The one blight on our trip to Hilton Head was our experience with the timeshare hawkers, Hilton Head Guest Services. On the surface, it seems like not such a bad trade-off: you sit through a presentation about their timeshare system (they’re a participant in the RCI program) and they give you some coupons and gift certificates. If it had worked that way, it would have been fine. The way it did work—a presentation twice as long as we were promised, fees for things that were supposed to be free, misprinted fliers advertising things that didn’t exist—wasn’t worth the time or aggravation.
They caught us after breakfast on the first day, as we were looking for a map of the island. We were told by Chris that we’d listen to a 90 minute presentation (all that’s allowed by law in South Carolina, although we weren’t told that part) which would consist of walking around outside and getting a tour of the resort where the timeshares were located (‘You won’t be inside, you’ll be out in a beautiful area by the beach,’ Chris claimed). In exchange for our time, we’d receive a free boat ride over to Daufuskie Island, a guided tour of the historic sites, and lunch (a package categorized by Chris as having a value of $120) and an additional $50 of gift certificates that could be used at participating restaurants. We were also told to call him on his cell phone if anything went wrong, which we definitely would have done later in the week had he not written the number on the paper that (he no doubt knew) was going to be taken from us at the presentation. Bad form, Chris! To Chris’s credit, he also told us to record our income as only in the lowest bracket, a piece of advice that I forgot to take and which might have steered us away from the aggressive, patronizing, and three-hour long hard sell, which we experienced while sitting inside at a little table in a freezing room. But I get ahead of myself.
In order to get the presentation out of the way, we went at noon that day. When we showed up, there were lots of other people. Instead of being taken to the resort and being presented with the information in a group, as Chris had laid it out, we were taken into a room full of tables and subjected to a one-on-one with Robert. Robert is no doubt a decent salesperson, but he’s not a very good listener. We got off on the wrong foot from the beginning, but Robert had no clue. To wit, our first exchange was this:
Robert: I’m confused here, it says you’re married but your last names are different, what’s that about?
Robert: [blank stare]
Me: You know, that thing that happened in the 70s? [big smile]
Robert: [nervous chuckling]
Honestly, the information in the presentation was pretty interesting. We learned a lot about the new system of points and credits and moving around from place to place that is the structure of RCI’s program. I can see how that approach would be more appealing to people than a single week timeshare in the same place, especially if you can only afford an undesirable week. Having never considered vacation timeshares, it was informative. Sadly, the information was drowned out by the song and dance of the sales pitch. The approach of the pitch, no doubt standard in this business, was to (1) attempt to determine how much we spend each year on vacations, and assume we’re going to spend that much in future years; (2) assume that those expenditures exist outside of, and do not take away from, other expenses such as repairing our house; (3) tell us we’re dumb if we continue to spend that money on vacations in the future without getting any property out of it; and then (4) offer to sell us a timeshare coincidentally priced at the point that we’re already spending. You might imagine that this didn’t go down too well with us. To be fair to Robert’s efforts, we’re not really his target audience. We don’t spend money on vacations, we spend money on visiting our family. This was the first vacation we’d taken in four years, it was functionally our honeymoon, and we never would have rented a timeshare on Hilton Head if we hadn’t had an extremely preisgünstig opportunity come along. Also, we are not terribly susceptible to salespeople telling us they understand our financial situation better than we do and we’re stupid if we don’t buy into their plan; maybe other people are more afraid of missing out if they didn’t Act Now To Take Advantage Of This Limited Time Opportunity! That’s not really our weak point; we trend more to the Fools Rush In camp, at least with this kind of thing.
Once Robert laid out the whole shebang, he took us over to see the condo where we’d ostensibly be buying our week, all the while emphasizing that we never actually had to stay there, we could spend our credits on going other places. In the model presented, the assumption was always that you’d be traveling at the last minute, so you’d be able to go all these fabulous places for less than their full market value, which would be so much better than your lame off-season week in Hilton Head which was all you could afford to buy into. Of course, you might wonder why you would want to be traveling to luxury resorts during time periods when no one else wanted to be there (thus enabling you to snap up an opening at the last minute); it would seem that the people who were attracted to this plan for the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous at locales around the world would be sorely disappointed. It’s not like buying into a cheap off-season week in Hilton Head puts you in a category to be able to get into peak weeks in Aspen (for example). And, you not using the actual week you purchased means that the local resort (Coral Resorts) can rent your week to someone else, assuming there’s someone else who wants to be on the beach in January (some poor sucker who bought into a winter week on Cape Cod, maybe). Which is not to say that you can’t make this program work, more that the scenario they were spinning—buy an undesirable week here and parlay it into better vacations in other places—seemed like the exception rather than the rule. Also, it’s not clear to us whether credits from each year can be saved and used in future years: Robert said they could, other sources online say they can’t. If they can’t, you definitely aren’t ever going to be able to go anywhere other than other off-season locales.
On top of all of this, the price structure is heavy on the fees, making the upfront property investment not representative of what you pay. The investment we were quoted was about 9k for a week every other year, with a $900 fee in the years that we actually have the week, whether we use the week on Hilton Head or not. Then, there’s a fee to be a member of RCI; my partner and I have different memories of what this is, whether it’s a one time joining fee or an annual fee to receive their guide of participating resorts. If you want to trade in the week you’ve bought for other vacations, you give up your week in Hilton Head and then pay several hundred dollars ($200-$300) for the week in whatever other place you choose. If you want to, you can pay another fee and enroll in a partner program that offers discounts on airfare. Finally, all of this is yours for the low investment financing rate of 15%. You can imagine my reaction to that number! Let me recount it for you:
Robert: And, you don’t even need to get financing, we’ll provide it for you at 14.9%!
Me: 15%? Are you kidding? Surely some people qualify for a lower rate?
Robert: Well, you’re certainly free to use a home equity loan or something like that if you don’t want to take our financing.
Me: Because I cancel my credit cards when they jack my rate to 15%. That’s nuts, why would I take that?
Robert: [nervous chuckling]
In the end, we finally convinced Robert that we weren’t buying anything from him, realized that it had been three hours, and hightailed it out of there. Which brings us to the final chapter of this tale of woe, our botched attempts to use the fabulous prizes we’d earned by listening to someone tell us for three hours that we were stupid if we continued the way we were going. First, we learned that the 10% discount card could not be used in combination with the gift certificates. Second, we rode our bikes down to the Coligny Bakery intending to get lunch (advertised in the brochure as croissant and bagel sandwiches, which sounded nice) only to discover that they don’t sell lunch sandwiches. During that bike ride we were assailed by not one but two different people trying to get us to take the timeshare ‘tour’, the second of whom was shocked (shocked!) that the bakery didn’t offer lunch sandwiches, because she’d had breakfast sandwiches there. Uh huh. Over the course of the next few days we did use our gift certificates for two meals, lunch at the Hilton Head Diner (outside of which a third person was all ‘oh, too bad, I wish I’d been the one to sign you up for your tour’ and I was all ‘no you don’t, it was hellish, be glad you weren’t the one responsible for it’) and dinner at a Mexican place that was our third choice after our first and second choices weren’t open in the evening. In the end, the gift certificates worked out okay, providing us with a couple of extra meals as an alternative to cooking at home.
By far the most frustrating part of the whole experience, however, was trying to use the Daufuskie Island package. I am sure that it made me as bitter as it did because I was really looking forward to it: Daufuskie Island has a number of historic churches, schools, and houses, as well as an old black cemetery and several artist studios. So, I called right away to make a reservation for the Thursday boat, which is where things began to go wrong. First, the ferry was not free, as Chris told us it would be, but cost $16 per person. This $16 arguably covered tips, taxes, and fees, but I can’t imagine what the cost of the ferry ride would be without the credit, honestly. Because I wanted to make the 12pm guided tour listed on the ticket, in order to catch the 2:30pm boat back to Hilton Head, we went on the 9:30am boat. The boat ride was pleasant enough, barring the elderly lady from Massachusetts who kept punching me in the arm to get my attention: we saw birds and dolphins and it was a beautiful clear day. Once we arrived on the island, we went to check in for the tour, intending to look around a bit beforehand. Which is when we learned that in fact there was no longer a 12pm tour, only a 1:30pm tour. I believe the response was something like, ‘Yes, we know the tickets are wrong, it just costs a lot to reprint them.’ Because I was trying to be a good sport about all of this and salvage some of the day from going down the drain, I regrouped and decided that we would walk down to whatever historic sites were nearby, come back up for lunch, and then go on the 1:30pm guided tour. I learned from the woman at the desk, another HHGS employee, that the cemetery, schoolhouse, and local history museum were all within walking distance, and we set out with our map.
We made it to the cemetery with little trouble, and that was neat. Then we set out for the historic buildings. Our walk made me appreciate the journey the kids made to and from school each day in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It was hot. It was buggy. It was dusty. There was not another soul around, except for the maintenance guys who passed us in their trucks as they went to and from their jobs in the gated communities that were somewhere ahead of us out of sight. We slogged along; we hitched a ride up the road with one of the pairs of guys in a truck when I couldn’t take it anymore. And, when we finally did get to the buildings (the museum was a set of displays housed inside an historic church), we learned that they didn’t open until 1pm, something the woman who gave me the map didn’t see fit to mention. There was some cursing and railing and shaking our fists at the sky, and then we walked back. At that point, we were beginning to get a little sick of being on the island, and we decided to assess our options. We could rent golf carts for $50 for two hours (no partial time periods allowed) or we could wait until the 1:30pm tour, missing the 2:30pm boat and not being able to return to Hilton Head until the 5:15pm ferry. Neither of these options were ideal: I believe my phrases were ‘I’m not giving these $#^%#!s any more of my money!’ and ‘I’m not staying on this godforsaken island until 5pm!’. In the end, we decided to cut our losses, eat our free lunch (fish sandwich, chips, and a soda), and hop on the 12:30pm boat back. While I regret not learning more of the rich history of the island, leaving when we did was definitely the right choice. One of our fellow travelers who had chosen to rent a golf cart told us on the ferry ride back that none of the galleries were open yet because it was still the off-season, another useful piece of information the woman at the desk had neglected to share when I specifically asked her about the art studios and she told me ‘I believe the tour stops at one of them, but I’m not sure which.’ I think my head would have popped off if I’d either spent $50 to travel to the other part of the island or stuck it out until the tour only to discover that one of the main attractions in this whole escapade was closed.
The upshot: don’t waste your time on this. Or, if you are going to waste your time on this, don’t get the Daufuskie Island package as your prize. Instead, hold out for more cash in hand. And, wear a watch. Apparently at 90 minutes you can walk out and insist on your compensation even if the pitch hasn’t been completed. Probably we should have taken Chris’s advice and placed ourselves in the lowest income category; that one was my bad. The icing on the cake of all of this was that the check we received, our refund of the $20 we paid in cash upfront to ensure that we’d come back for the presentation, wasn’t actually signed. We didn’t notice this until we got home; I didn’t inspect the check beyond making sure the amount and the name were correct, since we wouldn’t be depositing it there. As far as we know, our credit union accepted it. However, I strongly recommend getting someone to actually sign the thing while you’re down there, just in case your bank isn’t as amenable.
I realize that we wouldn’t have nearly as many stories from our trip if we’d followed our original plan and gone to the visitors’ center in the Coastal Discovery Museum to get a map; I suppose that’s worth something.