Dallas sports travel agency drops ball for fans going to Cowboys-Redskins game

Cowboys fan Alishea Thomas of Richmond, Va., had been making payments for months toward a $1,000 travel package so she could watch her Dallas Cowboys battle the Washington Redskins last Sunday and celebrate her birthday with friends.

Unfortunately, the tour company -- Maximum Sports Connection, the "official Cowboys fan travel partner" -- never replied to her increasingly frantic e-mails asking the flight time.

Each time she called, Thomas was put off by staff members, who said the owner, Ronni Sokol, wasn't in but would e-mail her. "I didn't even get the courtesy of, 'Hey, I'm working on it,'" said Thomas, a supervisor at a federal agency.

Four days before the planned departure, she filed a failure to provide services claim with her credit card company after American Airlines told her no reservation had been made in her name. She recouped only $700 of the $1,002.79, because some payments were more than two billing cycles old.

"And I bought a dress for my birthday that I never got to wear," she said.

More than 100 other Maximum Sports Connection clients did make it to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport -- on a one-stop flight on U.S. Airways, instead of a more convenient nonstop American flight -- only to be told that promised reservations at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center were canceled.

Darron Mayes, co-organizer of a group of 24 Redskins and Cowboys fans from northern Virginia, quoted Sokol as saying that Gaylord had "overbooked," but that she had arranged alternate accommodations at the Marriott DFW hotel in Fort Worth.

"That is not correct," Gaylord spokeswoman Martha Neibling said. "There was no overbooking."

Neibling said Maximum Sports failed to make its payment deadline. And while cancellations in the hotel trade are common, losing a block of about 200 rooms so close to check-in was rare, she added.

Since Mayes and co-organizer Elijah Jenkins had promised a stay at the Gaylord Texan, they took rooms at the property, which offered them Maximum's group rate of $139 instead of the $268 rack rate. Mayes and Jenkins covered all the room charges themselves, but were later told by Sokol that they would be reimbursed.

Dallas-based Maximum Sports has an enviable "A+" rating from the Better Business Bureau, and Cowboys spokesman Brett Daniels, referring to the 11-year-old tour company, said, "We've heard of no problems in the past and no complaints."

"The company just had a hiccup," Sokol told the Star-Telegram. "We couldn't meet the deadline for payment, so it was very last-minute. We've been in business a long time, and we're trying to work with each individual customer to rectify the situation."

Sokol confirmed telling customers that Gaylord had overbooked, but also disclosed that she had failed to pay for the rooms in time because of a cash-flow problem. Then, she reasserted that Gaylord had indeed overbooked because not all of the rooms released after the cancellation were made available.

She blamed the last-minute airline switch on customers who themselves failed to meet a payment deadline.

But Betty McKenzie-Mabry, a Maryland travel agent who led a 31-member group, said an American Airlines group sales official disclosed that Maximum's credit card was declined.

Moreover, Maximum failed to arrange for tickets on U.S. Airways for seven in her group, who stayed home as a result.

"I had to tell them at 11 p.m. Thursday night, and we were supposed to leave the next day," she said in a call from Greenbelt, Md.

Another fan, an Army servicewoman, flew to the Washington area from South Korea to use her prepaid package. The soldier refused to travel with the group because of the flight and hotel changes, McKenzie-Mabry said.

McKenzie-Mabry described an ugly scene at D/FW Airport, when her group was told of yet another hotel change, from the Omni to the Marriott. "They cussed me out in the airport," she said.

Sokol said she is contacting customers with an offer to compensate them for their inconveniences, which could be applied toward discounted 2011 game packages. This year's packages ranged from $399 to $1,075.

Refunds will start at $100 and go up, depending on the cost of the package and problems encountered, she said.

Jenkins confirmed that Maximum contacted them early this week, then again Wednesday, asking for receipts for the Gaylord rooms so he and Mayes can be reimbursed.

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718