Hollywood couldn’t create a more perfect movie setting than Sedona, Ariz., with its craggy red rocks and all those junipers. So while vacationing with my film-obsessed son, I thought it only natural to stroll into the free-admission Sedona Motion Picture Museum.
Housed in a storefront on the city’s main shopping strip, the museum seemed a bit “lame,” as my son bluntly put it. Its collection consisted of framed photos of bygone westerns, with stars such as Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, filmed against the area’s stunning scenery. Within 15 minutes, we had seen everything and were ready to head to the nearby Cowboy Club to sample cactus fries.
But a museum attendant stopped us and soon revealed the true purpose of this pseudo-attraction. The museum was partly a marketing device to entice tourists to timeshare pitches at a 14-year-old resort development affiliated with RCI, one of America’s largest vacation ownership exchange companies. In the timeshare trade, the attendant is known as a “tour generation representative,” earning commissions for making “off-premises contacts” with potential buyers. Like slow-witted sheep, my son and I had walked clear-eyed into a booby trap.
What evolved over the next few days was a revealing look at the hard-core salesmanship of timeshare developers and, by extension, of the companies they contract to provide exchange services for buyers — RCI and its principal timeshare rival, the publicly traded leisure company Interval International. Anyone who has ever owned a timeshare has experienced the relentless push during precious relaxation time to persuade you to invest in more weeks, or more “points,” at more resorts in more locations. It’s an oft-repeated ritual whenever you check in for a timeshare swap: groggy travelers presented with “invitations” for timeshare previews within minutes of getting the keys to their rooms.
Both RCI and Interval International say that these sales pitches are driven by resort developers, not by the exchange companies, although signs may urge travelers to attend the presentations to learn more about effective swaps. Travelers who already belong to one of the exchange companies offer a great potential market; a high percentage of timeshare owners own more than one week and are open to pitches from developers, industry research shows.
Only in quaint Sedona had I seen competing timeshare interests squared off like grizzled cowboys in a gun-slinging showdown. Sedona, explained Howard Nusbaum, chief executive of the Washington-based American Resort Development Association, is a “small, unique market” with multiple timeshare developments, and is “a little on the competitive side.” The chances of escaping town without at least a bullet graze seemed incredibly slim.
“How would you like a free movie sightseeing tour?” asked the museum attendant, holding out a glossy brochure. He flipped through to show us memorable film moments and told us that all we had to do was agree to a 90-minute presentation at Sedona Pines.
We hadn’t noticed the note under the museum sign indicating that the 12-year-old attraction was “sponsored” by Sedona Pines. Greg Penrod, chief operations officer of Highland Resorts and Sedona Pines, later told me that the museum tries to be transparent and to “enrich the experience of the guests coming to Sedona.” His representatives, he said, are trained to provide basic tourism services, and museum visitors are under no obligation to accept a resort tour or the incentives, which Sedona Pines pays for.
At first we declined a tour, mainly because at check-in to our timeshare, which we’d booked through Interval International, or “II,” we had meekly put down $20 to ensure our presence at a property tour for another development, Sedona Summit. Of course, we didn’t really want to participate, but we were jet-lagged and grouchy when the “concierge desk” signed us up and assured us that it would be worth it. Just for taking the 90-minute tour, we would snare $80 in cold hard cash.
That’s when the Sedona Pines rep’s pitch went into overdrive, trying to persuade us to switch our exchange affiliation to RCI, a division of Wyndham International. If we cancelled the upcoming tour of Sedona Summit, he told us, he would refund our $20 deposit and up the rewards. If we toured Sedona Pines the next day, we could take our choice of cash, additional tourist freebies or a free future vacation week through the Spirit Incentives marketing program. Not to mention that we would go home with a beautiful Sedona wall calendar and a slick picture book of famous local movie sites. (Steven Alessandrini, director of public relations for Wyndham Exchange and Rentals, said that RCI is not affiliated with the Sedona Motion Picture Museum.)
Even if we decided not to buy at Sedona Pines, the rep told us, we could at least learn the particulars of RCI’s far superior program. He regaled us with tales of disappointed II members, including his own parents, who had switched to RCI and moved toward a blissful retirement of time-swaps around the globe.
We bit on the free week’s vacation and prepared to leave after a dizzying 30-minute sales pitch that reminded me clearly of the time I bought a red turbocharged Mitsubishi just to escape the claws of a pushy car salesman.
The rep walked us to the door, surveyed the shop-lined street and urged us to proceed with caution.
“There are at least four other timeshare sales places out there disguised as something else,” he said, surveying the landscape. “Be careful. If they approach you, pretend you speak another language.”
He was right. That night, as we strolled back to our car, we saw salesmen hovering outside what looked like a fake history museum and a colorful Sedona tour center.
We walked with our eyes averted, pretending to speak only Polish.
The next morning offered one of those glorious vacation moments when you awake to a world of fresh possibilities: a brisk swim, a hike along challenging mountain trails, perhaps a kayak adventure.
Not I: While my son slept, I headed out to learn more about RCI.
To be honest, I’d never heard of II’s biggest rival until Sedona. I’d hooked up with II only because I’d bought a Marriott Florida timeshare years ago in a crazed moment while recovering from a health crisis. Joining II for $89 per year allowed me to move outside the Marriott timeshare network and swap my prime summer week at a beachfront resort for a slew of other properties around the world (many of which are not nearly so nice).
I was vulnerable to an RCI pitch. I had barely recovered from an Aruba resort booked through II where we were the only guests on an abandoned hallway with most rooms under heavy renovation. The master bedroom was windowless, and the apartment-size gas stove almost set my hair afire when I tried to make a morning cup of tea. My angry phone call to II headquarters is still part of our family lore.
I’d become a regular reader of the II membership magazine and was stunned by the company’s bold business model: A recent issue described a new II partnership that allowed RV owners to swap campsites. Switching to RCI, the larger global exchange service, might be a wise move.
The new resort I was going to tour was a few miles out of town, a series of low-slung terra-cotta buildings.
I followed the directions on my “invitation” and soon found myself in a reception room with two other couples who were timeshare novices. A salesman we’ll call The Starter asked a few strategic questions and divided us up accordingly. He correctly pegged me as someone without the slightest interest in buying a share of Sedona Pines but as a possible II convert. He took on the challenge himself.
The tour of the model unit and resort amenities took only minutes, and then The Starter led me up some stairs to a sales center where a handful of Sunday workers huddled over computers.
The Starter was a gregarious guy, in loose khakis and an amply filled out tropical shirt. He told bad jokes and pulled out a scrapbook of vacation photos to show me how RCI “points ownership” had enhanced his life.
The points system was different from the week-for-week swap I’d always used with II. (II is only now beginning to offer its members a points option.) An RCI points member started with a lump sum — say, 30,000 points — and doled them out as desired on weekend trips or week-long vacations. Resorts ranked “silver” or “gold” typically consumed more points per night than those with no approval rating. The time of year also played a role: It took fewer points to visit a ski resort in the summer, for example.
The Starter said that he and his wife illustrated efficient use of RCI’s system, because they travel spontaneously, with little advance planning. Thus, they could sign on to the RCI Web site and find all RCI properties available in any given week at a minimal points level. With as little as 7,000 points per week, they could fly away to Scandinavia or California or the Dominican Republic. With flexibility, you could always find a destination for 7,000 points or fewer, he said, thus stretching your vacation time to as many as three, maybe even four weeks.
An added bonus: Points members pay no annual maintenance fees, which make traditional timeshare ownership so expensive, he said.
Who could resist the thought of tripling your vacation? And The Starter’s next pitch had real appeal: RCI would swap my week’s ownership in Marriott for an RCI points membership at little additional cost! This led to a complicated set of negotiations with a series of salespeople, using the tried-and-true pressure techniques perfected at used car dealerships.
Puzzled over exactly how many points RCI would offer for a peak summer week at my Marriott resort, The Starter called in a tanned female sales partner, who had just returned from two weeks in Tuscany, staying in RCI-affiliated luxury properties. From a back room, she made a series of hushed phone calls to negotiate.
The Starter made idle chitchat until she finally emerged with the numbers. Details of the deal were jotted onto a sheet of typing paper flashed before me for review. In essence, I would give up the deed to my timeshare week and pay another $6,000. RCI would give me 30,000 points per year.
I hadn’t come to Sedona on vacation expecting to spend that much money. I said I would take the numbers with me and ponder them.
The Starter’s demeanor instantly turned gruff. He yanked the paper from my hands and barked, “That’s proprietary. That’s not leaving this office!”
He told me that this was an exceptional deal that would only be valid until day’s end. Of course, I could ponder it without the benefit of his written calculations, but if I did not respond by the close of business, the offer was OFF.
Withering under The Starter’s scowl, I gathered my things and prepared to leave. That’s when Salesman No. 3 emerged. I recognized him at once as The Closer.
As he took his seat, the disappointed Starter retreated into the back office. The Closer delivered a compromise offer. RCI would offer me a one-year “trial” for a flat fee of $1,295. I could experiment, compare RCI to II, and at year’s end I would get another chance to accept The Starter’s original offer.
“We’ll bring you back here as a guest,” he promised. The Starter “will get his commission, and you’ll get your points.”
(Penrod explained that Sedona Pines purchases these one-year trial point packages from RCI, and agents earn a small commission for selling them. The theory is that they allow the resort a chance to establish a relationship with the consumer that may result in a larger sale down the road.)
Suddenly I was overcome with the same anxiety that had led to that unsound 1982 sports car purchase.
Hastily, I signed the papers for the one-year trial and bolted.
My visit to Sedona taught me many lessons. I am a weak consumer, susceptible to freebies, and have trouble saying no. I must avoid timeshare pitches the way a reformed gambler must avoid the slots.
I’ve spent many hours on the RCI Web site trying to pull the same kind of magic that The Starter achieved — spinning 30,000 points into a series of luxurious getaways. But because I’m not so flexible and usually take vacations along with millions of other regular Americans, I found that my 30,000 points would get me just about what I could expect with II — one week’s stay in a given destination. Many of the nicest places require double my points for prime vacation weeks.
I used virtually my whole allotment to book a summer week in New Hampshire, and when I had to reschedule unexpectedly because of work, I discovered to my horror that I would lose 75 percent of my points because I hadn’t bought a $49 “vacation protection” plan. An RCI representative agreed to give me a one-time waiver, allowing me to book an upcoming vacation near Cancun.
Meanwhile, this year I used my II timeshare trade to spend a week on St. Maarten at the Oyster Bay resort. We lucked into a newly renovated one-bedroom unit with spectacular views.
It was hot when we arrived, with a long line of American tourists waiting to check in. The resort offered free chilled rum punch at the reception area to lessen the pain. Lightheaded after several glasses, I was ready for a nap by the time I made it to the front desk. The friendly staff gave me my room keys but asked me first to check in at the Welcome desk for a special “invitation.”
The invitation offered a guided island tour or a cocktail hour or a luncheon for my entire party at the resort’s poolside restaurant. All I had to do was sign up for a 90-minute model tour and presentation that would help me better understand II ownership.
The rest of it was totally free.