It’s not unlikely this will happen to you at some point in your life--whether they contact you through the mail, solicit by telephone or, like my wife and I, you make the grave mistake of entering in a "contest" at a trade show--you may one day have someone try to sell you a timeshare. For us, it was a flyer at a boat show that led to a phone call announcing we had "won" a vacation. That’s the hook: a free dinner, cash, or vacation... one time I was even offered a car. All we had to do to was spend a few hours at a presentation for timeshare opportunities--with no obligation to buy--and the rest was on the house. The woman on the other end of the phone line explained, for a few hours of our time learning about opportunities in the timeshares, we would receive two days in Orlando, Florida, with complementary tickets to the Universal Studios theme park, plus a two-night cruise to Nassau, Bahamas, and two nights in Fort Lauderdale. All we had to do was pay for airfare, pick a date, and everything else was covered. Seems like a win-win situation, right? For the record, we had no interest in owning a timeshare, and little interest in vacationing in Florida, but the prospect of a week of warmth and sunshine after one of the longest winters we’d experienced in years had us hooked. So we were on our way. Thankfully, the timeshare pitch was scheduled for the morning of the first day, so we’d get it over with and could then get on with our vacation. As we flew south, anticipating the rides and rays of Universal Studios and southern Florida, we had no way of knowing what to expect from the intrepid timeshare dealers. We felt as naïve as the rest of the "prize winners" when we arrived at the Welcome Center the following morning. The timeshares we were looking at were in Orlando, which may be second only to Las Vegas as the best example of hyperreality in the United States. It seemed fitting that the saleswoman took us to breakfast in Celebration, a real-life Pleasantville built by the Disney corporation, where people live in a "perfect" prefab town. All of the houses are Victorian and streets are flower lined with always-green parks running down their centers. Before it was establish, in 1994, the land Celebration now inhabits was wild Florida wetlands. But now the there’s a thriving community with its own golf course, town hall, post office, schools, and Main Street rife with shops, restaurants, and a movie theater. It’s a picture of the American ideal of 1950s post-War prosperity, surrounded by the new-millennium reality of modern existence. We sat down to breakfast, and our saleswoman started making chitchat. Trying to be polite and accommodating, we had a pleasant conversation about our travel experiences and more. But I couldn’t help remembering our host was a salesperson and wondered if what my wife and I said now might somehow be used against us later. After breakfast it was time for business. From behind the wheel of her company car, our new friend was busy talking up Orlando as the "premier destination in the east." I imagined our next trip to this play-land city would involve a few small children tugging at our pant legs. Premiere destination? I doubted it. As I came to that conclusion, the car slowed down and our rep pointed to a group of three-story building that was a tree line away from the welcome enter where we started. The buildings had the look of ski lodge-type condominiums. We drove toward them and I asked about the much newer looking ten-story building right next door. We were informed that those were "phase two" of the development that wouldn’t be ready to sell for at least a few months.
Before even looking at any of the units, we had a seat by the pool where our sales rep gave us the low-down on timeshares and their benefits. She focused on the theory of timeshare ownership, using a huge catalog of timeshare properties to explain how we could use our timeshare weeks to travel all over the world--Paris, Australia, Thailand, Hawaii--simply by trading our space and time in Orlando for someone else’s. It could all be there for our benefit, she explained with an excited smile on her face. She was effective in her manner: suddenly my wife and I envisioned traveling to all corners of the world and living in the lap of luxury by using our timeshare in Orlando as "collateral." Focusing only on positives, our saleswoman flipped through the catalog to all the places we’d talked about over breakfast. She showed us where we could have stayed, had we used the timeshare system. I realized I’d fallen into her trap. My pleasant conversation over the breakfast table was being thrown back at me in the form of beach resorts in the Virgin Islands and magical marketing words like "ownership," "choice," and "lifestyle." But the prospect of it was intriguing, which led us to make another crucial mistake, we asked a lot of questions.
To be fair, not all timeshare opportunities are scams or schemes. There are many people who own timeshares around the world who know how to make them work. But there are certain basic rules of "timeshare survival" that one should be aware of before spending a lot on a piece of property. The most important factor is location. There’s no use buying into a timeshare in an area that no one wants visit. These things aren’t cheap, but the benefits of having an apartment available to you in a location to which you’ll return regularly will help offset the money it costs to buy into the system. Likewise, you’ll want to be sure your timeshare is in a place others will want to visit, so the theory behind trading your timeshare to use someone else’s won’t find you washed up with no takers.
Also, be finance-savvy when looking into potential timeshares. Some sales reps will twist and turn the balance sheet of buying into these things until it’s hard to tell what’s a good deal and what isn’t. Pay close attention to the numbers and payment options, know your financial limitations, and never sign anything without taking a few days to think it over. Timeshares are ubiquitous--just because your sales rep tells you it’s a "now or never" deal, doesn’t make that true.
Back at the poolside, I started to see how, at a different point in my life, I could get a lot out of an investment like this. But it sounded too good to be true. I started asking pointed questions and received scripted answers.
The pitch is so quick and the answers so natural, there was never any indication there might be problems traveling where and when you wanted. They made it seem like a flawless system, which made me wonder, if it’s so perfect, why don’t timeshares fly off the shelf? As I worked her for more information, she kept working on me for more information she could use in her pitch. She asked questions like, how much do you spend on hotels rooms, restaurants, and vacations in general? This information is lifeblood of the timeshare sales pitch; the more you give a rep, the more he or she will feed on it.
We were still playing along because we had yet to see an actual unit. That’s when we were led to a two-bedroom condo, comfortable and roomy with the conveniences of home. The American Express slogan, "ownership has its privileges," rang through my mind, but I knew amenities alone weren’t enough to sway me toward purchasing.
Then the real selling began. Our rep had been gauging the likelihood that we’d purchase from the moment we sat down at breakfast. Unfortunately she thought she had a live one. We left the model and walked to a large room filled with round tables surrounded by families with their kids crawling all over while their parents debated the wonders of timeshare ownership. We were now two hours into our tour and hoping a quick "no thanks" would suffice to get us out of there.
No such luck.
After rehashing some of the earlier information, it was time to look at the numbers. From our previous musings our rep had calculated we’d spend over $30,000 on hotels rooms and accommodations over the next twenty years. Then she told us the unit we’d seen had a price tag of only $21,000--less than I expected. But it seemed, because the phase-2 units were still under construction, the company offered a discount for the older ones. She promptly lowered the price to $16,000. This was the catch: the deal was good for that moment and only that moment--once we left it on the table, it would be gone. Immediately alarm bells sounded in my head. If this was such an excusive deal, what would have happened if we had come down in October instead of April?
Sensing trouble, I insisted there wasn’t anything she could say to get me to purchase a timeshare in the next fifteen minutes. Unphased she continued going though the numbers. There was the yearly maintenance fee of $305, and the financing at a hefty 17.9%, a rate that wasn’t openly stated on the numbers sheet she’d given me minutes before.
I was frustrated and she knew it. That’s when she introduced the mortgage "expert," a guy about my age (30 years old) who seemed to have as much expertise in mortgage lending as I have in quantum physics. He proceeded to give us the exact same sales pitch our rep had not long before. We found his expertise consisted solely of extending payments beyond the original ten-year term, but at the same 17.9% interest rate. It was like being offered a loan by the very person who’d just stolen your wallet. He left us to think about it.
My wife and I thought about walking out, but they were holding our vacation hostage-- they give you vouchers for each consecutive part of your trip only after you’ve endured a complete sales presentation. If we left now we would be stuck in Orlando with no place to stay. That’s when I realized, nothing here was free.
When our intrepid salesperson returned, she told us we would have an opportunity to see a unit in the new building, the one still under construction. This was the beginning of a very a dirty trick. They told us these units were a whole new "concept" in timeshares. She’d obviously sensed we were ready to leave.
For an unfinished building, it certainly appeared complete. There were people in the swimming pool and not a workman or construction vehicle in sight. After a trip up to the top floor to see the view of Disney World, we were led into a unit that was a step above the other, older, one. It was a two-bedroom as well, but there was an option to divide it into two one-bedrooms with a partition. This, she said, offered all sorts of head-spinning options: turn a one-week timeshare into a two-week "opportunity," by using only half of the unit at a time. My immediate reaction was one of disbelief--she had moments ago tried to sell us a vastly inferior unit, and showed us this one only because we were unwilling to buy the first.
Back at the sales table, our rep and the mortgage expert were tossing around numbers that seemed unreal: $24,000 for the newer units; discounted to $14,000; and again to $9,000 for no apparent reason. Then they said we could find our own financing to avoid the high interest rate. Before long, I wondered if they’d just give us a unit for free. The whole procedure was seemed very unethical to me.
Their catch was this: as the price continued to plummet, so did the amount of time we’d be allowed to use the timeshare. Plus, the units came with confusing "bonus weeks," which implied we could extend our time over two or three years to avoid paying the maintenance fee of $505 a year.
Lost in all this wheeling and dealing was any fine print that might unravel all of these "perks." Dissatisfaction was written all over our faces, and finally, they said, they just wanted to ask us a few questions about the process, then our rep would take us back to the welcome center to pick up our ransomed vouchers. But this so-called exit interview proved to be the beginning of yet another sales pitch! A new rep sat us at a new table and proposed new deals before rudely announcing this was not for us. We looked at each other with bewilderment, stood, and left.
As the trip went on we would cross paths with many of the people who had been part of the same program as ours. We discovered their stories differed little from our own. Not surprisingly we met no one who purchased a timeshare.
The moral of the story? Don’t be completely averse to the possibilities that a timeshare might offer, but use common sense. Don’t fall victim to the kinds of unethical and heavy-handed sales tactics designed to make a bad investment sound like a one-way ticket to paradise. To use a cliché that’s earned its status as such: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you have any questions about this story or would like more information about Travel Outward, contact us.