Sunday, December 17, 2006
Twenty years ago, a timeshare spiel nearly ended my marriage. I happened on the presentation while strolling down a street in Baja California. After sucking down three free industrial-strength margaritas, I was ready to sign on the dotted line. My husband, being less susceptible to strong drink, didn't share my zeal for plunking down $2,500 to visit Rosarito Beach every year during the third week of July for the rest of our lives. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed once the tequila wore off.
But that was then. Timeshares are now "vacation clubs," and respected hotel companies with deep pockets, including Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood and Wyndham, have jumped into the game. Sure, there are still small companies selling a week at a time at tired properties to hapless tourists. But the old system, in which a buyer bought a specific week in a specific unit at a specific property, has been mostly supplanted by a more flexible product, with owners buying points that can be used for different weeks at various locations.
The U.S. timeshare biz is booming: In 2005, $8.6 billion worth of timeshares were sold, according to an Ernst & Young study conducted for the American Resort Development Association (ARDA), which represents the timeshare industry. The industry has posted double-digit sales growth every year except one during the past 17 years.
Don Wallach, 72, of Potomac, an executive search firm owner who owns six weeks' worth of timeshares (including four with Westin), said, "It's not just the guy being grabbed off the street anymore. It's legitimate. People like me want to know the value, and we need to be convinced of the value before we buy."
"I don't have a lot of complaints," said John Wildfong, 53, an aerospace executive from Centreville who is a Wyndham timeshare owner. Last year he used his 175,000 ownership points to stay in a two-bedroom unit in Las Vegas for a week and a one-bedroom on a lake in Arkansas for a week. "If you want to try to go to the Caribbean over spring break, it's going to be a problem," he said. "But if you want to go to a place a lot of people don't want to go, it works great."
ARDA President Howard Nussbaum said the newly arrived hotel companies have brought changes to the industry. "Sales tactics have changed dramatically during the last 20 years," he said. "Companies are trading on their good names, and they don't want to compromise that."
Yeah, yeah . . . but are the properties worth the large outlay of cash, which averages $16,278 a pop? And have those famously high-pressure presentations really become more sophisticated? To find out, I headed to the timeshare capital of the world, Orlando, for two days last month, listening to the spiels and inspecting the properties of six of the best-known hotel brands. None of the companies knew I was a reporter (and no one ever asked what I do for a living).
Let the games begin.
Sunday, 4 p.m.
My first stop: Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, the newest of Disney Vacation Club's seven vacation club properties. In the vacation club business for the past 15 years, Disney has five vacation clubs at Walt Disney World, one in Hilton Head, S.C., and another in Vero Beach, Fla.
With no appointment or invitation, I head to the Downtown Disney area (part of the Disney World complex) and am ushered into a sales room. Perky rep Audrey chats me up about my vacation hopes, fears and dreams. She tells me how I can exchange my Disney timeshare for stays in the world's best hotels, including Hotel del Coronado near San Diego and the Dorchester in London. A slide presentation is short on details but full of smiling families having the times of their lives at Disney properties.
Disney, like many timeshare companies, uses a point system. Audrey says I'd need to buy at least 242 points for my family of four, which would cost about $24,442 ($101 a point), plus about $963 a year in maintenance fees. She whips out a calculator and shows me how this is quite clearly the deal of the century: Divide the $101 cost per point by 48 (the number of years of the timeshare deed), which works out to $2.10; add the annual dues of $3.98 per point and, voila, each point actually costs $6.08 a year. Multiply that by the number of points you spend to stay in a studio in the lowest season -- 11 points -- and you're spending just $66.88 per night to stay at an upscale Disney property.
My head spinning, I tour several units, walking by a pristine pool area with happy families playing a game of water balloon toss. The studio unit looks like a large hotel room, but the one- and two-bedrooms have full-size kitchens, washers and dryers, lots of granite and whirlpool baths. The two-story, three-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath "grand villa," which sleeps 12, is nicer than my house.