How to Leverage the Timeshare System

GGtimeshares, flickr

When Barbilee Hemmings, a family success coach in Edmonton, Canada, moved to California in 2001, she found an interesting -- and economical -- way to get to know her new home.

"We didn't know the area, other than Disneyland, of course," Hemmings recalls, "so we decided to take up companies on their free offers."

Hemmings is referring to timeshare companies that promise free hotel stays and other services in exchange for a block of your time, during which they deliver their sales pitch. Over the course of her first 10 months in California, says Hemmings, she and her family were able to explore the state while staying free at numerous places offering timeshare pitch vacations.

The travels included two weekends at a dude ranch, a weekend on the beach at a private campground, two weekends in San Diego that included tickets to SeaWorld, and a weekend near the Mexican border at another private campground with "free gas, free turkey and lots of family fun," Hemmings says. "As a family of four, it was great to get some free vacations," she adds, "and for 90 minutes of our time, it was worth it for the other perks that came along with it."

Ninety minutes seems to be the magic number when it comes to the amount of time that timeshare companies expect guests staying on their dime to invest in listening to their sales pitch -- and that pitch is often a hard sell process that can be hard to walk away from.

According to Howard Nusbaum of the American Real Estate Developers Association -- a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization that represents vacation ownership and resort development industries -- studies have shown that timeshare purchasers generally go through three tours before they buy in. And even people who are admittedly just in it for the cheap or free vacation are welcome to take part, says Nusbaum. "We are pretty bullish on the idea that once people try the product, they won't want to go back to a traditional hotel room," he says. "If some people think, 'I am going to take advantage of an opportunity and not buy,' I don't have a problem with that. Anytime we can educate our consumers, it's good for the timeshare industry."

Jackie Lantry of Rehoboth, Mass., remembers well a family trip to Disney World in Florida several years ago that came at the price of sitting through a pitch. "We were required to sit through a 90-minute presentation, which included a 30- to 45- minute 'drive around' to see what units were available," she recalls. "The salesperson did use some hard sell techniques, but we just kept telling him: 'We have to talk to our accountant before signing anything.' We took the information packet, and that was the last we heard from them."

How to Leverage the Timeshare System

Jackie Lantry and her family took a trip to Disney World for
the price of sitting through a pitch; Darren Wittko, flickr

For their time, Lantry's family enjoyed staying in a two-bedroom apartment near the Disney attractions, complete with a washer and dryer, full kitchen and sunny terrace. During the five-day trip, Lantry estimates her family of five spent about $500 on entertainment and food. "It was well worth it from our perspective," she says. "In the middle of winter we got a few inexpensive days in the sun and the kids had a great time. The sell was not really that hard, and they stuck to the timeline they'd given us.

"In the end, we chose not to buy the timeshare, but the vacation was worth it," she says. "It was a good experience, a great bargain and I would do it again."

Not everyone, however, has such a pain-free experience with the pitch part of the vacation. Dan Nainan, a comedian from New York City, remembers a particularly unpleasant experience that happened during the sales pitch of a timeshare vacation he went on to Palm Coast, Florida. "We had three free nights in a wonderful hotel, then had to listen to the pitch for a couple of hours one morning," Nainan recalls. Everything was fine, he says, until he began to indicate that he was not interested in buying a timeshare property.

Then the salesman said something he'll never forget, says Nainan. "He said, 'In all my years of working here, I've never had anyone of your race buy anything here,'" recalls Nainan, who considers himself "ethnically ambiguous."

"I felt like I had been slapped in the face, and needless to say, it was extremely uncomfortable," says Nainan. "Quite obviously, I had absolutely no guilt about getting a free vacation from that company."

So what can be done if things start to get stressful during a hard sell pitch? Victoria Munro, who co-owns Make-It-Fly, a small business advisory group, says she has taken several mini-vacations for under $100 over the years, and has some advice for dealing with the sell that comes along with a cheap getaway.

"Always set limits at the start (of the sales presentation)," she says, adding that letting the salesperson know from the get-go that you have scheduled something to do 90 minutes later gives you can automatic out. "This never fails," she says, "and if you miss this step, they could keep you there all day!"

If you're attending the presentation with someone else (ie. a spouse or a partner), Munro advises that you agree from the beginning that only one of you will do the talking with the salesperson. And if you know that you have no intentions of buying, she says, "never express any inkling that you might give in." An expression of interest is an invitation for the sell to get even harder, making it all the more difficult to extract yourself from the situation.

Nusbaum agrees that the pitch's duration depends a lot on how responsive the potential buyer is. "How long a presentation takes depends on how many questions you ask," he says. "The consumer has a lot of control over how long it takes. No timeshare developer wants to make someone stay for a presentation they don't want to be at."

Indeed, there is a fine line between being polite and being firm when it's time to put the kibosh on the timeshare pitch and get back to the vacationing part of things. Randi Minetor, a travel writer in Rochester, New York, recalls the time she and her husband stayed at a Westgate Resorts timeshare, the River Terrace Resort in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. "When our name was finally called (for the presentation), we went into a fairly spacious cubicle with a jovial middle-aged saleswoman, who began asking us questions about our vacations," says Minetor, who answered that she and her husband rarely spend more than $65 per night when they vacation.

"At that point, we had the opening to explain that we rarely go to the same place twice, that we cover the national parks professionally (for guidebooks) and that a timeshare would be entirely inappropriate for us," says Minetor. The woman's pitch continued, and Minetor admits that certain elements -- especially the part about exchanging your timeshare week for other locations around the country -- sounded reasonable. Other advantages that timeshare salespeople tout are the fact that timeshares often afford lots of space for groups (with multiple bedrooms) and that they have amenities like full kitchens and washers and dryers.

"At no point did we feel like we were being pressured into a purchase, but she did an excellent job of making the timeshare idea sound palatable," says Minetor. "At the end, she turned to us and said, 'Look, if you really don't want this, when I ask the closing question, just say 'no' and we'll be done, okay?'" she says.

"We did as she asked, and we were free to go after a brief exit interview." And while Minetor says the pitch experience was fairly painless, the 90 minutes did turn into two and a half hours by the time all was said and done.

But for everyone who leaves a sales pitch without buying a timeshare, of course, there are others who end up signing. "I talk to people who bought this product with the idea that they were getting an inexpensive vacation and ended up buying and being very happy," says Nusbaum.

Liora Farkovitz, from New York City, is one such timeshare sales pitch veteran-turned-owner. During a free stay last December at the Holiday Inn Orange Lake Resort near Orlando, Florida, Farkovitz attended the requisite pitch meeting. "I will say the pressure was extreme, intense, and it took up the better part of a day. And I did end up buying the timeshare," she says, adding that in the end, she sees buying in as having been a good thing for her.

Farkovitz lives in a small New York City apartment that she says gets very cramped when her three children come to visit, so the affordability of vacationing that the timeshare has allowed her and her kids has been worth it. "Over the summer we stayed at the Holiday Inn in Ocean City, Maryland, and it was wonderful," says Farkovitz. "The time share gives us a place to stay that is two to three times bigger than my place in the city -- and (a place) that's warm!"

Being firm is essential if you plan not to buy, says Angela Mackey of Fort Smith, Alaska, another veteran of free timeshare vacations. It's important to know what you're getting in advance, too, she says. Ten years ago, Mackey and her husband enjoyed a free honeymoon on a timeshare pitch trip that included two nights in Orlando, two nights on a Bahamas cruise and two nights in Fort Lauderdale. "My husband did not check the accommodations for the cruise, and we had two twin beds bolted to the wall. I laughed so hard," she recalls. The couple had a good time, and the two pitches they endured were not too long, says Mackey, but "they were not fun."

"If there is no other way to pay for a trip and you are willing to put up with a sales pitch, and if you know your answer is a resounding no, it may work very well for you," she says.

In the end, it's your precious vacation time -- and it's up to you to decide if a free holiday is worth the time commitment of a sales pitch to make it happen.

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