You can check out a Mexican timeshare circus theme park anytime you like, but you can never leave.
In hotel conference rooms, baby boomers and others are sold on vacations that last an eternity
The world’s first Cirque du Soleil theme park is about to open in Mexico. That was the pitch, anyway, that a salesman gave on the beach boardwalk in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “Cirque du Soleil now-canceled”
The theme park is opening in six months, at the end of 2018, the salesman Pedro explained last May. We were invited to an early sneak preview. The way my husband understood it, Cirque du Soleil was inviting random American tourists like us to free promotional tours, in order to build word-of-mouth buzz among other Americans about the new theme park.
Wandering through a new theme park before it opened to the general public sounded pretty fun, especially when Pedro said not to worry about transportation. We would also get treated to breakfast, coupons for a free four wheeler tour, and two bottles of tequila in exchange for our time. What could possibly go wrong? We gave him our address.
Pedro showed up to our rental apartment at 10 a.m. the next day, as promised, with a cab driver ready to take us to the theme park. We hadn’t had a chance to explore much of the city yet, so he pointed out his favorite restaurants and a popular local running track along the way. We were ten or so miles out of town when Pedro pointed to a field that farm workers were tilling. There’s the theme park, he said.
It looks like people are pushing dirt around, my husband said. Yes, Pedro said. We asked him again when the theme park was scheduled to open. Six months, he repeated.
The cab turned left into a narrow, winding road. For several miles, we passed through beautiful, lush jungle landscape that reminded me of Jurassic Park. Maybe there was still a theme park after all. I was optimistic.
Instead, at the end of the road, we arrived at a sleek hotel lobby. It was surrounded by more jungle landscape. I had no idea where we were, but that wasn’t a concern. A cab would be waiting for us after the tour, Pedro assured us.
Then Pedro had a favor to ask us. Please pretend that we are genuinely interested in buying something, and not just there for the free stuff, or else his bosses aren’t going to pay him. Of course, my husband and I quickly agreed, without being entirely sure what we were supposed to be buying.
In the age of Expedia and Airbnb, the timeshare might seem like a relic of the past, destined to the same graveyard as golf, mayonnaise, and home ownership, along with the many other industries that millennials are accused of killing. But the timeshare refuses to die. In fact, the industry says it is doing better than ever.
The American Resort Development Association (ARDA) is the special interest group that advocates on behalf of timeshares before Congress and other regulatory bodies. ARDA reported last July that timeshares made a record $9.6 billion in sales in 2017. Timeshares also collected a whopping $2.3 billion worth of rent, a twenty percent increase from the year prior. Maintenance fees, another source of revenue, climbed 1 percent.
“The vast majority of people are happy with their timeshare,” Howard Nusbaum, the president of ARDA, tells ConsumerAffairs.
Traditionally, owning a timeshare used to mean owning 1/52 of the deed to a single property. It was a commitment to vacation at the same spot every year, with the potential to turn those stays into an investment if owners sold their piece of the property when they were done.
“The older generation wanted to go to the same location, the same week, each time, year after year,” says Brian Rogers, a retired software developer. Rogers now runs a website for timeshare owners to seek independent advice from one another.
“The newer generation wants more flexibility,” he says.
In response to that demand, the industry tossed the old timeshare business model out the window. In its place, timeshares began selling something else: the concept of “points.”
“Now more companies sell points because it’s what consumers want,” says Nusbaum.
Points, in theory, buy access to hotels all over the world. More points equals more vacations. Unlike people, points never die. Points are limitless. And they can be easily financed with a loan or credit card.
The timeshare industry says that timeshare points are just as good as any other real estate transaction.
“Nobody is in this business for debt collection and no one is in this business for the arbitrage on the loan,” Nusbaum says. “We are resort developers.”
Traumatic sales pitches at exotic destinations
“It can happen to you,” warns one disgruntled online reviewer, who wrote an essay about their unpleasant experience at a timeshare sales presentation in Cancun. The essay rambles a little bit, but the title is bleak and to-the-point; . “Explaining Emotional Trauma in Grand Mayan TimeShare Presentation.”
The Grand Mayan is part of a network of luxury resorts owned by Vidanta, one of Mexico’s biggest hotel chains. Vidanta properties hold a special appeal for tourists who prefer foreign countries from a safe distance, or more specifically, from a giant resort walled off from the rest of civilization. Vidanta’s founder, real estate magnate Daniel Chávez Morán, is often described as a visionary. He is responsible for Mexico’s largest collection of golf courses and the country’s first private airport. He serves as a business advisor to the President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Vidanta sells timeshare memberships through a subsidiary called Vida Vacations. According to angry reviewers on vacation and consumer review sites (like our own), Vidanta unleashes the Vida salespeople at airports, boardwalks, and tequila stores — all prime tourist traps. Some people even say that they were tricked into getting in the wrong cab by Vida Vacations salesmen who pretended to be airport employees.
The American timeshare industry insists that such tactics are unique to Mexico. Stuff that like that doesn’t happen here, supposedly.
“It is far more colorful in Mexico and less regulated than here in the States,” assures Nusbaum, the ARDA president.
But while American airports and liquor stores appear to be safe from any timeshare people selling circus theme park tours, consumers have, in fact, described getting bamboozled at hotels and old-age homes. Is the timeshare industry back in the United States really any better?
The theme park free breakfast
After Pedro dropped me and my husband off at the first hotel lobby, we checked in and then were taken by a worker on a golf cart to a second hotel lobby. The property looked nice, but there was still no sign of a Cirque du Soleil themepak.
This second hotel lobby was equipped with a trolley, which we were instructed to sit in. We admired the view as we waited for the trolley to move. It never did. After five minutes of sitting there, a thin blonde woman in a business suit walked over and called our names.
She introduced herself as Kelly from North Carolina and led us to the free breakfast, an all-you-can-eat buffet by a pool and an unfinished building. Over lukewarm plates of too much food, Kelly began to ask about our lives. The sound of jackhammers rang in the background. At tables nearby, perhaps a dozen other American families were eating breakfast amongst themselves. They looked like they were having an okay time, about the best you can expect from people who are at a hotel breakfast buffet instead of a Cirque du Soleil theme park.
When breakfast was over, Kelly said she had rooms to show us. First, we went to a spa room, decorated with fake Mayan god statues. This is where we sacrifice the people who don’t buy anything, Kelly joked.
From there, we toured several hotel suites. They were on different parts of the property and had views of a private beach. Kelly kept us busy with numerous questions. Then she took us to a small theatre, in a lobby of one of the buildings on the property. There was a video that she wanted us to see. It seemed important.
We stared at the projector, waiting. Images of Mexico’s jungles and coasts flashed across the screen. The dramatic sound of piano keys and an orchestra swelled in the background. Illustrations of the Cirque du Soleil theme park appeared. A man with a comforting voice began to narrate. I turned on my phone’s voice recorder.
“Vidanta has created so many wonderful places,” said the man in the video. “And now, with top local creative enterprises, including Circus du Soleil as our partners, we’re creating the most spectacular destination in the world.”
The theme park will be 70 acres, divided into different immersive wonderlands and be one of the most exciting projects that the country has ever seen, he said.
“The parks are a magical place. We are building an empire of the impossible,” the man promised. “Welcome to a world as limitless as your imagination.”
“Worse than a mining company”
As it turns out, the theme park has actually been under construction for years. Local villagers say that it has been an environmental catastrophe from the beginning.
“The scene is devastating,” the Mexican newspaper Sin Embargo reported in 2016.
A small fishing village adjacent to the Grand Mayan property lost their access to the beach and an important river after Vidanta put up walls and fences to keep locals out the way of tourists, activists said. Stress on the river from construction has also put the village at risk of flooding, according to a report by the Business & Human Resource Center, a human rights think-tank.
Vidanta responded in January with a promise to donate 32 million pesos to towns affected by its ongoing theme park construction. But local environmentalists said it wasn’t enough to offset the damage. They staged a protest to reject the donation.
Vidanta behaves “worse than a Canadian mining company,” according to Costa Verde, a coalition of local environmental groups.
It’s unclear when the construction will end, or if they are actually still building a circus theme park. Cirque du Soleil’s press team did not respond to an inquiry from ConsumerAffairs.
Vidanta declined to participate in this story, other than to send a statement indicating that some sort of project will be opening in the future. “The opening is still a couple years away, so it is too early for us to share visuals or more detailed information at this stage,” Vidanta says through a spokesman.
Zero Down and Zero APR
The sales floor was packed. Kelly sat across from my husband and me at a table, scribbling a formula down on a piece of paper. This was the part, I assumed, where I needed to pretend to be interested in a purchase, so that Pedro gets paid.
Kelly asked us for our annual vacation budget. We both struggled to give her an answer. Between the breakfast, the lengthy tour of the property and the video, at least two hours had passed since we first arrived. When was Kelly going to show us out?
“My number is $700, per week,” she said. “What we have here is the best price guaranteed.”
My husband and I tried our best to sound like people who were definitely interested in buying but who were also ready to go home. “Well, want to go home and think about it?” he asked me, loudly.
Kelly responded that our presentation wasn’t over yet. “Should we do it [the presentation] while we’re walking out?” I asked her. “I think I’m ready to go.”
“We just need a little more time to think about it,” my husband added.
Why did we need more time? Kelly wanted to know. She called a colleague over to the table to help us. He was another charming salesman in his mid-twenties or thirties. My recorder didn’t catch his name, but he described his job as the Closer.
“This is like real estate,” he said. “She’ll make an offer to you, and you can make an offer back.”
The Closer left the table, and Kelly continued making notes on the piece of paper. She flipped the sheet and passed it to us. At the bottom, in her handwriting, it said $89,090. A line asking for our signatures was underneath.
“That looks like Scientology money,“ my husband joked, trying to make light of our situation, our situation being that a woman we barely knew was asking us for $89,000.
Seeing that we were not about to give her the money, Kelly called The Closer back to our table.
“It’s not the cheapest deal that you can find, but it’s the best value you can find,” he said. He told us about a couple who purchased two studios from Vidanta in 2011 for $22,000. Now the studios are worth $40,000, he said. The couple rents the studios out to earn back their cash.
The Closer then sat down and began to scribble on the paper. “I can offer you a couple of our incentives that we don’t normally offer,” he said.
We told him that we would definitely love to consider his offer, back at our own home. But The Closer also said that leaving wasn’t an option.
“If you leave and decide, ’We want to buy,’ you won’t get as good of a deal,” he explained. “The ball is in your court now. You come back waving money, saying ‘We want to buy this?’ Here’s the thing. We have the power. The power shifts.”
“If you’re going to take your vacations, it’s better to own your vacations than to rent,” he continued. “Every dollar you put in the Ambassador Program is going back to you. It’s the only self-sustaining product on the market. It pays for itself, and then when you’re done using that money to pay off your balance, just cash in your property. Do whatever you want with it. Buy a motorcycle. It doesn’t really matter. It’s your cash.”
He sensed that we looked confused. “If you have questions write them down. I’ll leave it with you, Kelly.”
An incredible discount
Back at the timeshare sales table at the Grand Mayan, Kelly told us that we could apply for a credit card through Bank of America or Chase. She told us about a woman she once helped who wanted $400,000 worth of timeshare points.
“And she actually ended up getting approved,” Kelly said. “So? It’s worth a shot. Worst-case scenario, they say no. And then, we get you out of here.”
To apply for the credit card, Kelly needed our signature, on the bottom of the paper that said $89,090.
I told Kelly that we just wanted to do some research before we apply for a new credit card. Kelly asked what kind of research we typically do. Every answer that we gave led her to another question.The conversation went in circles, and then completely off-topic. The three of us were talking about mattresses when another colleague came over to check on us.
He offered ten percent down. “So, ten percent of $89,000 is $8,900,” he said. “However, we can finance that for you. So you don’t have to pay $8,900 today. All we need is a small deposit of zero down.”
We still didn’t want to sign it, we told him. Our refusal elicited more questions. The conversation again went off-topic, this time to the subject of boats. He owned one. Just as it seemed like we were all building a strong rapport with the new sales rep, he went back to business. During our long talk about boats, he had written up a new formula. The paper now said $66,000. We could pay off the ten percent down payment in ten percent increments over the next ten months.
“I’ll give you guys a couple minutes. If yes, great. If not, we will take you downstairs.”
My ears perked up. He was going to take us downstairs. The presentation was almost over. I checked my phone and realized we had sat at this sales table for the past three hours. When the group returned, I told Kelly we definitely were not signing today, even with the discount.
We all made small talk as Kelly walked us one final time through the property. She dropped us off by a pool, with a woman and two men who were dressed in polo shirts. They told us to have a seat. Because we did not buy from the American timeshare sales team, the Mexican timeshare sales team was now going to give us a try.
“How much do you typically spend on vacation?” one of the men asked.
“You like cruises?” his colleague said. “Any cruise line, you name it.”
They scribbled on a piece of paper.
“I can do two airline tickets, round trip,” the first one said. More scribbling. He said he could sell us a room for $39 a week and fees for $99 a year. It started to seem like a comparatively good deal.
We asked for the total price breakdown. The salesman scribbled some more. Then he handed a paper across the table. In his handwriting at the bottom, it said $2,500.
We could put the entire amount on a credit card. He said he would give us a few minutes to talk it over. The pros were obvious. This was a huge discount from $66,000 and $89,090.
The cons were that we were brought to this resort under false pretenses and different strangers had been asking me to give them thousands of dollars over the past five hours. None of this boded well.
The salesmen returned to our table to hear our final decision. We apologized. We just wanted to go home. After our goodbyes, they led us to the back of the building where a woman behind a counter was responsible for dispensing the free gifts. Unlike the front of the building, this back room had the clinical feel of a tax office. There was no view or window and all of the walls were white The woman handed over two tequila bottles and tickets to a city tour.
A four wheeler tour, my husband corrected her. We were supposed to get tickets to the four wheeler tour.
The four-wheeler tickets were no longer available. “They should have explained that to you this morning,” she said. She sent us out the door, to a giant parking lot, where dozens of cabs were already waiting to take people away.
According the the Groups Riviera Nayarit and Alianza de la Costa Verde
A network of civil associations and people that promotes Sustainable and Competitive Development in Nayarit and Jalisco. This group creates constructive proposals for infrastructure projects, urban and social development in these states, which consider the conservation of their natural and cultural wealth and the well-being of their communities
In Bahía de Banderas, NAYARIT, the VIDANTA Group – Mayan Palace operates without any intervention of the municipal, state or federal authorities:
- Streets and public avenues privatized or disappeared
- Sea access blocked; impeding entry to the Ameca River
- Extraction of stony material in exorbitant quantities, … the banks of the river aligned at your convenience Appropriation of national assets (ISLA de los PÁJAROS at the mouth of the Ameca River)
- Destruction of the mangrove, displacement of the fauna, invasion of the federal zone, which they privatized and where they put kilometers of cyclonic mesh to prevent the passage of the fishermen and the local inhabitants to the beach
- Diversion of the riverbed, which puts the lives of the inhabitants of the region and thousands of tourists at risk (3).
Chávez Morán, owner of the hotel chain with a history of impressive environmental destruction – not only in Bahía de Banderas, NAYARIT – also raised his hand to build one of the MAYAN TREN terminals.
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