eventually agreed to pay another £75 to cover the loss.
Ms Marchant said: “I just said that wasn't good enough, I took the £75 and told them that I didn't accept that that was the end of it.”
She got in touch with other LHH customers by setting up a Facebook group and reporting the company to the CMA and subsequently, Trading Standards.
She said: “They managed to get money back for a lot of us who had lost money, including myself. I'm just waiting on the final £75 arriving in my account now.
“The whole thing was just really unpleasant and so short sighted. I run a holiday business myself, I’ve got just one apartment and I gave everyone their money back without them even having to ask."
LHH Scotland owner Wynne Bentley has previously claimed the legal structure of the company, which acts as an agency rather than a holiday letting company, means the holidaymakers’ contracts are with the owner of each individual property, rather than with the firm.
Last year, one German tourist received a refund from LHH after taking the company to court in Inverness.
The firm had a scheduled hearing at Inverness Sheriff Court to face a complaint made by holidaymaker Veit Hoffmann, but settled out of court, refunding Mr Hoffmann's £1,382 cancelled trip.
LHH has not responded to requests for comment sent by The Scotsman.
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