Time Lines

Buyers are the real prize in vacation-share pitches

The good news came by mail:
CONGRATULATIONS JOHN CARROLL!
The letter went on to breathlessly assure that I was a "major prize-winner" in the 1998 Polaris Giveaway. Maybe I'd won a new truck, or $25,000, or a major vacation package or $500 cash. All I had to do to claim my major prize was roll on up to Piney Shores Resort, west of Conroe, and "attend an informal 90-minute tour and sales presentation."

Weeks before, I had casually filled out a contest entry card at a local kids' festival at Hermann Park. All they wanted was some basic demographic information: age, income group, address. Turn it in for a chance to win a shiny, bright red truck.

Then the letters and cards started coming. CONGRATULATIONS, each exclaimed. And after the cards came a phone call and my appointment to pick up the prize. I had to be there on that date, the voice on the phone said, or I would be disqualified from any major prize. But when the appointed day rolled around, I blew it off. Who has time for 90 minutes with a salesman?

It turned out, though, that there was no disqualification. The follow-up calls started coming. And coming. And coming. "Oh, now," said one of the company's reassuring telemarketers, "the least you've won is $500 cash. How about that?"

Cash?
After more than six calls, I made an appointment.
Piney Shores is part of a Dallas-based time-share outfit called Silverleaf Resorts, which for some reason is listed as a "participating sponsor" on its prize correspondence. Only they don't like the term "time-share" anymore. They prefer "vacation ownership."

Time share became a big, dirty business back in the '80s, notorious for its hard-sell approach pushing weeklong shares of condos scattered in vacation spots around the world. So many people felt scammed in the process that the industry hit the skids as leery consumers shunned anything with the time-share stigma attached.

Silverleaf's CEO, Robert Mead, was a major player in that checkered past. He ran Freedom Financial when it pleaded guilty in 1988 to federal mail fraud and conspiracy charges for the way it ran its time-share contests. The company paid a $1.5 million fine and $100,000 in restitution, and one of its marketing reps was jailed after consumer complaints that Freedom offered phony "major prizes." Mead has since changed the company's name and the way it handles sales and marketing. A spokesman blamed outside contractors and said Mead cooperated with prosecutors in the case against Freedom.

The company is still dogged by a steady stream of complaints filed with agencies ranging from the Better Business Bureau to the state Attorney General's Office.

Despite that troubled past, time shares have bounced back in a big way in the '90s. There are now 120 time-share operations registered with the state Real Estate Commission. Disney, Marriott and a host of upscale companies have jumped into the market, looking for upper-income families to sign up for their time-share deals, said commission administrator Wayne Thorburn.

But Silverleaf is the biggest time-share company in Texas, and one of the biggest in the country, representing a significant slice of the 1.8 million time-share users nationally.

Not only does Silverleaf own Piney Shores and 19 other resorts in Texas and around the country, the company recently gained approval to build a condo project on the Galveston shoreline. It planned 650 units, but cut back to 280 after neighbors-to-be hired law firms to sue to stop the project.

State officials who've investigated Silverleaf say the company fits a common pattern for time-share companies: soliciting working-class families who can't afford a place at the lake or some other getaway spot, and selling time-share vacations at resorts within an easy drive of major urban areas like Houston. The company dangles "major prize giveaways" out to thousands of area residents to reach its target group of buyers.

"It's generally based on income," says Tom Franks, president of Silverleaf Resorts Acquisitions in Dallas. If the folks fill out an entry for the truck contest, have the right income and live in the area, they become major prize-winners.

Just like lucky me.

A week later, I'm in the passenger seat of a Jeep Wrangler. The top's off, and though it's still morning, the sun is already blistering hot. Not that the heat has wilted my tour guide, Seve, who's enthusiastically pointing out the highlights of Piney Shores while detailing the rules of the game.

First, said Seve, there would be special offers from Silverleaf that would be good for today only. Those who liked the program and wanted in -- great. But there would be no extended consideration period. "What I don't want to hear is: 'I want to think about it,' " says Seve, a tall, lanky young pitch artist. "Hey," he added. "Fair's fair."

This was all part of the "informal" tour. A carefully scripted sales pitch designed to whip visitors into a state of buying fever. The last thing they wanted was for anyone to spend time thinking about it.

"After all," says Dawn Kelly, who inherited a Silverleaf time-share deal from her father, "you might find your brain, walking to the car."

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