OCT. 22 — PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO
Not that it’s raining much but a bird just flew into my room and took a towel to dry off. It has been pouring like I’m in the middle of a National Geographic special on flooded Brazilian villages. It’s starting Day 4 here At the five-star-plus Grande Luxxe Resort and I have yet to see the sun. It reached a crescendo last night when sounds of rain pounding fern leaves and thunder nearly erased the World Series commentary on TV. I’m getting a little irritated. This suite is big enough for a small village but so are the opulent swimming pools who sit empty as people try to stay dry.
What a great weather to listen to a guy sell you a $110,000 condo you can use two weeks a year.
The catch to staying here a week is I had to sit through the dreaded timeshare spiel. Actually, I didn’t. My friend has a condo and this is one of the trade outs. I came along for support and to see the lengths a salesman will go. I expected nothing less than brass bands and the nut-in-shell con game.
I’m a veteran of these things. I’ve spent a weekend in Steamboat Springs for $75. I had a condo in Cabo for $50 a night. I know how to say no, a word too many people can’t say to strangers. Timeshare salesmen aren’t strangers to me. After an hour or so, they become annoying, cloying vultures who would lie to their first-born child if it ravaged their savings account for one of their properties.
Some are worse than others. I remember one clown with Marriott who asked everyone in the room where’s the one place they’ve always wanted to spend a week. It don’t matter, he said. They had a property there. When they got to me, I said, “How are your resorts in North Korea?”
I greeted his phony small talk with such bored irreverence that his plastered smile quickly turned into a steel glaze. He then tried to convince me that buying a Marriott condo anywhere in the world would be cheaper than traveling to Third World countries on frequent flyer miles as I do. He filled up an entire piece of notebook paper with numbers and scribbles. He wrote and talked so fast I finally said, “I have no earthly idea what you just told me which, if you think about it, is good practice for my visit to North Korea. I thank you.” It became so cantankerous, my then-girlfriend, who had to accompany me because this outfit only dealt with couples, nearly started crying.
I finally got up and left and went straight to the desk for my paperwork to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. My ex refused to join just on the principle that she didn’t want to be reminded of one of the worst evenings of her life.
Turns out, I never went. This ripoff company required you to pay a nominal $15 service charge. It had to be sent by money order and only from a specific bank listed ONLY IN FINE PRINT at the bottom of the Rules & Regulations. When I called to ask if I can send another, some young woman laughed and said, “Sorry, sir! Too late.”
It was with this in mind that I accompanied my friend to the Grand Mayan Resort, adjacent to our Grand Luxxe. We had a strategy. We’d stay one hour — the exact time the front desk said we had to stay — and leave. Then we’d go collect our 10 percent discount for the week and $150 credit.
Much of the allure was the buffet breakfast which, when not in conjunction with a meeting akin to molar surgery, is $25. We never even got a fork before a tall bald man in a billowy white shirt sat down at a round table with us. I looked around. About 20 other round tables had a bunch of tourists in a variety of ugly shorts with a slick-talking salesman or saleswoman. They all had that young corporate look. The men wore crisp long-sleeve shirts with name tags. The women were all slinky babes in tight, short skirts with slits in the back and high heels that if used to walk along the beach would dig halfway to China. They appeared to be all Americans.
Our salesman’s name was Alvaro. He was a nice enough fellow for a timeshare salesman. In other words, I didn’t want to garrote this one. He was raised in Londonderry, N.H., to Colombian parents who moved to Mexico when he was 15. He’s completely bilingual and has lived in Playa del Carmen for 17 years. He seemingly knew every condo on the beach.
The strategy was threefold:
Bury the customer with positive information about the property.
Find out how much the customer is currently spending on travel.
Create a mathematical equation that would baffle the MIT faculty but convince you that you can’t pass up the savings of buying a $100,000 condo.
Alvaro did lay out an impressive array of superlatives about Grupo Vidanta, the parent company whose three properties in Playa are just a small part of its huge conglomeration:
1. It boasts the largest hotel pool in Latin America. We walked by it as we went to the meeting hall and it’s the size of a small lake. However, as rain slowly pelted us, this particularly lake was void of human beings.
2. Vidanta is the third largest timeshare company in the industry.
3. It has 100,000 owners.
4. It started in 1972 when a Stanford grad named Daniel Chavez Moran surveyed 30,000 tourists about their travel habits. Moran, whom CNN named as one of the 100 most important businessmen in Mexico, formed this company based on that information.
Then came the questions. My friend has two condos in Maui, one in Kauai and one in Anaheim. Anaheim? Yes, timeshares are all about trade value. You get these condos for two weeks a year but can trade them out for two more. Everyone wants to go to Hawaii. Every family wants to go to Disneyland. It’s sound strategy. One problem.
“How much do you pay in maintenance fees?” Alvaro asked.
In total my friend pays about $5,000 a year. I could practically see the light bulb appear over Alvaro’s head. That’s when he bore in. He took his legal pad and started writing down numbers and explaining Vidanta’s maintenance fee strategy. If you don’t use the condo, you don’t pay the fee. Thus, the maintenance fees are much less. He talked of guaranteed upgrades. He talked of the 30 properties in Latin America and thousands of trade-out properties around the world. I looked at the Manhattan telephone book-sized catalog and they may very well have a resort in North Korea.
They have one in Mecca.
We received a tour. We saw the deluxe suite that we had and an entry level suite with only one bedroom. That was $109,000.
Think about the math there. Pay $109,000 and you get it for only two weeks plus two weeks trade out to other condos. That’s one month of vacation. I kept thinking how I traveled around the world alone for a year on $4,000. Sure, it was 1978-79 but making monthly mortgage payments on a condo that could sit empty 11 months a year sounds like the dumbest investment this side of a Hooters in Baghdad.
Here’s where they try to convince you that you’re throwing away money: If you spend X amount of years at their condo, you will have saved up enough in maintenance fees to pay it off. That is true. But it’s math logic stretched to the max, or to the customer’s savings account.
And, of course, they always pepper the meeting with small talk, just to make it a little less painful. Over an admittedly spectacular breakfast buffet of crafted omelets, French toast, taquitas and fresh turkey, Alvaro talked about speaking Spanish growing up in New Hampshire. He asked me about my traveling style.
“I just like to show up and wing it,” I said.
“That’s what I like,” he lied. “I find a charter and just go.”
Sorry, Alvaro. Independent travelers don’t fly charter. They fly frequent flyer.
“Sir,” he said, “how do you pay for your hotels, online or at the front desk?”
“I stay at AirBnBs,” I said. “I stay with local families.”
By then, he knew I was a lost cause. About the most honest thing he said was when I asked him about the horseshit weather.
“It’s the rainy season, sir,” he said. “Sorry.”
“I read a weather chart that said Playa only gets three days of rain every October.”
“That was wrong,” he said as I slumped, wanting to throw myself in the roiling surf.
After breakfast and finishing the math, he asked, “Which of your condos would you most like to own? Which of your condos do you use the least?”
He tried to get my friend to drop a couple of the condos and buy one here. It would make sense if it wasn’t $110,000 for an entry level condo half the size of ours and the rain nearly causing pool furniture to float past our window. It also makes sense if you come back here for 25 years.
I couldn’t do it. This place is over-the-top luxurious. The room is so nice you feel if you leave you’re missing something. A week like this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m still glad I came even though I may return to Rome more white than I did when I arrived. But it’s not my style. It’s not Mexico. I come to Mexico to meet Mexicans, not people like the old man I met yesterday morning in the University of Michigan ball cap who complained that other Vidanta resorts have better personal service.
“The one in Puerto Vallarta, they knock on your door at 8 in the morning and ask if they can do anything for you,” he said.
Which I would reply, “Yes. Leave.”
I don’t want to be around people whose only idea of travel is 6-star resorts where they see the same other Americans every trip and won’t leave the grounds for fear of rubbing elbows with the locals. I couldn’t do it. For a week? Yes. Not for a lifetime which is what it takes to pay one of these off.
The meeting went 2 1/2 hours and Alvaro STILL had more math to show us. He wanted to meet my friend again.
“I’ll throw in some more goodies,” he said. “I’ll take you out to dinner. I’ll give you another tour.”
My friend made a mistake by telling Alvaro to call back in two days. We took the shuttle back in the rain chuckling about the lengths these people go to sell these properties. I don’t blame Alvaro. He was nice, competent, informative and courteous. He was high pressured just enough to be good at his job. He has to make a living.
And soaking in the Jacuzzi, up to my chin in bubbles, made me think I could get used to this. But then I think of what the world is and what you can learn from so many people. I don’t know what I’d learn talking to old men in University of Michigan ball caps.