By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Chuck McDowell is a little like St Paul. He used to persecute Christians but had a conversion 7 years ago and started down a better path. McDowell runs Wesley Financial Group, a company that helps people cancel their worthless timeshares.
“What we don’t do is tell you that we can rent or sell your timeshare. What we do is help you cancel your timeshare and all of the debt associated with your timeshare,” said McDowell.
McDowell started his timeshare cancellation business after selling timeshares for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, the world’s largest hotel franchiser with 8,400 affiliated hotels in more than 80 countries. Wyndham reported $1.34 billion in revenues and $243 million in profits last year.
“Everyone there was lying to sell timeshares,” McDowell said. According to court filings, insiders called their elaborate sales pitches “The Game”.
It starts with a gift or a free stay at some resort in exchange for listening about a wonderful opportunity to travel and visit expensive tourist destinations on the cheap.
It doesn’t work out that way for thousands of marks, often retired seniors, who get hornswoggled into thinking they’re going to see places they’ve always dreamed about and pass on great vacations to their children after they die.
What they pass on is a load of debt and a back room in a hotel in the off-season that looks onto a parking lot. All the good rooms are unavailable, sold to cash customers during the Daytona 500 or at popular vacation spots like Disneyland.
McDowell said timeshare companies often rent their rooms through Expedia at peak times for premium prices and use them to sell timeshares. Meanwhile, people who have already bought timeshares can’t take a vacation where or when they want.
“Not every timeshare company does that but that is done quite often,” said McDowell.
“People will buy a timeshare in Nashville so they can come to the CMA and then call at 12:01am 12 months in advance to make a reservation and it will already be booked up. The reason it’s booked is they will take inventory and they will rent it,” he said.
In 2014 New York Attorney General A. G. Schneiderman put the Manhattan Club Timeshare Hotel out of business, slapped them with a $6.5 million fine, and barred them from foreclosing on defrauded purchasers. Timeshare owners paid tens of thousands of dollars in what amounted to a “bait and switch” scam.
They were told the Manhattan Club did not rent to non-owners. That was untrue. The Club rented rooms over the Internet. The 14,000 people who owned timeshares in one if its 286 luxury suites, could never get in.
Timeshares, sometimes called vacation ownership, started in the U.S. in 1974. It is an enormously profitable business because you sell time, not property, and in the 1970s you could sell the same thing 52 times a year for $3500/wk.
“If you bought a timeshare in the very beginning it was actually a good idea. Say you got a building with 8 condos on the beach, 4 facing the ocean and 4 facing the parking lot. You would buy a week—say Week 10—so you get to go every Spring to the Bahamas, or Orlando, or Daytona or wherever,” he said.
McDowell said old-fashioned timeshares were like buying an antique Rolex watch.
“It works and you know you got that week.”
He said the industry changed in the 1990s. Timeshare companies started using a point system like a bank account to pay for vacation rentals. Points are the timeshare equivalent of using script instead of real money at a company store.
Buying More Points
Timeshare companies put their best sales people in their in-house sales department.
“Honestly, our job is to make them mad. If they are happy they won’t buy more timeshares. They have to think what they have is broken,” said McDowell.
Wyndham’s marketing department would set up a “five” minute meeting with the timeshare owner. McDowell would bring a gift. Then he would play the client where only sales people like him knew the rules. That’s because he made them up.
“It says you declined your options at your transition dinner party. Why would you do that? They wouldn’t understand what we were talking about,“ he said. They weren’t supposed to. It was all a ruse.
A five-minute check to see if the room was okay turns into a two-hour sales pitch while you are on vacation. It takes away your time on the beach and if you lose “The Game” it takes more of your money. Wyndham bought Fairfield Resorts in 2007 while McDowell was working for Wyndham.
“What you have is the old Fairfield points program. You’re not even in the new program,” he would tell them. “And they would get all mad and that’s what we were trying to do so they would come to the sales office and fix it.
And fixing it would cost five more points. Reasonable maintenance fees got jacked up with the new “options”. It was all in the fine print McDowell said.
The point system spawned location exchange companies like Interval International and RCI that for a fee grant access to a network of resorts. If you own a Diamond Resort timeshare, you can pay $125 a year to book a stay at a resort owned by Wyndham or any other resort in the network and use your points to pay for it.
“The salesperson will say ‘you can go anywhere you want at any time’. That’s a famous line that’s not true,” he said. “But it’s a beautiful sales tool.”
Timeshare holders who pay to get into a network will be trying to book rooms at resorts where other timeshare owners are having just as much trouble as they do booking a room when and where they want to go.
While there are good timeshare companies, the industry itself is run like an elaborate shell game. Thousands of consumers buy timeshares from sales people who make promises they will not keep.
When they get desperate, they come to McDowell. “We only help people who have been lied to,” said McDowell.
He has 24 people in his resolution department. All women. They get results.
A cancellation starts with a complaint letter to the timeshare company. Back and forth exchanges can go on for months and McDowell’s resolution specialists worry them like a dog on a bone.
“They never admit to any wrongdoing,” said Katie Lou Cardinal, Director of Training and Resolutions. “They always say either because of default we’re cancelling you or they say as a gesture of good will we have agreed to cancel you,” she said.
In her2 ½ years with McDowell, Cardinal has gotten more than 250 cancellations and $750,000 in refunds for Wesley Financial clients.
For information on timeshare cancellations call Allie Cage at 615-251-0443.