|By Toby Walne, Financial Mail on Sunday, London|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 25, 2004 - Gudrun ushers me out to a spacious veranda packed with other visitors for a chat. The middle-aged German woman is one of about 60 sales staff who deal with more than 250 people a day in a well-rehearsed operation at Club La Costa, a complex set in more than 27 acres of parkland about 15 miles from Marbella.
The old-fashioned concept of buying weeks at individual locations is dead, she tells me. Gudrun picks up an ashtray to demonstrate her point: "It is not as if you own this [pretending the ashtray is a holiday home]. It simply isn't true.
"We are being much more open by offering points. Points equal choice. The more you spend, the more points you get."
At Club La Costa, Gudrun says she wants to clean up the tarnished timeshare image. As proof, she refuses point blank to sell me any timeshare there and then.
Instead, I must hand over a mere UKpound 3,595 -- as "a taster". This will allow me to choose five weeks anywhere in the world at two-bedroom self-catering apartments to be taken over the next 34 months, though flights are extra. A further bonus week is thrown in at Club La Costa, where I will have a more thorough timeshare grilling.
What Gudrun fails to tell me is that because the ownership offer is for less than three years, the deal is not covered by the cooling-off regulations that apply to timeshare.
"But you must decide today," she whispers. I query the likelihood of being able to get the holiday of my choice when I want, but I am calmly told: "This is not a problem to worry about."
To calm my nerves, Gudrun takes me for a stroll around the huge luxury complex. As well as the 200 fully equipped apartments, there are holiday homes that can be bought outright. Club La Costa, which has 20 timeshare resorts, is linked to US-based RCI, the biggest timeshare company in the world with 3,900 locations globally.
The complex boasts restaurants, a fitness centre and eight huge swimming pool areas.
I ask Gudrun repeatedly why I should spend so much money trying out a timeshare deal when all the details of the final product have not yet been laid on the table?
I am told my timeshare taster will be refunded when I sign for the full deal. But what if I don't like the deal on offer? Too bad, is the unspoken answer.
Despite the dreadful publicity timeshare schemes have attracted, half a million Britons belong to them -- and UK holidaymakers account for more than three-quarters of the market in Europe. Many are delighted with their decision. Others bitterly regret it.
While parts of the industry have cleaned up their act in the face of tighter regulation, timeshare has become more complicated. Some schemes are easier to understand and are relatively well regulated while others are designed to confuse and conceal poor value.
Sandy Gray, chairman of the UK Timeshare Consumers" Association, takes up to 50 calls a day from people worried about timeshare.
Before I set off, Gray repeats the warning he gives to all travellers tempted to sign up: "Don't leave your brain at the airport!'
Five miles from Club La Costa is the Marriott's Marbella Beach Resort. This is run by Marriott Vacation Club International, which has invited us to inspect the new face of timeshare.
The people here don't refer to timeshare -- they prefer the words "holiday ownership".
The resort is an impressive walled complex with 288 fully equipped self-catering apartments.
Potential customers receive mailshots offering discounted UKpound 248 three-day holidays for those willing to endure a three-hour sales pitch. But the US-based travel group's reputable brand is reassuring.
Sales director Kevin Ash outlines the benefits of silver, gold and platinum options. Though I can choose the standard deal, Kevin believes that as I have a young family and wish to travel, it would be worth opting for the "points choice' -- the more points I buy, the more options are available.
The price of a two-bedroom apartment for one week a year in peak season for the next 80 years is UKpound 15,200. Marriott offers a loan deal where clients pay a ten per cent deposit and 60 monthly payments of UKpound 297.44 -- a total of UKpound 19,366. There are also annual maintenance costs of UKpound 400 at present.
Marriott claims that to rent an equivalent property -- Marbella Beach Resort boasts restaurants, coffee shops, bars, two tennis courts and four swimming pools -- would cost UKpound 210 a night.
Marriott has teamed up with other big leisure groups, including Disney and Hyatt, and members can "swap' their points through broker Interval International. We spend two hours chatting about the complex options and it is hard to resist the clever marketing.
It is all a dramatic contrast to the other face of timeshare on show at Fuengirola, a few miles along the coast. Swarms of British touts, and a few Spanish ones, hand out scratch cards to unsuspecting holidaymakers at the bus station.
Surprise, surprise. Everyone who scratches the card is an instant winner. Bottles of bubbly, free holidays and UKpound 400 gift vouchers are among the "prizes" up for grabs.
The touts fall about in fake rapture when the card is scratched. "Are you always this lucky?' they shriek, accompanied by phoney hugs and kisses. All that is required to pick up the winnings is to attend a sales seminar. "No, we're not timeshare," they insist.
A car screeches to a halt on the beachfront. "Are you English?' yells the young woman in the passenger seat to an elderly couple. She leaps out with a scratch card. "Look, look, you're a winner!'
Though unlicensed timeshare touting has been outlawed in Fuengirola, it remains rife. The touts tell me they target British couples over 30 who have been together at least three years. One says that though "only about one in 50 takes the bait," the commissions are worthwhile.
One tout tells me that he is linked to the nearby Miraflores resort. Its opulent reception area is lined with bottles of champagne and the sales team have winning smiles. I ask for details, but am swiftly escorted to the exit by two burly men as I have not been "invited" and have no accompanying wife.
But all I want is some information to take home.
"That is not how we sell things here. Goodbye."
-----UKpound preceding a numeral refers to the United Kingdom's pound sterling.
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