Sunday, February 21, 2016

Vacation Clubs: Future savings or a scam?

Here and there over the past few years, Rich and I have received various communications (postcards, phone messages, etc.) exclaiming that we've won a cruise for two, or a vacation for two.  Just call this number to claim your prize!  How did I win a prize when I never entered the contest?  Those postcards were promptly tossed into the recycling bin without a second thought.

A few months ago, we received a postcard with the name Wyndham splashed across the front of a tropical beach scene.  The back of the postcard stated "You are cordially invited to receive a complimentary 3 day and 2 night stay in deluxe accommodations at a Wyndham Hotel including Roundtrip Airfare tickets for 2!!*  As an added bonus, receive $100 in Dining!"  The asterisk led you to terms and conditions.  Now I may be blind without my glasses or contacts for distance, but up close, I have perfect eyesight.  I can read the tiniest of tiny print. If someone has a splinter, I'm the one to surgically remove it.  I have never had an issue seeing or reading anything small.  Until now.

I could barely read the terms and conditions because the minuscule black lettering was on the deepest blue of the ocean.  How convenient.  All I gathered was that we would have to make a "refundable" deposit in order to receive the complimentary hotel stay and airfare.

Right before Rich and I began dating, he toured a timeshare in the Berkshires (Western Massachusetts) and as a part of that timeshare presentation, he received a free stay at an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas for two.  He was only responsible for airfare.  We were able to take advantage of that freebie before it expired and there were no hoops to jump through.  It was actually a pleasant experience.

When we received this postcard, I legitimately thought it was related to a Wyndham timeshare or vacation club.  That's the only reason we paused before trashing it.  With the girls older now, travel has become easier.  Not easy, nothing with three school-aged children is, but definitely more manageable.  We are open to the idea of buying into a timeshare or the like.  Rich and I both know friends and family who bought into timeshares years ago and have been happy with their investments.  We've looked into and thought about Disney's Vacation Club but it doesn't quite fit our needs.  Well, it does now but I question whether or not it will in the future.

Rich called the toll-free number on the postcard and lo and behold, the company making this offer was not Wyndham.  The deal was that we attend a 90 minute presentation for a vacation club and in exchange we would receive the complimentary 2 night hotel stay, airfare for two and $100 in dining.  We were under no obligation to purchase anything.

Me:  "So what is this?  Is it a Wyndham timeshare?  Where do we need to go for this presentation?"  Thinking it would be at a Wyndham.

Rich:  "No, it's not Wyndham.  It's some vacation club.  We just need to go to some office park down the street."

Me:  "Do you know the name of the vacation club?"

Rich:  "No."

Admittedly, I was skeptical from the get-go but I tried to keep an open mind.  Rich's sister offered to watch the girls for us and we considered this a date because how often do we go somewhere alone on a weekend afternoon.  Rich was told that this presentation wouldn't last longer than 90 minutes.  As we pulled into a parking space of the almost deserted office park, I asked Rich if anyone knew exactly where we were going to be.

"What if they hit us over the head with a heavy object and steal the credit card we were required to bring?  How will we be saved?"

There was a guy waiting outside the building to escort us into the office space they were presumably renting.  I kept a close eye on him.  Once in the reception area, we were asked to complete a short questionnaire.  I downgraded our jobs to accountant and tax accountant.  I almost wrote that I was a photographer but I was too tired to keep up the lie.  The first part of the presentation consisted of meeting with your very own sales representative who basically wanted to get you excited about vacations.  There were six couples in total there during this time.  Immediately, there were a few turnoffs.  First, our representative asked us if we wanted coffee or tea.  No, thanks.  She asked us to please just take a cup of water because if we didn't have anything in front of us at the table, she could get in trouble.  Oooookay.  Second, and I hate to say this, but none of the reps looked particularly professional.  I've worked in a professional environment for 20 years and I've been trained to look for professionalism.  You can wear jeans and have blue hair and still present a professional image.  These reps all looked like they'd had a tough time as of late.  Third, our rep mentioned several times how they'd already had a ton of couples come through today who bought into this vacation club.  Sure ya did.

Because I enjoy travel and planning, I was actually very interested to see how this whole presentation would unravel.  Our rep asked us a slew of personal questions:  How many kids do we have?  How old are they? (Oh, so you would need to travel during peak times.) What do you do for work? (Wait till you see our offer.  Accountants are the first to buy because they realize what a good deal it is.)  Next she asked us where we liked to vacation or where we would like to vacation in the future.  Of course, I mentioned Hawaii. She told me I wouldn't be going there with the kids for a long time because it's like an 18 hour flight.  (And you call yourself a travel expert? Maybe with three very long layovers but yeah, I don't think so.)

So then Rich and I were forced to stand in front of a jumbo computer screen hung on the wall while the rep punched in some numbers that would tell us how much we would spend during the next 10 years on hotel rooms.  It came out to $34,050.  I wanted to ask if that included a present value calculation.  The next part was the actual presentation portion given by a young guy who had to have failed at making it big as an actor and had resorted to this in order to pay the bills.  We were told about their awesome vacation club and how their star system works and how little it costs.  Then they wanted us to feel the feels so they aired a short animated Disneyesque film about a young couple who finds out they can't have children so they try to save money for their entire lives in order to go on vacation but life happens and they have to keep taking money out of their vacation fund and so they never go on vacation and then the wife dies so you shouldn't wait until tomorrow to take those vacations you want to take.

Here's the breakdown of what they were selling to us:
  • Cost to buy into this vacation club = $14,990
  • Annual fees = $389 
  • Cost for a weekly stay at one of their "units" = $189
  • Based on their star system, our family, who would most likely be traveling during peak season and would need a two bedroom unit, would only be able to use two weeks a year.
  • You could also book cruises and other vacation deals through them if you were a member.
  • This is a lifetime membership which is transferable to all of your children.

We were told that we couldn't ask questions during the presentation, otherwise it would last for a long time.  In reality, they didn't want questions because it could potentially raise doubt in the others that were there listening.  I had a ton of questions.  For example, they claimed that the annual fee of $389 could be waived if you weren't able to use the vacation club that year.  Well, how exactly does that work?  They showed a ton of pretty pictures of luxury hotel suites and tropical beaches but never once mentioned any hotel/resort names.  In fact, only one name was mentioned and I had to ask him to repeat it because he had mumbled.  They gave us an example of a vacation you could book through them.  $999 per person (2 adults in total) to Honolulu, includes airfare and ocean front accommodations at a 5 star resort.  I had just researched Honolulu hotels so when he mumbled the name, I asked him to repeat it.  The Equus.  Never heard of it.

They also tried to pull everyone in with Disney talk.  "Do you know how expensive a vacation to Disney is?  Do you know how much a one day park ticket costs now?  Disney keeps raising their prices.  It will now cost you over $100 a day for a park ticket.  Now, we can't get you on Disney property but we can get you in a place five minutes down the road with a shuttle that leaves every 15 minutes.  We can even get you hopper passes.  How does that sound?"  I did not tell them that I was essentially a Disney vacation planner and as such, this sounded too good to be true and everyone knows that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Now it was time for the big push to sell this vacation club to us.  We were being brought back out to the first room to meet with our rep but I needed to use the bathroom, as did a handful of others.  What do you do when you're out and about these days and you want to find out more information?  Yes, you pull out your smartphone.  Some woman had tried to do that during the presentation and had been asked to please put it away immediately.  So I figured I would do so in the bathroom.  A key code was needed to access the bathroom and I ended up behind several woman.  Our rep had followed me into the bathroom so I thought she needed to use it as well.  Nope.  She was simply escorting me.  There were only three stalls and all three were occupied so while I stood there waiting, my rep was right there with me, which was a bit unsettling.  Just leave me alone.  Finally everyone cleared out so I went into the nearest stall.  It was so weird.  I'm in the stall peeing and she's waiting for me by the sinks.  Finally, she told me she would be outside.  Before I left the stall, I pulled out my phone, called up a search function and hurriedly typed in the name of this vacation club.

The first search result was the website for the vacation club, which was good news because it meant that it actually existed.  The second search result listed was for a complaints and scams message board.  The third included a helpful blurb.  "This company buys unused timeshares.  The ones in Las Vegas look decent."  That's all I needed to see.  It now made sense.

As I was washing my hands, our rep came into the bathroom to find me.  I followed her back to the sales room and when I caught Rich's eye, I slightly shook my head no and subtly sliced my neck with my finger.  He understood.

In an attempt to get us to sign on the dotted line, we were brought back to stand in front of the computer screen while the rep pulled up their properties where we could stay in the future as members of their vacation club.  Her first search was for Orlando and a ton of places in Kissimmee popped up.  Nothing in Orlando.  Now, there's nothing wrong with Kissimmee but it's not five minutes down the road (as advertised) and none of the properties listed were known to me.  No Hiltons or Hyatts or Sheratons or Marriotts or Wyndhams.  These places had names such as Del Boca Vista and Spring Palm View.  We finally sat back down and the price was dropped from $14,990 to $12,990.

"Do these places offer housekeeping services?"

"Yeah, why wouldn't they?"

"Well, I know with Disney's Vacation Club you only get towel and trash service on the fourth and seventh days.  I didn't know if these places were the same."

She acted like she was in shock, like she had never heard something so preposterous.

"Ugh, that's unbelievable!  Do you know how much people pay for those?  They pay like $50,000 and they don't get housekeeping!"

If you are paying $50,000 for your Disney Vacation Club membership you either have an extremely large family or you vacation on Disney properties several times throughout the year.

Rich and I said no, that we weren't interested in purchasing and a manager type was called over to deal with us.  At this point, they were beginning to show some anger towards us.  I did ask them both, "So where exactly are these places?"  They stared at me almost in disbelief.  How dare I ask such a question.

"What do you mean?  They're all over the place."

"Are they in hotels?  Like Marriotts and Hiltons?"

"Yeah, yeah.  They're in all those hotels."

So now they were lying to me.

They quickly dropped the cost to $9,990.

We said thanks, but no thanks.  Final.  At this time, we had been there for almost two hours.  So much for their lie of less than 90 minutes.

And then they became curt and visibly angry.

Prior to making any big purchase, I need time to think over exactly what I'm purchasing and why I'm purchasing it.  I don't easily spend money, especially large sums of money.  If this was all legitimate, why the big rush?  Why the exclusive presentation?  Why the lies and acting?  As soon as I found out that this was in no way, shape or form related to Wyndham, my intuitive BS alarm began sounding.  As we gave our final NO, that alarm was deafening.

Unfortunately, there are probably people out there who are intimidated by this fake anger and feel forced to buy into their club.  I am not one of those.  Get mad at me all you want; I don't care.

Because they were angry with us, we had to wander down the hallway in search of the elevator so we could find the exit.  I wonder if they escort out those who buy into their club?  We were the first couple to leave.

When we returned home, I immediately searched the internet for more information and bam, fell down the rabbit hole.  This particular company and others set up similar to it have bad ratings with Better Business Bureaus, have been investigated by various state agencies across the US and it is generally suggested that you don't buy into any vacation clubs that force you into a high pressure sales situation.  The vacation club that had attempted to rope us in operates as a reseller of unused timeshares.  So if you want to vacation offseason in places where timeshares are abundant, such as the Orlando and North Conway areas, maybe this would work out okay for you.  From my research, the major complaint was that the vacation club doesn't have the supply to meet the demand of its members.  For example, several unhappy members complained that they have made requests over a year in advance but have never been able to use their memberships because the club doesn't have anything available to meet those requests.

As for the Equus $999 per person special, I checked that out.  The Equus is a boutique hotel located a few blocks from Waikiki Beach.  Not ocean front, as advertised.  It is a 3 star hotel.  Not 5 stars, as advertised.  It has a pool the size of a postage stamp.  I could book a room there for next week at a rate of $125 a night.  We weren't told exactly what that $999 would get us but I'm sure there would be additional airline fees for those of us living on the east coast.  In addition, I would have already paid the club $9,990 plus my annual fee of $389.  Doesn't really sound like a deal to me.                  

In conclusion, buyer beware.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Stay tuned for a follow up:
  • What happened to our complimentary hotel stay and airfare?
  • Did we receive the $100 in dining we were promised?
  • Why does Jarrod from the Quality Assurance department call us?


Bernice said...

Hi Sarah
we have been Disney Vacation Club members since 1995, and have not regretted it one bit. We have a choice of room sizes from spacious studios,to 1 2 and 3 bedroom villas, You revive a trash and tidy on your 4 th day,on your 7th day you recieve a full clean,of course you can have housekeeping come in every day for a cost. As with Disney's resorts thier DVC resorts are beautiful and are a vacation on their own.
Along with WDW, they have DVC resorts in Vero Beach, Hilton Head, and Hawaii, we still need to visit Hawaii. Also they have DVC member cruises 2x a year on a Disney Cruise ship,while we have not been on a member cruise,we had litlle gifts( DVC totes, visors and magnets) in our room on our last cruise.They also offer vacation spots thru Disney Adventures,and their partnership with RCI.
No I am not a sales rep,we are Disney nuts and saw a great value for our family.

Sarah said...

Bernice - thanks for your insight into DVC. I keep thinking about 10 years from now when we could have 3 in college. Ack.

angie gwinn said...

We were roped into one of these timeshare things while visiting Puerto Rico. Red flags everywhere. Big question, what if the company goes out of business next year? What happens to my money? No answer, no thanks.
In the end we were mad we wasted an hour of our vacation on this stupid sales pitch and the free hotel has so many string we never bothered.

JoAnn H said...

We did the Wyndham time share presentation while visiting the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells a little over a year ago. We were offered the $100 dining which turned out to be and was of no use to us. We also get $100 on 2 $50 cards we could use anywhere. It was supposed to be 90 mins. They did a very nice presentation and served us breakfast. It took around 2.5 hours. They were very friendly and nice. We explained to the first person we would not be purchasing as we did not want our credit ran because we were in the process of purchasing a house. The manager came over and sweetened the deal and we still said no. They sent us to one last person who offered a trial type thing which would have been a really nice deal, but again we said no. They were really trying to sell this deal, but they never became overly pushy and everyone we spoke to was respectful. I was very glad we had brought a teenager with us to keep my daughter occupied. They had a room to keep children in and she would have been miserable after a bit. They stayed in our room and then went to the water park area right down from our room.

We have run into really pushy time share pushers as I call them when we stepped out of the Disney bubble to go off property and eat. It seems they were in every restaurant. I don't respond well to overly pushy people and will just flat out walk away after a min or two. My DH has me be the bad guy. :)

Teej said...

Oh gracious, the movie - the wife dies without ever getting to take a vacation? Wait, was it "Up"?

That whole set-up sounds preposterous. I hope the other people were not pressured into it.

We allowed a Rainbow Vacuum salesperson to come to our home to do a presentation about 5 years ago. He was a friend of a friend and really needed to do more pitches. We knew we weren't going to buy a super fancy vacuum, but I think he got points or something just for scheduling a presentation, so I hope we helped him a little. Anyways, just for listening to the presentation, we were supposed to get a gift: you could choose either a "two-day, all inclusive trip" to somewhere...or a set of two knives. I took one glance at the trip brochure and thought, nope. I knew there would be a catch somewhere. We chose the knives. He said we were the first people to ever, ever choose the knives. I still use those knives...

Lisa H. said...

I loved reading this and can't wait for the follow up because while I'm like you and extremely skeptical, I'm also so curious about these presentations! My husband and I have debated going to them in the past but haven't because I'm skeptical just about walking in the room and because we're sometimes very good at encouraging each other to buy things (within our budgets--we've great in that regard) so it seems like a recipe for disaster. That said, I love the comment about the Rainbow vacuum up above. We allowed a salesperson in one year because I wanted the diffuser that we saw at the fair and that was the free gift. We actually had no idea what we were signing up for--I just figured the presentation would be worth it for the diffuser. We wound up buying the vacuum and while it's more than I ever want to admit we spent on one, it's actually the most amazing thing ever and whenever we use it (weekly, generally, if not more with three animals and a toddler in the house) we comment about how wonderful it is! Ha! Anyway, can't wait for the follow up so I can continue to live vicariously through the presentation! :)

Cynthia said...

My dad and I sat through a DVC presentation last summer (at Disneyland) and the best part was receiving a $50 Disney gift card and 6 fastpasses! ;)