|By Jonathan Wegner, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 11, 2005 - --Two years ago, Tom and Candee Wawrzynkiewicz found themselves in Branson, Mo., locked into a 90-minute time-share presentation.
Accepting a discounted four-day vacation at the resort required them to listen to the sales pitch. They steeled themselves, having heard "horror stories" about the time-share industry, which even industry spokesmen acknowledge has a history more colorful than a tropical resort brochure.
But they liked what they heard.
"With what we'd been spending on vacations the last four or five years, it just made sense," Candee said.
The couple said they had spent as much as $5,000 a year on trips, so they reasoned that buying an $8,000 time share could actually cut their costs, especially because they now travel with their 5-year-old daughter Haylee.
So they bought a one-week annual time share, which they can sell anytime, in a two-bedroom condominium in Mesa, Ariz.
The time share industry has gained respectability over the last decade, thanks in large part to stricter rules and well-known names such as Disney and Four Seasons. Today's time-shares offer more upscale accommodations, resort-style amenities and a network of locations to swap spaces.
More than 3 million Americans own time-shares. The average price for one week at new time-share resorts cost $14,790 in 2003. Annual fees averaged a little more than $450, industry group studies show.
"We're a highly regulated industry. We had a colorful past, but then a lot of consumer protections were put in place," said Howard Nusbaum, president of the American Resort Development Association in Washington, D.C.
Scams and abusive marketing ploys in the 1970s led all 50 states to pass legislation regulating time-share development and sales.
One company, for example, offered prospective buyers "a boat with motor -- trailer not included" if they toured its resort. When visitors arrived, they found a small rubber raft with a plastic motor suitable for a swimming pool, according to George Leposky, who wrote a short history of the industry.
That started to change after Marriott Corp. entered the market in 1984, followed by other large hospitality firms.
"You have a lot of trophy companies in it -- Disney, Marriott -- they're not going to play with a product that isn't solid," Nusbaum said.
Nonetheless, some say the industry still has plenty of room for improvement.
Lisa Ann Schreier, author of the forthcoming "Time share Vacations for Dummies," said too many marketers rely on outdated tactics to press prospects into buying. "Whether it's high-pressure, low-pressure or subliminal pressure, there is some pressure from the rep to buy the time share today," she said.
She said too many buyers end up like the Wawrzynkiewiczes, listening to long sales spiels instead of comparison shopping.
"The time-share industry has basically brainwashed the consumer that you need to sit through this 90-minute presentation -- which always turns out to be two-and-a-half hours -- which is ludicrous. You wouldn't sit through a 90-minute presentation to buy a car," she said.
She's quick to add, however, that the products are vastly improved and make sense for some consumers who want to feel more at home when they're on vacation.
The Wawrzynkiewiczes said they like the space of their two-bedroom condo, which made it convenient to take Tom's parents on their vacation last year. They also like having a kitchen to prepare meals.
The variety of locations included in their network -- a feature of almost all modern time shares -- also appealed to the Wawrzynkiewiczes.
"It's geared to your tropics, your water environments, and that's where we tend to migrate on our vacations," Candee said. "We want sun, sand, beach and water."
They pay annual maintenance and membership fees totaling $270, along with air fare to reach their destination. The only other charge was the initial purchase.
"You're investing in future vacations instead of always trying to save money and pay them off as you go," Tom said.
Nusbaum said Tom's perspective is correct: Time-shares are not real estate investments or a way to make money. If resold, time-shares typically bring about half of what they originally cost.
"It's much like a car," Nusbaum said. "It depreciates. You buy it to use it."
That means buying time-shares in the secondary market could be a bargain, although buyers should be wary and ask questions so they understand the fees and any restrictions on use of the property, Schreier said. "Probably 80 percent of what is out there on the second-hand market is out there because it doesn't work," she said.
Time-share sales grew in the last decade because baby boomers view time-sharing as pragmatic, Nusbaum said. With many people having limited vacation time, they only want to own a second home two weeks of the year, he said.
Nusbaum said the idea of selling slices of luxury led early time-share founders like Kimmons Wilson to launch the first such resorts in the 1970s.
"He decided Joe Lunchbucket deserved to live like a millionaire one week a year," he said.
Tom Wawrzynkiewicz said that's why he likes the quality of the Mesa accommodations, which include a giant swimming pool and lounge as well as an 18-hole golf course in Arizona's Painted Desert.
For him, it wasn't a hard sell at all.
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