Whether you hold a deeded interest, or you have a “right-to-use” contract, your ability to utilize your vacation ownership at your convenience is of paramount importance. After all, you’ve made a significant initial investment in a vacation product for the purpose of using and enjoying said product reliably, on a regular basis, right?
Otherwise, you could have simply visited a travel site on the web, like Expedia and/or Travelocity, and booked your next vacation with relative ease. If you are willing to pay via a credit card, and pony up the cost of your stay upfront, then you are offered numerous accommodation choices and, perhaps more importantly, near instantaneous availability – no wait, no muss, no fuss, and you’re practically out the door. It’s fair to state that in the not-too-distant past, near-instant availability was not as important a factor, as you knew maybe up to a year in advance when you could vacation with your entire family. However, we live in a different, much faster paced world today, with far more travel options than in those pre-internet days. Whole family vacations are still important to many of us, but adventure-based and theme-based vacations have quickly grown in popularity, too. Maybe the plan now is to have your parents watch the kids while you go skiing, scuba diving, sailing, hiking, etc. Or, maybe a travel window opens up unexpectedly, providing a last minute opportunity for a getaway with the kids – a less crowded family retreat with minimal missed school time, over a long holiday weekend, perhaps.
The point is that flexibility in planning your vacation can greatly increase your travel options and possibilities. So, how flexible is that timeshare vacation plan in which you have an ownership stake? Will your timeshare developer recognize your investment, both in upfront costs and annual maintenance fees, and bend over backwards to get you quickly on your way with minimal wait and/or aggravation?
Not so much, I’m afraid.
The reality is that there is virtually zero certainty you will obtain your resort of choice, particularly if you seek to take advantage of a last-minute vacation opportunity. The very best that can be said about booking your timeshare is that the further out you book, the better your chances are. However, in almost no event can you be certain of success, even if you attempt to reserve your resort and unit of choice up to one full year in advance.
Is this even legal, you may inquire? After all, isn’t this why I bought an ownership stake in a resort, so I’d have some reasonable degree of certainty I can go on vacation where and when I choose?
To the legality question: you are legally bound by what you agreed to in writing, as contained within your purchase documents. If you’re like a majority of timeshare buyers over the past half dozen or so years, then you most likely experienced a sales “bait and switch,” wherein the “deed” that was presented to you during the sales presentation was switched out at the point of sale with a product offering only limited use rights and containing contractual language that requires you to rely solely on the resort’s reservation system, rendering your future vacation plans “subject to availability.” You’ve also agreed, unwittingly, in your purchase documents, to abide by the rules relating to use of the reservation system, which may be modified or amended from time to time at the sole discretion of the resort! Typically, the sales process commences with the buyer being presented with a deed and ends with the deed going back to the resort in exchange for a product presumably of equal value. I’ll leave it to you, reader, to decide if what you ended up with, assuming you’re a recent timeshare buyer, is what you thought you were buying. At least with a deeded interest you’d presumably have an argument that you ought to be able to stay at “your” property when it suited you to do so! As it stands, your vacation ownership amounts to nothing more than an opportunity to try to reserve your interest, subject to availability – a far cry, I assume, from what you thought you were buying!
Well, ok, so let’s try to look at the brighter side of things. The developer is good sized, offering several resort locations, right? So, maybe you won’t get your location of first choice, but you should still be able to vacation at one of the other resorts in the chain within the same time frame? Why not give the reservation system a try, and see what you can obtain during your vacation window? Before going online or contacting the resort, let’s review what we know. You’ll recall that your timeshare contract allows for the possibility of rule changes without notification, so you don’t know what you may encounter. You just reach out however, because, regardless of how the rules may change, you know you can reserve “subject to availability”.
As I’ve stated before in other articles, the devil is in the details when it comes to timeshare! Since Finn Law Group spends innumerable hours delving into details, I can officially report a “devil” hiding in plain sight at the reservation center. As previously indicated, you are by now aware that making a reservation is subject both to internal rules and to “availability.” However, you are likely assuming at this point that your competition for your resort room is limited to only your fellow owners, and that the definition of availability means similarly situated persons, i.e. owners seeking access to their units contemporaneously. Given the assumption that only owners are in it, the line for units would presumably be relatively short.
Consider the possibility, however, that resort management has a different definition of “availability.” What if their definition includes a much broader class of persons than just similarly-situated owners? What if owners had no priority, or even less priority than other groups, and were instead competing with the general public for their stay?
Assume for a moment, if you will, that the following line of thought more accurately reflects the resort developers’ position: What if owners could be “trained” to anticipate little to no availability in the immediate future, and instead be encouraged to seek a reservation more than a year in advance to ensure a booking? That premise alone would discourage many owners from ever booking, due to the sheer difficulty of planning a trip that far out.
Worse yet, when ultimately they do arrive, owners will be denied the best amenities, providing the onsite sales team with an opportunity to peddle an upgrade that promises a more perfect vacation experience. This system enables and encourages developers to keep resort occupancy low in order to take advantage of vacationers who visit their website, or a travel site, in hopes of finding a last minute deal. In fact, developers are certain they can offer them a very good deal as they have ensured the resort maintenance costs are borne by existing owners, allowing the developer to offer an extremely favorable price to non-owners. This tactic further benefits the onsite sales force, as they are provided a constant stream of potential timeshare buyers against whom they may ply their trade.
Farfetched? Perhaps so. However, if you adjust your definition of availability to encompass and include non-owners as well as owners, and even tip the scales a bit in favor of non-owners due to the arguably greater economic opportunity gained in attracting them, then perhaps not! Indeed, unless your purchase documents contain a strict definition of the term “availability,” the application of a reservation system will be solely within the discretion of resort management. Available to whom and when, exactly? That question doesn’t get asked or answered in many timeshare/vacation ownership sales presentations.
Here at Finn Law Group, we are asking those questions via discovery demands to some of the resorts that we are currently in litigation with. We’ve yet to obtain concrete answers to those questions, but will report more here, via our website, when we do. In the interim, it’s an issue that needs to be brought up by the consumer and aired out at the time of purchase, and, if not then, then at the time you intend to book. Do you have a provided written copy of the reservation rules? If so, do you know if they’ve been revised or modified?
Although we don’t have all of the facts yet to report, I can advise that a number of our clients have gone online as members of the public without revealing their vacation ownership status and found availability at their respective resort for the period they were trying to book, even after being told (as owners) that there was no availability at that time. No availability for the owner perhaps, but if you’re a vacationer who may be a prospective timeshare buyer, that definition of availability may be a different definition altogether!
The examples expressed in this article are merely theoretical at this time, but they are quite plausible given our experience, and those of our clients, in this industry. As always, and particularly in the timeshare industry, the prevailing rule is caveat emptor: “let the buyer beware!”
Michael D. Finn, Esq.