It was a Monday in mid-September, around noon, when the email arrived.
Headlined “The Majestic Falcon Award for Quality & Excellence VIDEO”, it addressed me as “Dear Awardee,” and invited me to come and pick up my award at the November ceremony in Dubai.
I wrote back expressing my gratitude and asked them to confirm me as a recipient. I also inquired about costs and other organizational details. Three days later, I got a reply.
This time, the lengthy and very generic note referred to me as the representative of a “company” and revealed that the award was coming not with prize money but with a hefty price tag.
The €4,750 in “participation fees” would cover the right to reproduce the award materials, two nights in a hotel, two invitations to a cocktail party and a gala dinner including an award ceremony as well as costs of photos and video of the event sent via DHL. In addition, I would also have to pay for my own visa and plane ticket.
Just €4,750, and voila, I could add this bombastic-sounding award to my CV.
It is not hard to imagine that news of winning an international award with a fancy name would put a smile on the faces of many people. But I had a different reason to laugh. Three years ago, I investigated a number of organizations which hand out dozens of bogus awards – if you pay.
Otherways, which sent me the email, was one of them.
“The organizations all find new nominees in the same manner. They say they research and choose the best, but in reality in most cases they send out hundreds of email invitations … Anyone who replies, shows interest and agrees to pay gets an award,” read the story I wrote with Dragana Peco for OCCRP/CINS.
E-mail from Otherways
“Let’s see how much they make with this,” I thought, and contacted the hotel in Dubai and DHL.
A double room for two nights, Nov. 26 and 27, at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel cost €931 according to the email the hotel sent me. The same room can be booked for about €700 on booking websites.
The DHL shipment would cost between €90 and €115, depending on whether something is sent to Belgrade from Dubai or from Paris, where Otherways is based.
That leaves about €3,700 to cover the award ceremony, participation costs and award materials rights.
Three years ago, when I contacted Otherways as a journalist, they wrote that their criteria for choosing awardees are strict, and not just anyone who offers money will be honored: “We do not sell potatoes.” Still, they noted that organizing an event requires high expenditures and since they do not have sponsors, they are forced to levy “humble participation fees.”
Nothing has changed
The full name of the organization which contacted me on Sept. 11, 2017, is Otherways Management Association Club (OMAC). Their website does not reveal a lot of information, not even the list of all previous winners.
The “Company” section previously contained information on how Otherways was founded by Charbel S. Tabet “18 years ago” – which would be 21 years ago now.
However, that information was removed from the website after OCCRP/CINS published the story in October 2014. At the time, their website also stated that in 18 years they had given out 2,635 awards, an average of 146 per year. Nevertheless, in a 2015 ceremony video, they say it is their 15th anniversary. The overall number of awards stated on the website now is 2,135.
Tabet usually personally hands out awards at ceremonies. In the past, he was a consultant of a similar organization, the Global Trade Leaders’ Club (GTLC).
As a director and founder of the company Foodica Best Foods, he received a GTLC award in 1994.
The company later received awards from Otherways as well. In other words, two organizations he represented made an award to a third he headed.
Besides Otherways and GTLC, OCCRP/CINS identified four more organizations selling vanity awards:
• The Europe Business Assembly
• The Business Initiative Directions
• Actualidad Magazine
• The European Society for Quality Research.
They all sold more than 250 awards to individuals, institutions and public and private companies in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2000.
Reporters for CINS/OCCRP could find no evidence of competitions, judging, or even set criteria used to determine the winners, most of whom originated from Africa, Asia, South America and Southeastern Europe. The pattern appears to be that anyone who pays enough money can win an award.
It seems that not much has changed since we wrote the article, except I was now personally invited to join laureates of similar awards like Ibrahim Jusufranic, who received several bogus awards, including the Actualidad in 2004 on behalf of Sarajevo’s city transportation company, which he ran at a time when it reported tens of millions in losses. He was later arrested for embezzlement of company funds and the trial is ongoing.
Or, perhaps, like the Serbian state-owned pharmaceutical company Galenika, which was honored in 2009, but later became the subject of an investigation and prosecution. Two trials are ongoing against former managers of the company, who were indicted on charges of multi-million embezzlements.
Who wouldn’t want that?
So, pretending to be an interested potential recipient, I asked Otherways to tell me more about the award they were offering in September. Their reply stated that they conduct “8 different conventions and awards in 2 years’ time in London, Paris, Geneva, Berlin, Rome, New York, Dubai” while the award is “a communication tool serving the interests of the companies” as they make their firms known in a multi-sector forum, exchange experiences and find out about new technologies and markets.
The longest segment of their email was about how they choose the winners. “The selection criteria for the Quality Summit are based on information, polls and voting,” they said, adding that the final decision is made by “the Majestic Falcon Award for Quality & Excellence selection’s committee.”
Among others, they wrote: “The Majestic Falcon Award for Quality & Excellence is presented to each Company as entity, for corporate achievement, to recognize prestige, Innovation, Quality & Technology. For this purpose, a voting process is carried out by mail, Internet or within awarded companies, based on one several of the following concepts: Customer Satisfaction, Leadership, Continuing Education and Trading, Business Results, ISO 9001- 14001-22000, TQM and TQCS (Top Quality Customer Satisfaction Standards.)”
So that’s how they chose me.
They evaluated the satisfaction of my customers, my leadership skills, my continuing education and trading as well as my business results.
At this point I would like to remind the reader again of the fact that I am a journalist who helped expose bogus awards, including the one Otherwise was proposing to give me.
So after telling me that they carefully reviewed all those details about me, the next phase in the process of getting the award would be for me to fill in the registration form, which requires basic information about the awardee and 300 words on my “Organization’s activities, background history and achievements.”
Many do decide to accept the honor, including public institutions, which mean that some of them pay the fees with taxpayers’ money.
Three years ago, CINS/OCCRP identified 15 awardees from Bosnia and Serbia honored by Otherways, including state-run Belgrade Pharmacy, Belgrade Power Plants, BH Telecom and Sarajevo Center Municipality—which got four Otherways awards.
“Otherways has experience and respect doing selections and promotion of successful company all around the world,” someone wrote on the Otherways website on behalf of state-owned Sarajevo-based BH Telecom.
“We are witness for inauguration of our company [at the] Geneva “night” where we had feel grateful for all this effort. We wish to you and Otherways all the best in the future,” the note added.