Such was the case this week, when my friend Susan and I subjected ourselves to our first timeshare presentation.
We had just rounded the final corner of an organized 5K walk when we spotted the freebie tents at the finish line. We were helping ourselves to the usual bottled water, banana halves and protein bars, when we were snagged into a booth promising cheap vacation travel. We were offered an amazing deal: For a few dollars, we could spend two nights at a cushy resort hotel. It sounded pretty darn good, but after we handed over our credit cards, I had a sudden epiphany.
“Wait,” I said, “Is this a timeshare deal?”
I’d heard horror stories from friends who had attended timeshare presentations. They’d practically been held captive while a salesman pressured them to buy.
The nicely dressed young man hesitated. “Well, we’d ask you come to a two hour presentation about our program.”
We were both ready to snatch back our credit cards. “Should we do it?” I asked Susan. “It’s only two hours. And they can’t make us buy anything we don’t want to buy, right?”
We stood in the booth staring at each other. “Well,” Susan said, “you haven’t attended a timeshare presentation before, so this could be your new thing for this week.”
That clinched it. We signed up and got our information packets telling us where to go and when to show up, later in the week.
When we arrived, it was very clear that this event was going to be meticulously orchestrated. No, we were told, we couldn’t stay together. Each of us would meet individually with our assigned representative.
Our representatives led us to small round tables in a large meeting room, each table with two or three chairs. In addition to Susan and me, there was a young couple with a small baby and a smattering of others. I tried to take a seat facing the center of the room, but was firmly directed instead to take a chair with my back to the room, facing my representative.
Steve wore a pink polo shirt that contrasted awkwardly with his very red face. He immediately peppered me with questions about myself, in staccato fashion, without seeming to listen to the answers. What was I going to do this afternoon, what kind of dog did I have, how old was the dog, what breed is the dog, what are the traits of that breed of dog? This, I assumed, was somehow designed to make us bond, but it was just weird and bewildering. His questions turned to how and when I vacation. As he made notes about my answers, he tried to fashion his pitch to fit my vacation habits, which was a near impossible task, since I favor group adventure-based trips. When I told him I wasn’t interested in a timeshare, he repeatedly insisted that this deal really wasn’t a timeshare (even though the printed material I’d received stated in bold print that this was a solicitation of timeshare interests).
We all faced the front of the room for a group slide presentation, focused on why this program was such a good deal, and the vast sums of money we would all save over the years by using this program for our vacations. It was an artful approach. If you accepted all the assumptions that supported their conclusion, you could conclude that yes, this was a great deal. But if you stepped back and thought about the unpredictability of where you would be and what you might want to be doing in the future, it really didn’t add up.
Then we went back into conversations with our individual representatives. Steve seemed quite perplexed at my lack of interest. Abruptly he stood up and turned me over to an older man with rumpled hair, who toted a fat well-worn notebook binder. I noticed that this was happening throughout the room: Team 2 was arriving on the scene.
At this point Susan caught my eye and sent me the look. You know the look. She widened her eyes just a little, one corner of her mouth lifted just a tad, and she stared into my eyes for a beat or two. What the f—, the look says.
I asked K why he was replacing Steve at my table. He told me that Steve was new, and that he would be better at answering my questions. I told him I didn’t have any questions. He shrugged, and opened his binder. It contained all the same information we had been given during the slide presentation, and I told him I’d already seen it. K was much more aggressive and challenging. Why would you not want to do this? What can you find negative about this? Why did you come here today? He leaned across the table, essentially growling at me, and I wondered how this approach was going to succeed. Was I supposed to be intimidated into signing up? I looked at my watch: We were closely approaching the two hour mark.
Finally, K slammed his binder closed and snarled, “Thank you for your time,” before leaving the table without a backward glance. I was hurried through a station in another room where a financial counselor was ready to offer me payment information (“no thanks”) and then I was ushered back down to the reception area by Steve, who asked me to please rate him excellent on all categories of the exit survey. If I didn’t, he told me, he wouldn’t get some accrued points that he really needed.
Susan and I chatted for a few minutes out on the street before going our separate ways. We’d both found the experience unpleasant, and neither of us had been tempted to sign up.
I keep thinking about that young couple with the baby. They seemed to be in deep conversation with their salesperson, so maybe they were considering buying. I so hope they don’t do it. The underlying assumption that life is predictable bothers me. It’s not that we shouldn’t plan for the future, but I know all too well that the future is a fragile and amorphous thing, and it’s not going turn out just as you envisioned it when you’re in your twenties, part of a bright new family with a darling little baby, imagining about how you’re going to vacation for the rest of your life. The future will include some curve balls that you’ll never see coming.
And those two days at the resort hotel for such an amazing price, our prize for sacrificing two hours? Well, it turns out that there are some restrictions that we didn’t hear about when we signed up. Time will tell if we can even book our resort stays. It’s a good reminder: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.