Buying Time

Ever been tempted by a free vacation in return for sitting through a time-share presentation? One traveler recounts her story.

Cover Story

July 18, 2004|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

When a telemarketer offers me a free vacation in Orlando or Las Vegas, I can't help but feel intrigued. I stare at the prize code I've scribbled down, and I wonder. It has to be a scam, right? Recently, I decided to find out.

When I got a call asking if I'd like to visit a resort in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, I said indeed I would. Since it's my husband's favorite place in the world, I figured I'd have no trouble getting him on board.

A few days later, I received a letter offering me a four-day vacation at Massanutten Resort plus either 72 holes of golf or four ski passes for "less than $75 per person, double occupancy." Not a free vacation, it seemed.

I didn't call by the deadline, but Dave, a telemarketer with Williamsburg Plantation Inc., phoned to explain that for just $199 I could get the Virginia vacation plus a voucher for another vacation in Orlando or Las Vegas. But time was running short. I managed to squeak in under the wire and give Dave my credit card number.

After I confirmed my desired dates over Memorial Day weekend, I decided to invite my mother along. I figured we would fit more comfortably in two rooms (I planned to bring four of our five kids), and she and my oldest son could play golf together. Mom called the number I gave her and added a room for $67.50 a night.

My confirmation letter made it clear that in return for our discount, my husband and I would take a 90-minute tour of the resort's four-season facilities. I knew that was a euphemism for a time-share presentation.

Basics of time sharing

Owning a time share means that you've purchased a stay of one or more weeks each year at a resort, usually in a condo or suite of rooms with a kitchen and other home amenities. For a one-time purchase price -- $13,000 is the national average -- plus an annual maintenance fee, you own this time slot in this unit either in perpetuity or for a predetermined number of years.

According to Lisa Ann Schreier, author of How to Survive a Timeshare Presentation: Confessions From the Sales Table, time sharing began in Europe in the 1960s and spread to the United States in the 1970s. Today the industry generates $5.5 billion annually, and big hotel companies such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood and Disney have gotten into the act.

More than 3 million people attend time-share presentations each year and almost 10 percent of them buy, according to Schreier, who added that sales of time shares have tripled in the last decade. While surveys show that the majority of buyers are happy with their purchases, some find they can't trade for the time they want at other resorts.

Trading is a key element of time sharing and is heavily promoted to prospective buyers. Though presumably you purchase your week at a place where you'd like to go year after year, you can also trade for a week somewhere else. To facilitate this, there are two primary exchange companies representing more than 6,000 resorts worldwide. They are Resort Condominiums International (RCI), which is the company Massanutten is affiliated with, and Interval International (II).

Individual time-share owners pay an annual fee for membership ($99 for RCI), and a fee any time they trade (for RCI, it's $139 domestic, $179 foreign). Whether owners can get the trades they want depends primarily on whether they've bought at a top location (Orlando as opposed to Massanutten, for example) and secondarily, whether they have a high-demand time of year (a so-called "red week").

The questionable aspects of time sharing are the telemarketing schemes and high-pressure sales tactics.

According to Schreier, "30 years ago, it was felt that consumers had to be bribed to come and see something that they knew nothing about." Today she believes the bribe is unnecessary and counterproductive, but she also feels that consumers should realize "there is no such thing as a free vacation."

Problems at resort

When Friday, May 27, arrived, Mom suggested that we call Massanutten and make sure everything was OK with our reservations. Good thing -- the clerk said they only had one room reserved for our party. He said to call the toll-free reservation number of the telemarketing firm we originally dealt with and have them fax the resort a confirmation.

The fellow who answered the toll-free number (not located at the resort but at Williamsburg Plantation, to whom Massanutten contracts its telemarketing) checked and said that we definitely had two rooms. He said there was no need to send a fax.

My husband, Crispin, was driving our car with sons Sam, 12, and Vince, 13. My mom, my 4-year-old Jane, my 16-year-old Hayes and I were in Mom's car. But after we drove there in vicious traffic, Massanutten still had only one room for us. The office that took my reservations was closed. The resort manager would not, or could not, take my word for it, and there was no way to prove anything until Tuesday morning.

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