Businesses like to say their best customers are educated ones. But that doesn't necessarily apply to the timeshare industry.
After you hear Mike Seldin's story, you might be forgiven for thinking that industry's best customers are ignorant ones. And you might wonder which other businesses prefer to keep their customers in the dark.
Seldin and his wife attended a timeshare presentation in Las Vegas recently and purchased a trial membership that failed to deliver on its promises. But don't worry, this story has a dramatic but happy ending.
The couple was hooked with the promise of free show tickets, which is the preferred bait of Vegas timeshare peddlers. Their two-hour, high-pressure presentation emphasized a VIP program, which the Seldins would have access to for their first two years of membership.
"One of the perks of the VIP program was that we would get limo transportation to and from the airport whenever we vacationed and also have use of the limo for short trips," he remembers.
Too good to be true
Like most timeshare pitches, their saleswoman was persistent, hammering the Seldins with the benefits of buying now. They both liked the perks, but like any informed consumer, wanted to take a little time to think it over. That didn't sit well with their saleswoman, who insisted on closing the deal then and there.
"She offered us a trial membership at the VIP level for two years for $2,700, which would then be applied to the same purchase price we were offered if we decided to buy," remembers Seldin. "My wife has always been skeptical of time shares but this even sounded good to her. She kicked me under the table to indicate we should go for it. So we signed for the trial and were even given a limo ride back to the hotel."
The Seldins bought a trial membership in a timeshare without reading the terms of their purchase, because their saleswoman really wanted them to sign now. Hmmm.
You probably can see where this is headed, can't you?
You're not an owner
Almost a week later, the Seldins decided to try their trial membership. Under Nevada's convoluted timeshare regulations, they had five days to cancel their contract, but their agreement allowed them seven days. So they logged on to the member website.
"The first red flag was the message, 'You are not authorized to use this website at your membership level. Please call our travel representative for more information,'" he remembers.
Then things went from bad to worse.
"I then found out there were actually two VIP programs," he says. "One for owners and one for trial members. I asked what the benefits of the trial member VIP program were. Essentially, the only benefit was that we would have a dedicated travel representative by phone to assist us with our travel plans so we wouldn't have to go through different people each time we called."
In other words, the persistent timeshare saleswoman told them a little white lie. While the VIP benefits existed, she wasn't selling a trial membership in that program.
Seldin phoned the saleswoman and asked her about the inconsistency.
"She seemed to be unaware of the two different VIP programs and was pretty sure it was a mistake," he says. "She said she would look into it but, since this was Saturday and corporate was closed, she may not have an answer until Monday."
Ah, but wait! Remember the cancellation period? If Seldin waited until Monday, he'd lose his $2,700. And he was starting to get a bad feeling about the whole operation.
"I then asked about the perks we were promised as VIP members, including the limo service. She said she could only speak for her property but that we would still be entitled to that in Las Vegas. No guarantees for other properties," he says.
That did it.
"At that point, I was really beginning to feel we'd been taken," he says. "I indicated that I would like to cancel the contract and she said she had no authority to cancel, only to sell, and she didn't know the procedure for cancellation. She then said I should reconsider because 'it's still a great deal.' Aside from the lies and misinformation, of course."
Only at the 11th hour did the Seldins turn to their contract and read it from top to bottom. The agreement specified that they had until the seventh day to cancel, but that it had to be postmarked by midnight on the seventh day.
"Luckily, we have a post office by the airport with late night hours," says Seldin. "We made it."
They received a full refund. But other customers, they are certain, are not so lucky. I know they're right because I hear from timeshare victims almost every day.
While the sales presentation that led to the Seldins' questionable purchase may have violated the ethics code of the American Resort Development Association, the timeshare industry's trade group, they would have had little recourse as a practical matter. Because even though their saleswoman danced around a few facts, their contract spelled it all out.
When it came to the Seldins' timeshare, ignorance was not bliss -- a hard but valuable lesson learned.
And it raises a bigger question: Which industries truly benefit from informed consumers? Are there any in the travel industry that actively try to educate their customers? (I can't think of any, but maybe you can.) How about outside travel?
Does any company profit from having knowledgeable customers, or do they do better when we act dumb?