Resisting the timeshare for the sake of free airfare, is it worth it?

Why would anyone turn down the opportunity to possibly receive free airline tickets at a value of more than $3000 in exchange for listening to a 90-minute timeshare sales pitch?

The first phone call came on my cell phone from 715-236-2206 on Wednesday, March 8 in the late afternoon. I didn’t know who the phone number belonged to so I ignored it. The assumption is that if the phone call is important, the caller will leave a message. This time the caller left no message, so I assumed the call must not have been important.

The next call came three hours later from 715-236-2214 followed by one from the same number an hour later and then again two hours later. Not a single message. The next call came the next day just before 9 a.m. This time the number was from 715-236-2217. An hour later 2214 popped up again and finally, the caller decided to leave a message:

Jeff said:

“Hi Jesse, my name’s Jeff and I’m calling on behalf of Fairfield Resorts. You filled out the Ride, Air, Cash sweepstakes at the East Towne Mall and your name was selected to receive round-trip airfares that are good for the next 18 months. For all the details you can reach me at…”

I’m a very skeptical person. Immediately, I thought, there had to be a catch. For one, I remembered putting my name in the box and the main prize was a new BMW. I also remembered checking a box on the ballot saying I didn’t want to be contacted with information on promotions from Fairfield Resorts. Apparently being selected in a drawing isn’t the same as being contacted for a promotion. Second, if I had won a prize, why would they call me six times before eventually leaving a message?

Still, my curiosity was peaked so after discussing it with a friend at work and determining it was probably a trick to get me to stay at a timeshare, I called. Sure enough, it was a trick to get me to go check out a timeshare in the Wisconsin Dells. All I had to do was sit through a 90-minute presentation at the Wilderness Resort (America’s largest water park resort) and I would receive my gift even if I didn’t sign up. To sweeten the deal, they would give me a coupon book with $40 worth of gas vouchers to help pay for driving to the Dells.

The airline tickets were described on the confirmation letter as being “4 round-trip airfares to your choice of Honolulu, Hawaii; Cancun, Mexico; Las Vegas, Nevada; Freeport Bahamas; Daytona, Fort Lauderdale; Orlando or Tampa, FL. Minimum purchases 5-10 nights for each 2 airfares used. If you choose to use all four airfares together, you must purchase two rooms. Not valid a full 7 days before or after major holidays.”

The restrictions as written in the letter didn’t seem all that bad and it looked like my main obligation would be to stay in one of their hotels. In my head, I justified a drive to the Dells as an opportunity to write a story. Either they would try to screw me and I would come home and write a screed about Fairfield Resorts or it would be a reasonably pleasant experience and I would come home and write about how easy it is to sit through a 90-minute presentation for the purpose of receiving free airfare.

Sadly, this story is neither.

On Friday I was away from my cell phone until late at night. When I finally had a chance to look at the incoming calls five of them were from Fairfield Resort numbers (715-236-2200, 2201, 2213). Were they calling to cancel? Nope, they called add even more smoke and mirror sweetness to the pot. Surely a tactic to ensure that I wouldn’t jump ship at the last minute:

Rob said:

“Hi Jesse, this is Rob with Fairfield Resorts. Just wanted to give you a quick call to double check to make sure you didn’t have any questions about your confirmation letter for tomorrow at three o’clock. Be sure to bring that letter with you tomorrow because they will refer to the prize code in the upper right-hand corner. Also, you have been selected to receive a $1,000 online shopping spree which happens to be a leftover prize from an earlier promotion…”

Wow! A $1,000 shopping spree that you just happened to have lying around! How wonderful! That doesn’t make me anymore suspicious.

The next step was spending time doing internet research so I could be prepared when I was face-to-face with a sales rep. One site spoke of an incident in Nashville where the representative made a bride-to-be cry by telling her that if they couldn’t commit to a timeshare, their relationship would never last because they didn’t have trust. Another timeshare review forum is a mixed bag of negative and positive comments. What I read over and over again throughout the internet was “high-pressure, high-pressure, and high-pressure.”

Before leaving I decided to return Rob’s call and first asked him about the shopping spree:

“The shopping spree was selected to be given to a handful of special people.”

Then I asked about the hotel stay and I find out Fairfield Resorts is owned by the Cendant Corporation. I’m led to believe that because of Cendant’s ownership of a vast array of hotel properties, including Howard Johnson, Days Inn, Super 8 and Travelodge, I will have my choice of places to choose from when I travel (for the record, Cendant also owns Orbitz, Century 21, Avis and recently acquired Windham Resorts).

Finally, I ask if I’m going to be faced with high-pressure sales tactics. Rob seems caught off guard by this question as he stalls and searches his computer for the right script. He replies, “There won’t be any high-pressure sales. Fairfield is only trying to get its name out. You are under no obligation to buy. I am a robot.”

Good to know (fyi, he didn’t say “I am a robot”)

I soon find myself in the Dells in front of my Fairfield representative. I think her name was Leslie. What followed was fairly irrelevant. Anyone who takes part in one of these sessions is going to be faced with a different sales person who will try to read you and figure out what will make you break. Leslie knew I was a journalist. Her line of questioning quickly revealed that I had done some research on the program and I wasn’t completely unprepared. She tailored the pitch to a skeptic who could also very well go out and reach an audience. She did her job well and, I’m shocked to admit, she did change my mind on timeshares.

Case in point, she asked me early on “what is the first thing you think of when I say ‘timeshares?’”

I replied, “A scam.”

She didn’t hesitate and thanked me for my honesty and then asked me where that impression came from. I explained and then she attempted to paint the Fairfield program as not being like traditional timesharing. She did a stellar job. During her evaluation, I gave her high marks for her presentation, her friendliness and her ability to answer my questions. She didn’t upset me and I only felt pressure at the very end when I had to tell her I wasn’t interested three times in a row.

In addition to not being able to afford a timeshare at this time in my life, I really don’t want to be tied to that type of vacation. Essentially you need to know where you want to go 10 to 13 months in advance. I read that in advance and when I brought it up, Leslie didn’t sugar coat it. She said if you wait until the last minute, you aren’t guaranteed the timeshare you want. If you can plan 10 to 13 months in advance, you will most likely get what you want.

At this point in my life, when my vacations are spent traveling between cities, camping and staying with friends, I don’t see the value of paying $100 a month to invest in two weeks a year until I pay off the $25,000 for the minimum amount of points (the more you invest the more points you have to play with each year). It might be a different story if I was in my late 40s with a family.

Then again, if you have a family and are a fan of the Dells and all of its touristy goodness, in addition to being from Illinois, investing in a timeshare so you can spend time at the Wilderness Resort might make fiscal sense. Currently, as Leslie pointed out, they are building condos just for Fairfield members. Attached to those condos will be even more waterslides pushing Wilderness past Noah’s Ark as biggest waterslide park in the world. One night at the Wilderness is going to cost you $300 – unless you are a member of Fairfield. You have to decide, is spending $250 a month for 10 years worth it for that week of waterslides with the kids?

That was the problem. I couldn’t be angry because while a timeshare system isn’t for me, I can see how it could work for a certain family demographic. Does that mean they won? I’m not sure. They didn’t get my money, but Leslie did pretty much do her job. I’m not sitting here right now writing a venomous post about how Fairfield Resorts swindled me and played me like a patsy. In order to do that, we need to take a moment and look at the “prizes.”

Remember the gas vouchers? In order to activate them, you have to send in a form. Then after you send in that form they send you a coupon book with four $10 vouchers. Then you have to send in a receipt with each voucher and they will send you a rebate for every $10 of gas you buy. Not a bad deal, just some unexpected work.

What about the airfare that convinced me to take this trip in the first place? Not exactly choose your own adventure. In addition to all of the restrictions listed above, if you want to go to Hawaii, for example, you also have to book 10 days at one of two hotels. There is the Outrigger Reef on the Beach for $199 per night or Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach for $239 per night. It actually isn’t a bad deal, but there is a stipulation that prices may change in the material. The problem comes if you are looking for adventure and want to spend a night or two off of the big island. You’re going to eat at least $400, but then again, you do get around $1400 in free airfare.

Finally, what about that added incentive of a shopping spree because I was a “special” person? You won’t find a better scam than this one. The company that runs the $1000 shopping spree gimmick owns multiple shopping spree sites. The one my voucher referred to was KEShoppingSpree.com. The back of the voucher tells you to type the website into the address bar and not to use “Google or any other search engine.” Why? Not because they want you to go to the right site, but most likely because you’ll find yourself looking at a host of sites talking about what a rip off the shopping spree turns out to be.

“All items are free (up to $1,000 worth) except for the small item delivery fee to offset shipping, handling and administrative costs.”

There is some great stuff on the website, just take a look at this Mikasa “Fine Dinnerware Palatial Platinum 20pc Set.” They list the price at a whopping $448.00. So how much does it go for on the Mikasa website?

Mikasa has it listed as on sale for $159.99. Huh, well, you still get it for free, right? Not quite. What is the processing fee for an item listed as $448 on their website? $149! That’s right, you save $10. Nice work.

For more on the shopping spree, check out More of the Different. He received his “spree” via a car dealership.

Now the question is, were these prizes worth it? Well, the spree will go right in the garbage. I’ll definitely make sure I use the gas vouchers even if it is some extra work. And that airfare? I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t pondering the Vegas option. Maybe they’ll get my money after all.

This article originally appeared on dane101.com on March 13, 2006.

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