Monday, June 05, 2006


Weighing The Pros And Cons Of The Booming Timeshare Trend

Mickey, Goofy and Cinderella are only 15 minutes away.

And when we undergo theme park overload, we can unwind on the screened-in porch of this timeshare, swim in one of three beach-motif pools, paddle around with our daughter on duck boats. Or we can tee off on a Nick Faldo golf course or wander onto a nearby bird sanctuary.

Here at the Marriott Cypress Harbour, life is easy. The hotel chain has dangled a bargain-basement deal -- a four-night/five-day stay for only $400 -- in hopes that we will bite on a $19,400 one-week timeshare, a booming form of vacationing.

The activity center of this "vacation club" serves up enough sand art games, ice cream socials and kiddie crafts to stave off the most dreaded words on a vacation ("I'm bored") and the most expensive words ("I want to go to Disney World another day"). An excellent Thai restaurant down the street feeds us on the nights when our cooking resolve melts.

Every day, a housekeeper makes up the two-bedroom furnished unit that sleeps six with the help of a fold-out couch. Even our active 4-year-old daughter, who bounces off the walls of most hotel rooms, has room to roam.

And we are handed $100 in Disney money.

So what's not to like?

There is one catch.

On the fourth day, just as my husband and I get into the rhythm of the vacation and our work-world defenses are dissolving, we attend a 1 1/2-hour sales presentation, where an earnest young man tells us why channeling money into this time share would create decades of wonderful family vacations. (Failure to show up means we will be charged the retail rate, which can be $300 or so a night, depending on the week.)

Such sales pitches by timeshare companies have helped build the national time share market into a $7.87 billion industry in 2004, up more than 40 percent from 2002, according to the American Resort Development Association. Marriott, the dominant time share company, posted sales of more than $1.5 billion last year, propelled by 10 consecutive years of growth of 20 percent or more.

But does it make good vacation sense to buy one? After all, we have heard from financial consultants that we would be better off investing in a mutual fund. They warn that a time share is not a good financial investment because you can lose money trying to sell it on the secondary market. Plus there are all those negative stereotypes of timeshares.

As if to dispel our worst fears, the salesman brings up the horror stories -- You get stuck going to the same place the same time every year. You can smell the stench of the cigar of the man there the previous week. The company that owns it goes bankrupt.

But this timeshare is different, he tells us. The Marriott name stands behind it. You can trade for different times and destinations, including about 50 Marriott vacation clubs and 2,800 motels worldwide. Or you pay a fee to the exchange company Interval International and trade for 1,900 properties worldwide.

And you don't have to keep returning to see Mickey. A time share in Orlando is in demand 52 weeks a year, he tells us, because of brilliant marketing, the very reason we are here. "If you don't bring your child to Disney World, you are a horrible parent," he quips.

He says this isn't a hard sell, which it isn't. But it is a seductive sell as he shows us photos of five-star resorts in Marbella, Spain and Park City, Utah, and despite our best don't-buy resolve, we start lusting for travel. After ascertaining that we are hikers who went to the Great Smoky Mountains last year, he whips out various mountain destinations, and we can just feel ourselves soaking in the hot tub after a long hike.

Every other year, time share owners can trade in their week of usage for Marriott rewards points to be used for hotels, air fares or cruises.

The salesman gives us a tour of the neighboring complex, Grande Vista, the unit that is up for sale. It has an elegant deep red and green decor, granite counter tops in the kitchen and a guest suite with a kitchenette, which can be partitioned off from the main unit with a wall and a separate entrance. This gives you the option of renting out half while you use half.

The sprawling grounds have a Nick Faldo golf course, five swimming pools, an 80-acre bird sanctuary, and an indoor play area with mazes, climbing ladders and obstacle courses.

Then he starts spitting out figures on how we could own a week for $19,400 -- a $1,940 down payment, $774 closing costs and monthly payments of $289 if you signed up for their 13.9 percent financing (but less if you secured a better rate). Plus there is an annual maintenance fee of $600, which could go up.

That doesn't sound like such an outrageous big stretch.

But financial consultants such as Bob Nusbaum, president of Middle America Planning in Mt. Lebanon, caution that you might do better earmarking a certain portion of your portfolio for vacations, and using the investment returns for a vacation of your choice.

A timeshare is a "long-term commitment. I don't see why you would want to do that." Your vacation needs, he says, may evolve as your children grow up. A vacation fund, he says, lets you take advantage of travel deals.

Ed Kinney, vice president of corporate affairs for Marriott Vacation Clubs International, counters that with a timeshare, "You are buying a lifetime of vacations in advance in today's dollars. It is committing you to a vacationing lifestyle that shifts from "if" and "when" to "when" and "where." Without a timeshare, he says, some people miss vacationing opportunities because it gets so complicated to plan a trip.

The Marriott salesman offers hefty incentives to sign up on the spot. You get 125,000 bonus Marriott points -- roughly equivalent to a one-week trip for two -- or free closing costs and free first-year-maintenance fee.

But Mr. Nusbaum advised people not to sign on the spot, and to let an attorney review a contract before they sign it.

"People get swept off their feet, wined and dined," he says. "They sign up for it when they are very vulnerable to a sales pitch."

One out of three people who attend these Marriott sales presentations buys a timeshare.

Among them are the young Pennsylvania couple next to us, Laura and Matt Brennan of Exeter, Luzerne County, who came to Orlando with their four boys ages 2 to 9.

"We never planned vacations," Mrs. Brennan says. "I was always pregnant. It was too much to plan it. Vacations were not on our radar."

The two-week timeshare will enable her family to take a nice trip to Florida or Ireland or Spain conveniently, she said. She said the family will save hundreds of dollars just eating breakfast in the timeshare, as opposed to going out to a restaurant.

Our salesman says we can pass on the timeshare, which comes with a deed, to our daughter.

Handing down a timeshare through the generations was part of the lure for Penny Costanzo of Toronto, who was vacationing in Orlando, having traded in her Bay Beach, Fla. timeshare. She has four grown children and can't wait to be a grandmother.

"All my grandchildren are going to see Mickey. I promised my son he would see Mickey when he was 5." But he's now 28 and has never been to Disney World.

Her friend, a hotel executive, told her a timeshare was a bad investment.

"I didn't make it as a financial investment," she said. "This is an investment in my health, my holiday and my happiness, the three H's." She makes it sound appealing.

Even if you sign a contract, you have three days to get out of it in the state of Florida.

For a second, I hesitate. Even though I am not a Disney-freak, I like the idea of trading it in for timeshares in Spain and Italy.

As a parting sales pitch, he says, "The worst thing that can happen is that you have a beautiful timeshare and you go on wonderful vacations and you can always sell it."

My husband shoots me THE LOOK. Remember, his eyes says, this was supposed to be a cheap vacation.

I decline to sign a piece of paper that day. Walking out, I feel the same sense of relief I feel when I resist an impulse buy on an expensive piece of clothing.

A flash of disappointment registers in the salesman's eyes before he gamely gives us his cell phone number. But he doesn't call and pester us to reconsider this timeshare -- the one that we let get away.

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