Planning Our Vacation
My wife and I decided to take this year’s vacation as outlaws. We posed as an ordinary couple with an infant son on a one-week getaway in Orlando, Florida.
But unbeknownst to others, we were running amok as charlatans and grifters, a modernday Bonnie and Clyde, and Clyde, Jr.
OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating. We really are an ordinary couple with an infant son and, come to think of it, we didn’t actually perform any real felonious act, as long as speeding through North Carolina on our way down to Orlando doesn’t count.
But alas, our ruse was far more subtle; we had booked a week at a luxury Orlando timeshare resort for the incredibly low price of US$ 52 per night (travel not included), but with the agreement that we’d allow them to try and sell us one.
The whole time, however, we really had no intention whatsoever of buying one. All we did was visit Mickey on the cheap!
Most of us have heard of this scheme. You sign a contract agreeing that during your stay you will attend a brief presentation (usually a brunch meeting) where it is presumed that you will be mercilessly solicited.
You are under no obligation to purchase anything however, and if you can make it through the presentation without inadvertently buying a timeshare, you’re home free.
My only concern was that I’ve been known to be taken in by a good sales ploy, as my closet full of Sports Illustrated sneaker phones, ab-tightening gizmos and George Foreman kitchen gear will attest to.
My wife, Laura, on the other hand, is a career salesperson, having sold products ranging from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals, so with her at my side I’d be safe.
Even if she had to resort to hiding my checkbook, the equivalent of lashing Ulysses to the mast to safely bypass the Siren’s Coast, I felt fairly confident that we’d survive this ordeal financially unscathed.
Arriving at Westgate Vacation Villas
Upon arrival at Westgate Vacation Villas (one of the largest resorts in the country and still growing), we found our surroundings to be very pleasant; swaying palms, lush gardens, green grass, a dozen different swimming pools.
Tennis and basketball courts were among the many outdoor amenities, while our two-bedroom condo featured a marble bath with Jacuzzi, full kitchen, washer, dryer, DVD player — the works.
To ensure that you will attend the impending sales presentation, the resort has your credit card on file; failure to oblige the agreement would result in being charged an extra US$ 100 per night, multiplied by the number of days you had booked.
Because of this constraint, I felt a curious absence of consumer empowerment.
Indeed, at US$ 52 a night, it was hard to pluck up the courage to complain about anything, short of maybe a bed bug infestation.
Yet despite this penned-up feeling, we proceeded to have a good time. Four days passed, we came and went to the local attractions, and to our astonishment no one had hounded us, yet.
As scheduled, we arrived at the Sales Center, a low-slung, single-story building more reminiscent of a strip mall than the Spanish-roofed villas and townhouses that characterized this resort.
We found ourselves in a large, high-ceilinged room which, at first glance, resembled a cafeteria with a buffet, and tables and chairs for dining.
But on second glance it began to take on more of a show room feel, particularly when I noticed the bank of glass-walled sales offices on one side.
If you replaced the tables and chairs with Cadillacs and Buicks, this could easily pass for a car dealership. In the next hour I would be amazed at the similarities between selling cars and timeshares.
Meeting With Bill
Enter Bill, our chosen assignee. Bill is a sales-producing machine, a hybrid. He’s the “Terminator” of all timeshare sales reps.
If rogue Disney engineers are manufacturing salesperson animatrons in a secret underground lab several miles from here, then Bill is the prototype.
He is both affable and intimidating at the same time, extremely well dressed, and relentlessly focused on his goal.
He doesn’t appear to breath between the segues of his precise, rapid-fire sales routine, yet I feel that at all times his roving robotic Terminator eye is scanning me for information such as the size and weight of my head, my IQ, and the real amount of my total household income.
One thing is for sure — Bill has managed to invoke every ploy used by every salesperson who has ever tried to sell me anything.
He is not only the top sales rep for the company (he “sells these things like hot cakes!”), but he wants us to buy the “Cadillac” timeshare (much nicer than the older “Chevys” on the other side of the complex).
He lets us know the unit of choice is just like the one he and his family own. (They all look cozy in the picture he shows us, although it looks like he Photo-Shopped his head into the middle.)
And, if we bring down a few friends next year for him to talk to (at this point the Terminator leans in as if telling us a great secret, his unblinking eye now looking into my very soul), the entire cost of our vacation is on him!
I was beginning to drift hypnotically, lulled farther and farther onto neutral ground by Bill’s meticulously executed subterfuge, but Laura was quick to anticipate the close, parrying with:
“It’s too bad you need your answer today. This might be something we’d be interested in the future, but as you said, this offer’s only good for today. And we definitely won’t buy today. Thank you very much, anyhow.” It was brilliant.
The Terminator’s skin went opaque and, for a fleeting moment, his pupils turned into two menacing, red pin pricks of light.
Then, suddenly, the color returned to his cheeks, the life returned to his eyes and a warm smile once again spread across his face. He briskly shook our hands.
No longer targets, we decided to address some of our own curiosities. The only criterion you need to meet to be eligible to become an owner at Westgate is telling them that you have an annual household income of at least US$ 40,000.
But how could this company expect to sell so many timeshares (an average of 40 per day, they claim) to so many families of low to middle-class means?
If we had accepted Bill’s special “today only” offer we would have purchased one week a year for US$ 12,900, with monthly payments of US$ 199 for 10 years, with US$ 500-600 yearly maintenance.
No credit check, no hassles. Just sign on the line. When presented in those terms, my check-writing hand started to twitch.
“But how?” I asked. Bill circled an inconspicuous figure on the sample contract before us. It said: “Fixed APR: 17.9%.” My hand immediately stopped twitching.
Bill once again leaned in to impart another piece of privileged information, but this time the probing was over; he had become human again.
“We’re not interested so much in this,” he said, as he pointed to a picture of the condo. “We really only care about this,” and he pointed back to the “17.9%” figure on the contract.
It was time for my Charlton Heston–Soylent Green moment: “You mean … this resort is … nothing more … than a sub-prime lender?” I gasped.
The Terminator leaned back, gave us a wink and a smile, and said “You folks enjoy the rest of your stay. Don’t forget about my special deal. Now if you’ll excuse me — my manager will be over in just a minute.”
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