During a trip to Orlando, Fla., a few years back, Bob and Nan Winsor saw an opportunity to secure some free tickets to Disney's Epcot Center. The only catch: They had to attend a 90-minute sales promotion on time shares.
The Winsors certainly had no intention of buying a time share - a concept in which a person "owns" a period of time each year at a vacation resort. But the couple from Battle Creek, Mich., decided the promotion wouldn't take too long. "And it was worth it to get the tickets and all," recalls Ms. Winsor.
Indeed, with the exception of the time investment, the deals are just about as close as one comes to getting something for nothing.
Savvy travelers regularly take advantage of deals that often include complimentary tickets to local attractions and steeply discounted hotel stays. In return, the traveler must attend a sales presentation at a resort. The experience, however, can leave people feeling they've earned their perk.
"It's a pretty darn good deal, if you can get through the sales pitch," says Mr. Winsor, a veteran salesman himself. "It sounds simple. But you really are put through the paces. For whatever reason you have for not buying, they will have a very intelligent comeback."
For those feeling badgered, Winsor suggests holding your ground carefully and coming up with a few simple phrases "that will allow them to get off your back." A firm, "No, I don't think I'm interested right now," usually does the job, he says.
Still, others note, time-share sales tactics today are not nearly as high pressured as they were a few years ago. The industry has changed since big-name resorts such as Disney, Marriott, and Hilton, became involved, says Ray Jacobs, editor of Time Sharing Today, an independent publication that offers news and advice for time-share owners.
"These companies have a different approach, they have a different reputation to maintain," says Mr. Jacobs, who runs a website (www.timesharexpo.com) that lists current time-share promotions.
Take the King's Creek Plantation in Williamsburg, Va. The resort offers a $79 promotion that includes a two-night stay at a local hotel and two free tickets to Busch Gardens amusement park. By contrast, area hotel rooms cost about $140 per night and park entrance fees start at $45 per person.
Last year, 25,000 people took advantage of the deal, says Chad Davis, reservations supervisor at King's Creek. Most people who sign up for the tour have no intention of buying. "That's fine," says Mr. Davis, noting the resort can afford to offer the package by prebooking hundreds of rooms and bulk-buying park tickets.
"Consumers are going to make up their mind within 90 minutes," he says. "If you don't want to do it, there's no pressure. You go home."
The approach seemingly works. More than 16 percent of those who toured King's Creek bought time shares last year. The industry average is about 10 percent.
With hundreds of dollars in savings, smart travelers will always take the tour, Davis says: "You're crazy not to."
In fact, resort developers would love it if more people took advantage of the promotions, insiders say. "Time shares are primarily sold when people are on site, so it's in their best interest to invite folks to take part in those mini vacations," says Jason Tostevin, spokesman for the American Resort Development Association, in Washington, D.C.
People shouldn't feel shy about taking a tour even if they don't intend to buy, says Mr. Tostevin. If a person has even the slightest interest in learning about time shares, "then by all means, take one, or as many as you like," he adds. "It certainly is a standardized process, and one that is very much on the up and up."
Still, there are plenty of horror stories out there, including promotions that run for hours on end and sales reps who refuse to take no for an answer.
Jerry Nord encountered one rep who actually became belligerent. On a trip to Mexico, the real estate broker from San Jose, Calif., agreed to tour a resort in return for some free tickets to a Mexican folkloric performance.
As the tour went on, Mr. Nord started leaning toward buying the time share. But then he tried to clarify some details about the resort's scuba-diving program with the sales rep.
"He all of a sudden got strange," Nord recalls. "He stood up, and I thought he was going to charge us. He started yelling." Later than night, when Nord showed up for the performance, he discovered the rep had canceled the tickets.
To avoid becoming trapped in such an ordeal, Davis, of King's Creek, suggests always driving oneself to the resort. When the agreed time is up, "you can simply get up and walk out," he says.
But many are ending up sold. There are more than 2.7 million time share owners in the US, according to the resort association. Tostevin points out that many people go in chanting: "We're not going to buy! We're not going to buy!" and walk away owners.
Such was the case with the Winsors. "We went in totally not expecting it, and we ended up buying a time share," says Nan Winsor. "And if you know Bob Winsor's sales resistance, you can imagine what a good sales presentation it was."
Buying a new time share is a lot like buying a new car: As soon as you sign the papers, it drops in value.
While the average price of a new time share goes for about $14,000 today, resale values pull in only about $5,000, experts say.
Unlike most real estate investments, time shares seldom appreciate over time. This fact may come as a blow to sellers hoping to at least break even on unwanted time shares. But it also opens up some plum deals for potential buyers.
Anyone interested in time shares "should absolutely consider the resale market," says Ray Jacobs, editor of Time Sharing Today, an independent publication that launched in 1991 primarily as a forum to sell used time shares, a vacation concept in which someone acquires a period of time each year at a resort.
About 20 percent of all time shares are sold on the resale market, Mr. Jacobs says. But most newcomers still buy their first week from a developer - at full price, he adds.
It's not until they've become savvy time-share consumers that they realize the huge resale market for the product.
Indeed, time-share owner Jerry Nord, of San Jose, Calif., has heard the inside buzz.
"One of the biggest things people say is to buy resale, don't buy from a developer. There's quite a bit of price difference. For something that costs $25,000 to buy, you'll be lucky to sell for $12,000," he says.
Still, Jacobs points out there are sometimes "very good reasons to buy a new time share," including when a resort is brand new and no resale options exist. Other times, the developer may offer particularly attractive perks for new buyers, including time-share swaps with other desirable resorts.
Such incentives can elevate the price. But one of the main reasons for the stark price gap is the high cost of marketing a new time share. Extensive efforts to attract new customers, including discounted promotional vacations and free tickets to local attractions, can add up to 50 percent of the price.
"If you're going to equate it to pure dollars, it's probably a questionable investment," says time-share owner Bob Winsor of Battle Creek, Mich. But on the other hand, "you may end up with a very lovely property at a prepaid price."
To be fair, Jacobs says, most developers no longer promote time shares as moneymaking real estate investments, as was the practice 20 years ago.
"Don't expect to make money off of it," he says. The general rule of thumb today is that when you buy a time share, you will get your value by using the property.
Jacobs points to one of the time shares he's owned and enjoyed in Florida for more than 20 years as an example. "If I sold it for 300 bucks tomorrow, I'd have gotten my money's worth," he says.