Today, just like Theranos and Fyre Festival, my integrity, rather than the substance of my argument was attacked by the founder of a company, as damning allegations emerged about their product, or lack thereof.

Smart people always say “attack the issue, not the person”, and when you have a real product – that’s really easy. You answer point for point why the person is wrong with factual and tangible news and let things move from there. It helps avoid people saying “the always brilliant God Save The Points” one day, and then claim the same person is some disgruntled loose canon the next.

I’m not, and if I was, you’d have all left by now. I operate on the assumption that you’re all smart, and if someone spews slanderous lies or falsities that no one will come back. Somehow, more than a million people keep coming back satisfied.

What Upgrade Pack failed to do in their statement about my piece was address any of the actual concerns. They simply reiterated that they’re slick enough to raise money, that I’m upset; and that they employ far too many people for an app with no app. They failed to address any real concerns I raised, like

  • How many signed commercial agreements do you have with airlines and hotels? Not “engagements” or other double speak – actual signed ready and actionable agreements.
  • How much money has been spent on luxury travel and offices in three continents, before the launch of a product, versus… building a product people can use.
  • When will you actually launch your app, that you promised to my readers over a year ago, as being ready… a year ago? You can’t keep moving the goal posts.
  • Why have you shifted from a “closed” business to business only application, which is what I was sold as the key value, to a consumer facing app available to anyone?
  • Why did you tell Condé Nast Traveler you have completed partnerships, in numbers which did not add up to previous statements? Even if Mark Ellwood is the guy who wrote the two words to get an upgrade story…

Now, I know why.

As noted yesterday, I want the app to be a success. Or rather, I wanted is now the correct tense. I just wanted my readers, who were promised access to something which purported to help their travels – actually help their travel.

I no longer believe that will be the case, per conversations with multiple currently employed whistle blowers at Upgrade Pack.

They leveled some seriously damning allegations far beyond my pay grade or remit, which really must be answered in a setting where truth is binding. I’ll simply share the allegations, without comment on the validity, having observed the internal communications first hand.

Hopefully someone else will find the answers…

  • it’s purported that Upgrade Pack encouraged employees to anonymously invest in the SEEDRS funding, on the understanding that they’d be reimbursed by the company. The goal was to drum up buzz and interest on the platform from outsiders by exaggerating SEEDR numbers. GSTP has seen first hand communication of this phenomenon between UP employees.

 

  • it’s purported that as of this moment, zero commercial agreements with airlines or hotels are actually in place. The only current area of exploration is an API feed with British Airways, with a serious caveat – they can’t offer discounts. If the app were to ever launch, you’d simply pay the difference, because there is no ability or interest from BA to offer a discount via the current tech solution.

 

  • it’s purported that UP was forced to have lawyers draft up a disclaimer that they would likely pay more to upgrade via their platform than directly with the airline in question, not less. Without the ability to offer a discount, users of the airlines own app would likely see better offers.

 

  • it’s purported that an early partnership was in the works at Coutts Bank, which was seen as the key to launching a financially viable business, but that following a small test on a group of users much lower than expected,  a letter of intent never came from Coutts and the 80,000+ subscriptions the app hoped to be compensated for did not in fact arrive, and no other signed partnerships with financial institutions exist.

 

  • The “tech” for the app has been built since early 2019, even 2018, but that lack of the agreements are the only reason the launch has been postponed. The Coronavirus excuse was “utter bollocks”. Furthermore, if agreements were in place, there would be nothing holding up announcing the “who” and “when”.

 

  • it’s purported that no time has been spent developing actual discounts, and instead all efforts focus on fundraising (to help justify the extreme monthly salary load), and trying to tie the knot with any airline or hotel. They allege even if the app launched with a partner tomorrow, no discount would be found, which is the entire premise.

 

  • it’s purported that UP has seen high level exits from senior staff who leveled grave concern over the transparency and accuracy of information reported to press and investors; and that many are on their way out in the weeks to come.

I hope answers are offered as freely from Craig Unsworth, Upgrade Pack CEO, as comments about the nature of this blog were. I’d prefer them to be under oath, but that’s out of my hands.

So did I “aggressively and threateningly request information” as Craig Unsworth alleges?

Yes to the first part. After more than a year since the promised launch date, I aggressively began asking questions, stating word for word that I do not care about their ability to fund raise and take other peoples money in, I only care about their ability to give my readers what was promised to them more than a year ago. I never threatened anything.

The only positive development here is that since my coverage yesterday, UP has publicly said they’ll refund anyone the £99 if they wish. I don’t know why that wasn’t done six months ago, but…

If you think I’m writing this with a Doctor Evil grin, laughing with amusement, you’re really completely off base. I wanted so badly to believe in this and the people behind it, and I know they actually built a great interface. Yes, I know from the very same upset employees that the interface is both sleek and visually compelling, but that’s something that could be done by just one developer in weeks.

The key to success is agreements, airlines, hotels and actual discounts.

The problem is, they tried to horse trade their way to agreements with impressive expansion and show, and when I asked for updates that would benefit you, they just told me how good they are at raising money.

If they had said “Gib, we’re really proud of what we’ve built, but we can’t get over the goal line with X airline or hotel”, I would’ve gladly chipped in-in any way I could to try and make a positive impact for all. After all, I know many of the key players in airline and hotel world on a first name basis, since I cover their companies daily.

I’m constantly under NDA “non disclosure agreement” from banks, start ups and other travel ventures and UP simply refused to offer any tangible evidence that a product was real and that partners promised years ago still or ever did exist. I found that worrying and simply wanted answers, not because I care, but because I felt I owed you all transparency – a word they may not fully understand.

And for the record, after delays, I turned down offers of future coverage repeatedly. It’s funny how I’ve gone from “always brilliant” and “most sought after” to someone who’s words wouldn’t pass editorial muster elsewhere, in under 24 hours.

Funny, I seem to remember a lot of mud slinging towards journalists from the now jailed Fyre Festival Founder and Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos fame, before their brilliant ideas and luxury lifestyles based on other peoples money turned into dust. The rest of the story is out of my hands, but I’ll be watching along as investors learn the full story. I’d hate to think any of them bought into premises which weren’t quite accurate.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

Join the Conversation

30 Comments

    1. I really don’t actually. I’d say 90% of what’s covered on here is positive news and opportunities. I very much do believe in honesty and not deceiving people, particularly those who give you money, so sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Read some other articles, there’s lovely stuff on here, if I don’t say so myself.

  1. Interesting post, most start-ups fail and if I was employed here I would already be looking to bail, I’m sure the employees realize any equity that they likely has no value.

    1. I heard something about conflated shares that must be sold at a ridiculous rate if the employee leaves etc, but that’s for someone else to worry about.

  2. @ Gilbert — The number #1 reason we need a recession is to weed out fraud. As long as central banks just keep handing risk-takers more cash, fraud remains hidden.

  3. Is this site becomong the Daily Mail? All a bit personal and dramatic Gib. Similar to your ongoing digs at TPG.

    1. Haven’t mentioned or read about TPG in months. I’ve left that for others.

      What’s funny to me, when the dramatic comments come out – is that it’s actually a reflection on what readers are reading. I published three other articles today, all without an ounce of drama or shred of negativity or woe, and there are three more forthcoming.

  4. I have a hard time mustering the same outrage you’re layering on here. Disrupting is not as easy as it sounds and great ideas often face harsh business realities. Remember the start-ups who promised to consolidate all of your credit cards into one? Great idea. No one could make it work. There are countless other examples.

    I never understood the business model here – there just isn’t enough “distressed” upgrade inventory in the marketplace to build a business around. Some of their business practices and statements sound questionable, but they don’t strike me as anything nearly as egregious as a Fyre or Theranos fraud. They sound like they’re stalling and scrambling to figure out how or if they can make anything work.

    Sounds like you’ve learned your lesson: don’t accept money from unproven companies promising the stars without a launched product. And kudos for sticking up for your readers who invested their own money with nothing to show for it. But the company has now made good on that. I Just don’t understand the vitriol you seem to have against them and the vendetta against them, this just sounds like one of many, many small start-ups who hit a wall.

    1. Darin, Mostly agree with you and very much appreciate your viewpoints. I have no outrage for them, only for the practice of misleading people. I work directly with many in the travel start up world all the time and I realize it’s an incredible battle and often one that doesn’t work out. They expect greater revenue than they get, and that’s all fine – that’s the risk of investment.

      What’s not ok is perhaps getting people on board, based on false premise of agreements which don’t actually exist. I believe there’s a legal word for it, and it’s the same word used for when you have your own employees pretend to invest, knowing they’ll be refunded, to try and drum up fake buzz.
      Lots of very successful people often say they back a person, not just the idea, and I think character is incredibly important in the start up world.

      1. Thanks Gilbert for your post. I think you did the right thing by warning potential investors about serious questions that need to be asked.
        Its extremely common, all over the world, for people to come up with what initially looked like a good idea, only to discover that once they got heavily into it that it is actually not feasible or that it can generate sufficient profit to justify the business. What’s unfortunate is when they start “misdirecting” people to deliberately give them an inaccurate understanding of where the business actually stands.

  5. Nice to see more on the topic, after other forums/groups shut down open conversation (despite also allowing promotion of it over the past few years…)

  6. This isn’t negative it’s factual which in itself could be viewed negatively or positively (for exposing). You were misslead with bamboozling promises into a PR article promo to generate a beta userbase. That in turn has been shown to be complete BS and as a result it has indirectly impacted your reputation to deliver quality reliable content. However, fortunately for you, you have a track record of delivering many times before so I think you’re forgiven:) You’ve exposed what’s been going on and people can make their own judgement now. Interesting times ahead for UP I feel. It’s a failure of central bank policy and a “fintech” craze bubble where any Joe smoe is investing into the hope of finding the next Google, without any proper due diligence of an underlying business. It’s crazy, this business has no revenue, no product and has raised millions. We will look back at this era as a failure in policy for sure. Eventually, investors will dry up, and this entire bubble will be exposed. Thank you for exposing, and allowing people to make their own judgement.

    1. Dave, all I can say is thanks for your open mind. You’ve portrayed how I feel incredibly well. I don’t find this positive or negative, just unfortunate for lots of people. I hope it’s not…

  7. I’d just let it go now honestly. Focus on what you’re doing and let them and others worry about themselves now. You’ve said your piece. Rather than tit for tat now it’s time to move on.

  8. Just wanted to say thank you for this post and the earlier one.

    I bought one of the £99 beta memberships last January but I will be asking them for a refund – partly on the back of your posts, but even moreso on the back of their pathetic response on twitter.

    It reads like it’s written by by someone with no facts or products to back up their claims, and trying to blow if off by accusing you of being triggered when their “response” reads like a Facebook rant after a breakup is just embarrassing.

    Even if they do launch a successful product I wouldn’t want any part of it.

  9. Thanks for the follow-up, I looked into the company when you first posted about them, but then didn’t follow up or sign up for anything. Seem like a really interesting idea if they could actually get the agreements and Deals they were working on. I read the statement they came out with, as well as Gary’s blog post about the issue, and I think they did themselves a disservice with their own posting. As you say, would have been much better for them to point out what they tangibly have in place, or actually refute the biggest criticisms leveled at them, instead of writing what they did. And blaming coronavirus? Please, now they just made themselves seem even more amateurish. I’m glad you set the record straight.

  10. It is not uncommon for an plan that sounds like a great idea in theory to just fizzle out when the numbers (and partners) don’t fall into place as hoped.
    Without contracts (and benefits) in place, this is just another “pie in the sky” dream (using OPM) that becomes another failed start-up.
    If I’m wrong, I’ll believe it when I see it, and apologize my my skepticism.

  11. Gilbert, you’re right on point. You should continue to cover this story as a journalist and someone who pitched UP in the past. This is not a tangential story for your readers like it would be for readers of OMAAT or Gary Leff. Your honesty and dedication to your readers is obvious. Thanks for covering this.

    1. Thank you, as my friend Gary noted – they almost entirely proved their issues yesterday. Because OF coronavirus, there’s never been more excess inventory in premium cabins throughout APAC, or lower fares. If they had any partners, they should’ve jumped on the opportunity to prove value to consumers, even with just one airline partner. Problem is…

  12. I believe you need a slight edit so you are not accused of misleading your readers. The statement from the company states people are free to cancel their membership, but there is no mention a refund would be received.

    1. If they are as bad as Gilbert suggests about running a serious business how can you expect them to be able to write a simple clear refund promise?

  13. Gilbert, thank you for speaking the truth about a company that seems to be intentionally withholding information in the hopes that their already delayed product turns around and squeaks through to success.

    I can appreciate that it is difficult to design, plan and gather the connections for a new app or business, but this just shows poor planning of the concept and operation. There is nothing wrong with letting people know the status of this app or defending yourself against a strange response to the issues here.

  14. I feel at best this was a well intentioned plan; without an actual agreement and was launched to try and BS/”wing it” until such a time an airline got onboard.
    It looks like that never happened, but the company then tapped into the “fintech” bubble of raising funds easily; with PR, glitz, and promo – but no actual product, no actual business. At this point, it seems the business pivoted into 100% BS, lots of social media detritus about new offices and staff, and raising 3 rounds of funding (if true); millions in investment; all based on BS.
    The problem is for UP; and mainly its founder – there’s a fine line between selling and fraud. If this doesn’t work (which after 1 year delay, and no actual firm information on partner airlines or banks & deflective answers) looks more likely the case now; questions will be asked by investors. If investors were sold investment based on being told their WERE partner airlines, that could be considered criminal fraud. If they were told WE ARE SEEKING partner airlines etc; it’d be unfortunate, but not illegal. Given what i’ve read in this article, it does appear this might be tipping into fraud territory; and I do hope for UP, and anyone involved in this that the reliable facts come out. The BS can only go on for so long, and either a partner airline is announced; or the whole thing needs to unravel; and the investors concerned need to review how they were sold this investment in the first place. I wish them good luck, but at the same time – if they have acted dishonestly and deceptively in selling; then they might find themselves being pursued. If anyone from UP reads this, take heed of this advice. Stop now if you don’t have a product, because you could dig yourself in for fraudulent selling; when infact you started without that intention.

  15. Here what the CEO of Aseptium has to say regarding Coronavirus putting many business on hold :

    Pawel de Sternberg Stojalowski, Managing Director at Aseptium, 09:55 on 14 Feb 2020
    Hi Nick,
    At the moment we have the case of an outbreak in China and few Asian countries and a case of anticipation elsewhere. In China they are 100% focused on battling this and yesterday I received an email from a colleague who sits at the ISO committees on sterilisation and infection control in China who said that no other technologies/problems are currently considered. We were supposed to launch our PCDs with the new ProReveal Mini protein detection system from Synoptics with his company but they said everything is on hold until the virus is under control. The rest of the world is waiting for what is going to happen next.

  16. I have left another post today but it seems to be immediately deleted.
    It’s fine : it confirmed what I thought about GSTP.

    As an investor in UP , my faith has further increased.

    Best luck in your life guys.
    And again , as I stated in my innocent post that was just deleted , you can request from CEO Craig the full refund of your £99 subscription 🙂 if you are unhappy and want to turn the page of your life to something else 😉

    1. Nothing has been deleted. Nice to see you doing UP’s bidding. Hope you get your money’s worth 😉. Oh wait, they have yours… and no product.

  17. Here today’s article from the Guardian explain how Coronavirus is impacting the world and how companies are worried.
    Therefore the further sad delay for the Upgrade Pack app was justifiable.
    I have 2 people (one being a relative of mine working for Air France and Turkish airlines and told me that many project of not all were on hold and they are focusing only on the COVID-19.

    UP app makes little sense without integrating the necessary minimum number of airline companies and hotels.

    Here the link below.

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/feb/24/stock-markets-coronavirus-italy-airlines

    All the best guys

  18. Morris aka UP ‘in disguise’ continues with the BS. I have faith anyone reading GSTP is advanced enough to see that ‘anonymous poster’ is just UP themselves in damage limitation.
    Coronavirus is a serious matter, but so is fraud. Fraud by misrepresentation to investors; telling them there were partner airlines years ago for the app when in fact there were none. I hope that didn’t hapoen. Given the deflective and non detailed answers and delays for over a year, Coronavirus has come yes and it’s very unfortunate. However, I believe by now UP would be able to release information on future prospective partners despite the outbreak. The fact UP hasn’t ever provided confirmation of an actual signed up partner, and the deflective answers from UP / mysterious Morris- one can only assume UP is intent on keeping the fintech scam funding going; by raising funds from loose investors with little care if any actual app is launched.
    I really hope I’m proved wrong here but as someone with experience in business, and having being scammed before; I’ve got to say it’s time UP cut to the chase and demonstrate signed agreements and not marketing/PR BS and indirect answers. I’m pretty sure any sane person can see that by now.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.