Friday, April 21, 2017

The evil that is the timeshare industry

This isn't about Vegas, but if you're a regular Vegas visitor, you can relate.

I've been to my share of timeshare presentations in my life. I don't remember how many, but too many. I feel as if the gifts are better nowadays than they were two decades ago. Perhaps it's my imagination.

I had no business going to an Orlando timeshare presentation in October 2000, but it seemed like a good idea. I was there with my friend and her sister and niece, and I was going to get a Disney admission ticket for giving up a couple of hours of my morning. I gave up a few hours of my morning, and ended up donating $10 to some charity, but I did get a Disney admission ticket out of the deal. I didn't ruin or change any plans of my friend, but I didn't feel as if it was worth it.

A few years later I was about as poor as I could be, and I wound up signing up for a timeshare presentation here in Minneapolis. It started innocently enough, I spun a prize wheel in the parking lot of a minor league baseball game. That turned into an invitation to the timeshare pitch, including a two-night trip to Las Vegas, airfare included. I should have been ecstatic about a free trip to Vegas, but I had no business spending $100 on a vacation at that time. I suffered through my timeshare presentation, received my gifts, including a $20 gas card, and was on my way.

In order to use the trip I would have had to put a deposit down and book the trip two months in advance. I couldn't afford to tie up $150 at the time, and there were too many unknowns about the free trip. What time would my flights be during the weekend I wanted to go? Would I be forced to connect, and endure a long layover, for my two-night trip?

I only had a few months to use the free trip, and couldn't justify doing so. At least I received a nominal gas card out of the deal. But it wasn't worth my time in the slightest.

I'm sure I had been to a timeshare presentation or two beyond those incidents, but I'm not recalling them at the moment.

By the time I received my free Vegas vacation via a timeshare pitch, I was done with pitches for good. That Vegas vacation might have been a nice freebie had I not been so poor, but for the most part I was convinced that the gifts weren't that valuable to me, even if my time wasn't worth a dime to anyone else, including myself. Nice gifts weren't wroth the charade. Sitting at home playing video games would have been a better use of my time, I reasoned.

Somehow I've managed to avoid sitting through a Vegas timeshare presentation. I've been to Vegas more than 30 times during the past 20 years. I've been approached occasionally, but I've managed to avoid being suckered into one. Occasionally I see a nice gift being touted as enticement, but I haven't come close to being tempted in Vegas.

I'll spare you many of the details, but during a recent vacation in Mexico, I wound up going to two timeshare presentations on two consecutive mornings. I was there for a week, so I could afford to give up the mornings. Each presentation included a breakfast, and the pitches weren't obnoxious or overbearing, although I'm not anxious to make a habit of it.

I was with my girlfriend while in Mexico, and she suffered through the sales pitches as well. She knew, like me, there was no chance in hell we'd buy anything. We have thousands of dollars of bathroom improvements we'll be paying for in a few weeks, we weren't about to take on years of timeshare debt when we have a long list of home improvement projects we'd like to finance. There was no chance any timeshare offer would be too good to pass up, that much I knew.

During the first day's pitch we walked away with a voucher for a five-night stay at one of the company's properties, for a nominal cost. I'm sure using it will require sitting through another timeshare pitch, but I won't agree to do it if I cash in the voucher and wind up back in Mexico. What are they going to do at that point, force me to attend?

I have a year to use the voucher, so it's possible we'll go back next winter. If not, then our first morning was a waste of time. We were supposed to get a few other gifts in exchange for our time, and we did get a discount card that saved us a little cash on meals and merchandise at the resort we were staying at, but the discounts and deals weren't as great as suggested.

Near the end of the first day's pitch a woman was recruiting for another property not affiliated with the resort we had just toured. The resorts weren't affiliated, but the companies had agreements that allowed recruiting of those who balked at the incredible deals offered at the first timeshare pitch, evidently. Strange, I know.

I never fathomed I'd be immediately hit up to go to another pitch when we were so close to cashing out at the first one. I started to wonder if I was trapped in a vicious circle where I'd be badgered to attend presentations every day of my vacation. I was a bit stunned.

The nice recruiter assured us that presentation two would really only be 90 minutes, and she offered us a great discount on show tickets. The show was something my girlfriend knew of, and her sister had recommended it. The street price was allegedly $145 a ticket, however, and we knew there was no chance we'd be spending even $100 a person for tickets to this show. We had vacation funds, but we needed to limit our recreational spending in order to afford our vacation. Even though we knew discounted show tickets were available without too much trouble for about $100, we weren't going to be buying.

But the nice recruiter offered us tickets for $20 per ticket. Now that's a pretty good deal. I looked at my girlfriend, who wanted nothing to do with another timeshare pitch. I said, "it's up to you." She told the recruiter "no."

The woman countered and said she really needed to get people signed up for the next morning, so she offered us two free tickets. I looked at my girlfriend again, and this time she decided we'd do it if we were going to get free tickets.

Our day two sales pitch was not much more than 90 minutes, and our saleswoman was fun to talk with. I'm not entirely sure why, but she didn't push the product very hard. I think it had to do with the fact we downplayed our personal situation when it comes to vacations. We weren't big enough spenders to fork over the minimum she'd need to get in order for us to become buyers, we hinted, so she quickly stopped trying.

As I said, I'm not planning to make a habit of sitting through the agony of a timeshare sales pitch for free tickets to a show, and I had no intention to do so ever again. And yet more than a decade after I attended what I thought was my last timeshare pitch, I sat through two in two days.

There are plenty of websites with suggestions on what to do and what not to do if you're going to trade your time, on vacation or otherwise, for a gift from a timeshare company. Here are a few of mine:

1. Downplay your spending and vacation habits. The salespersons like to round up and try to show you that you're spending $1,000 or more for a week of vacation at a hotel when you go on vacation. The salesman from day one didn't seem phased by the fact that I go to Vegas somewhat regularly and get great deals and rates for the hotels I stay at. He had a scenario where I was spending plenty on vacations every year based upon the fact that I might spend $100 occasionally for a night in Vegas. And thanks to his catalog of places I can use my points or weeks, I can stay in Vegas at Polo Towers!

Also, don't mention many other trips you've taken in recent years. If you sound like you take a vacation every single year, you'll have a harder time getting the salesperson to throw in the towel.

We were much more liberal with our vacation talk regaring the past five years during day one. On day two we didn't travel as often, and our big vacation was using a friend's cabin in northern Minnesota at no cost to us.

2. Make sure you have major expenses that are forthcoming. In our case we really have a major bathroom renovation forthcoming. But if I ever find myself in a timeshare presentation again, I'll be up to my eyeballs in debt. I'll have recently purchased a home that needs renovation. I'll have just finished one expensive project I'm trying to pay off, and I'll have another I need to start financing after I return home from vacation.

You'll be reminded that you are taking a vacation right now, so vacationing must be a priority. But downplay that, too. Tell the salesperson that you're there thanks to bonus points you received for signing up for an airline credit card, and note that this is the first time in years you've taken such an exotic vacation.

The less worldly and wealthy you sound, the better. The salesperson may not give up based upon that, but if she smells deep pockets, it will take longer to get her to throw in the towel.

3. Find things you don't like about the property. You'll see a beautiful room with an incredible view, but don't be too impressed by it. If it's a huge resort that has lots of kids out and about, (and you don't have kids,) or the resort isn't very close to things you'd like to be able access without driving, such as restaurants, mention that. You'll be reminded that you can buy today and use your points/weeks at billions of other properties, but at least you'll have planted another seed of doubt.

4. Have a pre-existing condition. Yes, you're on vacation, but note that you have a family member who you can't afford to be away from every single year. This isn't the best excuse, but it's an option. And you'll likely be told you can bank your time for a multi-week vacation whenever that family member dies.

5. Express doubts about agreeing to a purchase without adequate financial planning. All of these deals are based upon buying a package that day, with little basis of comparison. They don't send you home with a brochure and offer sheet because they know you won't be dazzled by the offer on paper a week after you get home. If anything, you'll learn how a $30,000 commitment over 30 years isn't such a great deal.

When I'm expressing doubt, I note that I don't like to buy a car or make other purchases without adequate consideration. That won't put an end to the game right then and there, but it plants another seed of doubt in the saleswoman's mind.

Beyond those five suggestions, I'd advise not bothering with a timeshare presentation. But if you find yourself signing up because the lure of the gifts is too good to pass us, plan ahead so that you don't open doors for the salesperson to walk through. It had been years since I had endured a pitch, so when I ended up doing two in two days, I sharped my skills between pitch one and two, and it paid off. I was polite and friendly enough, but I gave the poor saleswoman little to work with, and she quickly added us to her long list of strikeouts.

And if you are signing up, barter a bit. The folks signing you up for the presentations usually don't care if you're likely to buy. Their job is to put asses in the seats. All they care is that you meet the minimum income and other requirements. (In Mexico it was important that we were married, or at least reside at the same address, according to our IDs. The latter is true.)

In Mexico we saw that our initial reluctance to say yes to discounted show tickets turned into free show tickets. So hold out for better loot if you think you're willing to sit through a pitch, and don't be afraid to walk away if it's not that great of an offer. Show tickets to a show you weren't interested in aren't worth giving up a morning for, even if the tickets sell for $100 each.

Once you say yes you'll probably be asked to hand over a small deposit, because otherwise you'll blow off your appointment. So make sure you're offered good, valuable gifts before you finally say yes.

And a reminder... an important lesson I had to re-learn in Mexico. If you're not interested in a timeshare pitch, and don't want to be politely hassled by people trying to talk you into attending one, remember the golden rule. You're going home tomorrow morning. Say that, even though you might be in town for another five days.

When somebody in Vegas asks me how long I'm in town for, which happens in areas of high pedestrian traffic, both on the street and in casino/hotel lobbies, I always say I'm leaving tonight or tomorrow morning. That's all it takes. It doesn't matter if the guy is setting up timeshare presentations, selling discounted show tickets or booking Grand Canyon tours. If he thinks you're about to leave town, he won't waste time with you.

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