If not for a series of last-minute venue cancellations and alleged meddling by an employee obsessed with Satan, the St. Louis Pet Expo would be marking its tenth annual event in 2018. Instead, this year's event is only the ninth.
But the Expo's married owners, William and Sheila Rilenge, say the event is back on track — and on for next Saturday, November 17, at the Olympia Athletic Center in St. Charles.
In an email to RFT
, William Rilenge writes that most of last year's vendors are returning, and that "multiple rescue groups that will be bringing adoptable pets." The event will also feature agility demonstrations, free nail trims and a reptile area. In the past, the event has touted attendance of more than 25,000.
This is the first year the Expo is landing in the Olympia Athletic Center. Its prior home, the St. Charles Convention Center, cancelled 2017's version of the pet expo over "unmet contractual obligations." Soon after, the Rilenges' company, Amazing Pet Expos, nabbed an F-rating
from the St. Louis Better Business Bureau.
It was bad press that first pushed the St. Louis-based company's struggles public 2017. Eventually, vendors had filed more than 40 complaints to the BBB, alleging slow refunds and last-minute cancellations of expos in multiple cities.
Rilenge maintains that the company has resolved most of the complaints, but the process hasn't been without bumps. Some spurned vendors aired their woes to local TV stations, and in response
the company filed at least one cease-and-desist letter against a non-profit shelter.
To defend their company's practices, the Rilenges have posted lengthy statements to their Expo websites, both to acknowledge problems and to cast blame. In the wake of media coverage around 2017's cancellations, Amazing Pet Expo countered with screenshots allegedly sent by a former employee, who appeared to be certain that William Rilenge was the anti-Christ.
The employee, the company alleges, intentionally sabotaged financial records and cancelled key insurance policies that eventually led to event cancellations.
Only some of the cancelled events were rescheduled, and some, like the one in St. Louis, have encountered even more problems. On October 22, the BBB released a new alert
directed at vendors, cautioning them that while Amazing Pet Expos was advertising the 2018 St. Louis Pet Expo event at the St. Charles Family Arena, the venue's representatives said the expo was not booked there.
Indeed, later that day, a representative at the arena confirmed to RFT
that the Expo would not be held on the advertised dates, November 10 and 11.
William Rilenge contends that the arena, which is operated by St. Charles County, had no right to cancel the event. In March, Amazing Pet Expos filed a lawsuit against the arena and its booking manager, Tom O'Keefe.
The suit alleges that Amazing Pet Expos actually paid the first of nine $4,000 installments, but that the arena "incorrectly handled" the payment and then cancelled the agreed-upon contract by email. The company is seeking at least $25,000 in damages for breach of contract and other counts. (According to court records, Amazing Pet Expos' lawyer withdrew from the case in July, and the company's current attorney, Richard Dowd, told RFT
earlier this week that he is not representing the company in that litigation.)
In October, Bob Schnur, director of finance for St. Charles County, told the RFT
that Amazing Pet Expos' lawsuit is baseless. "They never made a payment to us, other than the payment that was dishonored by the bank."
Meanwhile, two of the company's upcoming events in California were cancelled
on short notice
by their respective venues. In San Diego, the Del Mar Fairgrounds told the San Diego Union Tribune
that the company had breached their contract by making "zero payments" and not having insurance.
Rilenge rejects that characterization. In an email, he writes that the San Diego cancellation was "unlawful," and provided an email exchange that appears to show a Del Mar representative apologizing for losing a record of a $2,000 deposit.
"I think they lost it again," Rilenge suggests. "Which is the only reason that I can think of as to why they stated we paid nothing."
Rilenge maintains that his company continues to suffer aftershocks from the actions of his malicious former employee. He also blames the BBB, media coverage and venue organizers for cancelling otherwise above-board events.
"We underestimated the [St. Charles] Family Arena," Rilenge writes. "We did not think they would use the BBB as a tool to kill the show there, or that the local media would just take what the BBB and the Arena said at face value and run with it."
Reached by email on Monday, a representative with the Olympia Athletic Center confirmed that the Pet Expo is on for November 17.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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