Traditional time share properties hold a few lessons

A lot has changed in the decades since the first time-share property was peddled in Central Florida.

Back then, the product was simple: Buyers got the same week in the same unit at the same resort each year.

Now, many time-share companies sell points that can be exchanged and traded for different weeks or different resorts at locations around the world. And big developers such as Marriott International and Wyndham Worldwide have crowded out many of those original, single-site developers.

But vestiges of that early time-share culture remain in Central Florida, the unofficial “vacation ownership” capital of the world. And these older, sold-out resorts with their older, still-engaged owners are of interest to the mainstream industry.

Why? Because in an industry that relies on its customers’ ability and willingness to pay annual maintenance fees in addition to yearly loan payments, keeping those clients happy is essential to staying in business. And while older, “week-based” resorts comprise only a small portion of the modern time-share business, their fortunes reflect on the industry as a whole.

“This is something we’re paying more attention to,” said Howard Nusbaum, president and chief executive officer of the American Resort Development Association, the leading trade group, which is studying sold-out legacy resorts to see how they’re faring and what makes the successful ones tick. “What we’re trying to do is elevate some of those best practices.”

At Las Olas Beach Club in Cocoa Beach, Fla., the same groups of time-share owners still gather the same weeks each year for their scheduled respite by the sea. The 23-year-old family-run resort, with 28 units and about 1,000 owners, says it considers the longtime vacationers to be an extended family.

“The kids that grew up coming here are starting to bring their young kids for the first time,” said Rebecca Matey, the resort’s manager. “We’re starting to see the next generation of Las Olas owners.”

Many weeks, guests who have shared the same vacation schedule and locale for years come together for what amounts to a big reunion. There’s bingo by the pool and potluck Thursdays. Aside from updates to the rooms, very little changes.

“It’s a tradition. My kids wouldn’t miss it for anything,” said Kym Smith, an owner since 1997 who was at Las Olas last Friday with her three children, ages 19, 21 and 22. “There’s a sense of family here that we’ve never found at other resorts.”

Las Olas and a sister property in Satellite Beach have somehow side-stepped the trends that shaped other, newer time-share companies as travelers demanded more choice and flexibility for their money.

“I know in the industry right now, vacation habits have changed. Long weekends, short trips are quite popular,” Matey said. “Here, with our owners, the full week vacation at the beach is what they’re looking for.”

According to the ARDA, buyers who have owned a time share for 11 or more years make up the majority of a group the industry calls “attritors.” These disillusioned owners are more likely to complain that time-share fees are too high and that time-shares offer little enjoyment or benefit compared with regular vacation options.

And nearly seven in 10 of those disillusioned owners have a traditional, week-based time share.

“The issue is, if I bought that (week) in 1978 when I was 45 years old, I’m a ‘little’ older now,” said Steven Brettholtz, president of Myers, Brettholtz & Co., a consultant to time-share owner associations. “And I may not be using it as much now.”

At Las Olas, management strives to keep customers happy by working personally with them to resolve any ownership issues, Matey said. The resort has become involved with an organization that allows owners to trade their unit for one at another resort, for a fee. It facilitates in-house trading of vacation weeks and offers a resale service for those who no longer want to keep their unit.

“My dad always said, from Day 1, that would be an important outlet for our owners,” Matey said.

Gerri Dalesio, who has owned at Las Olas since 1987, willingly testifies to the resort’s appeal. This year, after her annual vacation was disrupted by a 15-day hospital stay, the resort let her stay for another two weeks to recuperate — free of charge. Matey even took flowers to the hospital.

“They don’t try to take advantage of you, and they care about us,” said Dalesio, who repaid her Las Olas “family” with a batch of her signature potluck dish, Stromboli. “It’s the only place I’d ever buy.”

Sara K. Clarke | The Orlando Sentinel