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Amazing Adventures With Amazing Pet Expos
A First Person Vendor Saga
(BenQQ 12.06.17) I first heard about Amazing Pet Expos (APE), a St Louis based company that produces themed market events around the country, in a car radio ad. It seemed it would be perfect for two of my projects, myartmagnets.com and countrycatfamily.com. The latter is a read along photo book series for parents and kids.
Like all the Memphis vendors, I saw the event as an opportunity to land customers and signups. So I recklessly called while driving, and met an ebulliently helpful staff member. She said the previous Memphis event had attracted about 6,000 attendees. Because I was signing up as a photographer, I could get an “artist discount” at $300 if I paid by the end of the week. Please rush. Time was running out.
So I prepped for my booth with photo and video gear, printer, sign up forms and posters. For this event, I planned to live stream photos and video interviews, requiring additional electric and internet services in this the city’s largest event venue, the Agricenter International. It was from the "Ag Center" that I first got the bad news.
“Due to unfortunate circumstances, the Memphis Pet Expo will NOT be taking place at Agricenter International this weekend,” Administrative Assistant Marilyn Kennedy wrote me August 3.
Shortly after receiving that message, I got an email from Amazing Pet Expos CEO Shiela Rilenge:
I wish I weren’t sending this email right now and I know you won’t be happy, but it can’t be prevented. I know exactly how much goes into the prep for an event like the Memphis Pet Expo: for starters, it’s hours and hours of your time and a whole lot of money…
We’ve had to make the decision to cancel the Memphis Pet Expo this weekend and will issue you a full refund within two weeks. You will receive a phone call from me as well to offer more specifics, but because it will take me several days to actually speak with all of our exhibitors, I wanted to send this message immediately.
I can assure you, when we speak, I am happy to be perfectly candid about each detail - unfortunately, the core issue which created this situation has also affected others and I am doing my best to make sure everyone speaks directly to me.
I will also be personally reaching out to each of you next week (please forgive me if I’m a bit slow - I’m still recovering from a bout of pneumonia and am not quite at 100%) in order to offer a personal apology and determine exactly how you’d like to see things made right - in addition to your refund.
Many of you have played a key part in bringing nearly two (2) millions people through our doors since 2009 and more than 50,000 pets wouldn’t have found forever homes without your support. Those of you who’ve worked with me know how much I care about our exhibitors and how far I’ll go to take care of their needs. I’ll do the same thing for you. I look forward to talking with you very soon and remain available for anything you may need. Again, I really am sorry.
I was stunned. This was Amazing’s 4th, according to APE, expo in Memphis and one in a series of successful city expos nationwide.They were extravaganty documented in their hand held videos and web pages while attendees and exhibitors enthusiastically endorsed events. Surely, I thought, this had to be a fluke, a one-off, that could be minimally repaired with a refund or reschedule. So I immediately emailed CEO Shiela Rilenge, even offered support.
Now after interviews of dozens of APE cancelled vendors, her email reveals an ongoing pattern of wide ranging excuses that were to expand wildly culminating finally to business sabotage. I would find out that to them the trooper theatrical value “The show must go on” was an alien concept to an organization ostensibly dedicated to, yes, holding shows. I never received that personal phone call.
Shiela emailed her first apologetic lamentation Sept 19 that read:
“Good evening, Ben - Please accept my apologies for taking so long to respond; I'm not making excuses, but I've been trying to get caught up after being in FL to help my parents evacuate from Irma and then clean up the aftermath. I received the voicemail that Anne (Anna) left for me as well. In the meantime, you should have been responded to in my absence by Rene - can you please let me know if she spoke with you already and provided you with the confirmation details regarding your refund? Please let me know at your convenience. Again, I'm sorry to not have responded sooner - I was not ignoring you by any stretch of the imagination. Kindest regards,
The spin had begun with the necessary ingredients. Believable. Concerned. Painful. Honest.
Then, after responding, I received another email Sept. 20:
“Thank you for getting back to me so quickly! I can coordinate your refund be issued via PayPal - that's not an issue at all. I will plan to take care of that Friday then and will absorb the fee as well. Thank you for being so patient with all of the unusual chaos surrounding the Memphis show - I know your art magnets aren't limited to your local area. In the interests of rebuilding trust, I'd love you to offer you complimentary space in our St. Louis show next month (Oct 28-29). It's an outstanding event and we're celebrating our 9th year. I'd really like you to be able to experience one of our high-quality events so you could see how good our shows really are. St. Louis is technically sold out, so if you chose to take me up on this offer, I would just ask you to please let me know at your earliest possible convenience. In the meantime, I look forward to your response and hope you have a restful evening... Kindest regards,
Again, Shiela brimmed with support and trust. I wrote back: “Thanks Shiela. Paypal at this address would be the best for us. The total amount was $360. With whatever method of refund, please let me know…” Not unsurprisingly now, the St. Louis show at the St. Charles Convention Center was subsequently cancelled, despite it being “technically sold out.”
However, the “unusual chaos” surrounding the Memphis show soon became questionable. An observable pattern emerged regarding their too numerous cancelled events. Was this a company that scammed vendors and venues with last minute cancellations or just one that had grown too fast and had encountered too many issues at once?
To date Amazing claims to be producers of over 278 expos since it started in 2009. Their events have natural visual appeal with local TV stations fawning over cute puppies and heart warming adoptions. In the last couple of years, local TV coverage changed considerably where cancellations occurred.
The APE web site, as of Nov. 5, event map showed cities where some events had been cancelled but were still presented as held expos. Among the locations shown as active and found cancelled by asking the venues this year: Memphis, Nashville, Charlotte, Portland, Chicago, Austen, New England, Florida, Cleveland, St. Louis.
APE had advertised on its site an event scheduled at the Florida State Fairgrounds. However that venue Oct. 20 announced, “The promoters of Amazing Pet Expos are promoting an event which is NOT [their caps] scheduled to be held on the Fairgrounds for the foreseeable future.”
One venue alleges APE has a questionable track record in paying its bills to them as well. Nathan Sykes, attorney for the Metro Center, told us the 2017 event was not going to be held because there was an outstanding balance for 2016. Further, local radio KGW.com reported the Portland (OR) Metro Expo Center APE did not even book the event though venue employees reportedly said it continued to take vendor exhibit fees.
If the company is pocketing exhibit fees from last minute cancellations ranging between $300-$1200, it would be an MO that nets them doggie loot of tens of thousands, if not more. Cancelled show vendors say where those cancellations happen, APE walks away with unencumbered profit from pet industry businesses and humane services.
Internet searches reveal a series of alleged abuses where vendors claim outright fraud after broken promises to refund for cancelled events. September reviews on the Better Business Bureau site indicate few if any refunds were received by vendors.
So, after 3 emails to someone identifying himself as media rep, I was finally advised to contact Shiela Rilenge, whom I had been CC-ing all along. I then sent a separate email exclusively to her, again listing my questions, which she termed in response “inaccurate.” I then received a call from William Rilenge. William said Shiela was ill and he would be glad to respond to my questions. He said I was the only media member that had reached out to him. (The remark was curious because almost all of the local TV stories said they reached out for comments to the company.)
William Rilenge recounted how the business grew from 1 show in 2009 to 23 per year 4 years later. “As we got bigger,” he said, “we were on the road 33 weeks every year”. By accounts from participating vendors, those shows went off without a hitch. (In those days, Animal Planet’s Shorty Rossi was their public persona, according to a repeat vendor.)
Then, William continued, the job of keeping up with the shows became overwhelming. “While we had our eye off the ball, things got disorganized,” he said, citing unpaid contracts and bookkeeping errors. He said a personal friend was handling the books for what he called was a "small family business." However, the job, he explained, was too much for her. They let her go.
After a search, they found her replacement. According to his narrative, she pulled the company back together but they fired her as well in mid-2016 upon discovery of alleged sabotage and crazy behavior.
“At first, it worked out really well,” said William of the new employee—who he said had years of references, as well as CPA and MBA credentials. He said the company even hired her daughter upon her request to do data input work.
“But in the spring of this year, the daughter came to us and had an audio tape of her mom,” William said. “She was rambling on and on about the anti-christ.” He said the tape included such remarks as Satan working at his desk as he, William, typed in “increments of six.” William said she mounted an all out campaign against the company because, further, it hired members of the LGBTQ community. Hence, as a religious zealot, her motivation to destroy the company.
William lays the blame (discounting Shiela’s various excuses made to vendors) at least much, if not all, of the company’s current problems to be at the malevolent hands of this single individual. The way he tells it, cancellations, vendor non-refunds and nonpayments to venues and suppliers begin and end with her. She allegedly destroyed records, contacted venues, vendors and committed a range of malfeasances against the company. When this account was presented to one local media, they responded sarcastically with "The Devil Made Me Do It" headline. (While the story itself may be true, the company shows connection between it and not refunding vendors.)
It is within this context that William said he submitted to no avail multiple claims to Allstate Insurance to cover the losses. William then said they had moved insurance to Markell Specialty that handles special events. (Just one problem for vendors: it is unlikely any insurance company is going to honor previous claims under another insurer.)
Further, William said the employee was the subject of a restraining order he filed in April this year. Per public record from the Missouri courts, that employee is identified as defendant Veerda Levon Greer. Records indicate she did not appear in court. As part of an explanation of its troubles the company posted the court order on the internet. Greer’s name on that post is redacted. Further, apparently contradicting William's account above, there is no record of anyone holding a CPA license by that name in Missouri. Attempts to reach her have been unsuccessful.
However, in a series of public statements in social media, again posted by the company, it would seem it is implying Greer is the anonymous writer posting on a supposedly religious blog. I emailed the writer if in fact she was the same person who William claimed damaged the company. I stated I was doing a story.
One email@example.com responded, spookily enough, with: “The only story that matters is that the LORDS will has been done. My opinion does not matter. They employ many homosexuals and liars and were warned that would be their end. I will be blamed but I was merely the vessel. The Lord tasked me with destroying the sin that harbors more sin and that task has been done. No company that employs the faithless will be blessed. That is ‘THE STORY’” (her caps).
My first thought was visions of Sissy Spacek’s fanatically bent mother in the movie Carrie. Second, had William been willing to provide the identity of the homophobic staffer, readily identified in court documents anyway, I suspected this had to be a plant. It fits too perfectly into his and Shiela’s narrative of persecution by a crazed religious avenger. However, if true, it is the ultimate excuse. Forget weather, illnesses, riots and dog's dying (one excuse offered to a vendor). Here was the true enemy, the first cause and an intolerant religious bigot to boot. Even a non-lawyer could imagine APE might have a legal defense against civil or criminal charges. Vendors often raised both.
Attempts to reach Greer have been unsuccessful.
All that will probably be irrelevant to the vendor who just wants to get some of its money back for choosing to exhibit at Amazing Pet Expos. Every vendor with whom we spoke told a similar tale: a refund is promised but no check.
“We were solicited for years,” said a pet food business owner slated for a cancelled show in 2016. She said she was offered another show at no cost the following year but that show was cancelled as well. Over time she heard a variety of excuses and promises, including the death of Shiela's dog and “insurance problems.”
Unless it has the resources of a major company or are a municipal venue such as the one in Portland currently reported as suing, an individual vendor has little recourse in getting a refund, much less related expenses. Even the larger fees charged to those for a number of booth spaces would not financially justify mounting a legal action against an out of state company. One vendor wanted someone to mount a class action, but that seems unlikely as well. The dollars amount to just enough to make a good killing, but not enough for long legal entanglements.
That may be why the company seems unconcerned about legal action, even now with a history of cancelled events and "unhappy" (as Shiela calls them) vendors. However, in the interview, I raised the possibility the FBI might possibly find grounds on wire fraud since his operation is internet based. Where he brushed off legal action from vendors, he remained silent on that.
APE promises to repay vendors and frequently claims it has. For example, William told me, apparently forgetting I was a vendor myself, that vendors in Memphis had been refunded. The problem is finding out just who was a vendor at a cancelled show and who got a refund.
Just as we were pondering how to find vendors from one cancelled show, we encounter a particularly motivated one. She said she was making negative comments at the cancelled Chicago show at the Schaumburg Expo Center in Illinois. A man wearing an APE logo shirt demanded she leave the facility.
That vendor, Dahna Betts with Shih Tzu Rescue Adoption & Education Safehouse (S.T.R.A.E.S.) told me, “I could smell a problem with them.” She said she had a corporate career spotting and working to clean up “problem management.” She continued, “Another vendor pulled up and said they had done the same thing in Pittsburg.”
She emailed me the published vendor list for the Chicago expo. We counted 106 participating vendors. Of those, we emailed and/or called 76. Of those who responded or we spoke to, 19 had no refunds to date, 5 said they were not vendors at that show and 1 no comment. We found no one who had received a refund except for one rescue group who appeared in local news media. (Afterwards, APE announced animal rescue/adoption groups could exhibit at no charge.) I sent these results to William Rilenge. He did not respond.
One vendor said he actually got the company to issue a refund back to his credit card, but he said Shiela later reversed it. Another food vendor who showed up to be greeted with locked doors said she lost $4,000 in perishables. Shiela promised insurance would cover it. The vendor said she never received payment.
Amazingly, still after many complaints since 2014 to media as well as to attorneys general in the states of unrefunded show cancellations, William Rilenge vows to keep going. “We are fighting back,” he declared. A “reorganization” was coming in 2018 that will be sent out to “everyone.” He says he wants every unrefunded vendor to call him. He also says the company is not soliciting vendors. He said APE no longer “finalizes” venue contracts before accepting vendor payment, a policy that would have seemingly avoided their current predicament.
However, as of the week of Nov. 20, Amazing nevertheless advertised several 2018 expos on its web site at venues that did not have it officially scheduled on their venue sites. Other officials told us there were no confirmed reserved dates for the events advertised on the APE site. None of this necessarily infers bad intent but there is no guarantee the event will be held at the venue advertised, if held at all.
Still, APE holds enough events to maintain itself as a legitimate event company in separate market. Amazing Pet Expos has a history of producing successful shows. So not all shows have been cancelled. Executable markets still exist where they previously have not burnt them with unrefunded vendors or unpaid venues from cancelled events. Further, there is little chance that new market vendors would even be aware of the company's history (without rare due diligence, which itself seems unwarranted if they are looking at the separate URLs linked from www.amazingpetexpos.com.)
All that begs the question: why would a successful and honest company not refund at least vendor fees for cancelled shows? It seems preposterous.
One vendor answered for several: “They just keep pocketing money until they skip town.” However, I find that doubtful. If this were to be an ongoing grift, it had to run out sooner or later after hitting market after market. Moreover, the company already spends a lot of work all the way up to the night before cancellation, after which they have to spend time talking to erstwhile marks demanding their money back. Once cancelled, management puts their "unhappy" show vendors on a spinner with the same overused excuses in different markets until the spin runs out. My conjecture: the unrefunded cancellations turned into an “accidental” habit that got easier to do when they discovered there was no real repercussion from individual markets.
Amazing Pet Expos is playing dangerously close to the edge. That’s the edge of the law and, bigger, Americans' love of animals. It is good to remember a mayoral candidate lost here in Memphis because of his dismissive attitude toward lost pets. When APE reportedly stiffed rescue organizations, it helped assure the destruction of those animals under rescue and adoption groups’ care.
Many APE vendors have called for both state and federal investigation and prosecution. However, its my guess that multiple jurisdictions, relatively low dollar losses and the alleged destruction of records will allow the company to avoid consequences from vendors and venues alike. Beyond that, companies have been known to rehabilitate. We'll see.
Ben "BenQQ" Harrison is a writer, photographer and web media worker in Memphis, TN. He runs a site for show vendors www.marketeventsocial.com and commentary www.memphispixnews.com. He is an unrefunded Amazing Pet Expos vendor. His bio can be accessed at the "BenQQ" link on www.benjharrison.net.