Phipps didn't tell members about benefit change

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Daniel Murrer of West View considers Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Schenley Park to be "a terrific asset to the community."

Last fall, he bought a family membership for himself, wife Maria Emilia and their 3-month-old daughter, and a membership for his parents.

"It's a wonderful place to go on a weekly basis," said Mr. Murrer, 36, vice president of a real estate information company based on the South Side.

In addition to free admission for one year for himself and his family, the $60 membership included:

Benefits at more than 125 gardens throughout the country, discounts for the gift shop and for education classes, borrowing privileges in Phipps' 2,500 volume library, subscription to "Phipps Magazine" and "Education News," members-only event invitations and eight gift notecards of four popular Phipps scenes or a ball cap with the Phipps logo.

Mr. Murrer was looking forward to visiting the Cleveland Botanical Gardens during a trip to Ohio earlier this month when he learned he couldn't use his Phipps membership card to gain admission.

"I was outraged," he said. When he called Phipps to find out what had happened, he was told it had decided to terminate the reciprocity agreement with other botanical gardens and conservatories effective last July 1 -- five months before he purchased his membership.

"I was sold a benefit that was taken away with no notification," he said. "And, by placing it second on the list of benefits members receive, you can see the emphasis Phipps places on the reciprocity benefit.

"This is so disappointing, so upsetting," he said. "It made me wonder how many other Phipps members know about this."

He called his brother, David Murrer, 45, a salesman who lives in Lexington, Ky. During a visit to Pittsburgh during the holidays that included a trip to Phipps, David Murrer purchased a family membership for himself, his wife, Pam, and their three daughters.

When he approached the ticket counter, he was handed an attractive color brochure that invited him to "connect with one of Pittsburgh's greenest jewels." He read the membership benefits and "the thing that really attracted me was the reciprocity feature."

He said he asked which botanical gardens and conservatories were included in the reciprocity agreement "because my family and I travel pretty extensively." He said he was shown a list of them. That persuaded him to buy a $60 family membership.

But, when he received his membership cards, he found the list of participating gardens and conservatories to be "noticeably absent." He went to Phipps Web site -- www.phipps.conservatory.org -- but there was no list there. He sent an e-mail asking about it.

In her reply, Phipps employee Winnie Schano said the conservatory made an administrative decision to discontinue the reciprocity agreement as of last July 1. When David Murrer asked in a follow-up e-mail why he wasn't told that before he paid for his family membership, Ms. Schano didn't respond.

David Murrer found that disappointing and said so in another e-mail in which he said he was beginning to believe that Phipps "condones" the use of "bait-and-switch tactics to sell memberships."

"We would never do that," Phipps Executive Director Richard V. Piacentini said when I repeated Mr. Murrer's concern about bait-and-switch tactics. "We don't want people to think they were tricked into becoming members. If [the Murrers] joined because of the reciprocity agreement, we will refund their money."

When I said the brochures I picked up at the conservatory on Monday still listed the reciprocity agreement as a membership benefit, Mr. Piacentini said they would all be removed. "They should have been pulled some time ago." He said a new brochure that will include "major changes in membership benefits" will be printed later this year.

"I will make sure that [the Murrers] receive their refund and an apology right away," he said.


Lawrence Walsh can be reached at pyp@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1895.


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