In the wake of the credit crunch and the dire state of the economy, the timeshare industry - along with other travel and tourism organisations -- confronts a challenging year. However, the Timeshare Association, TATOC, logged significant achievements in 2008 and will build on them in the months ahead.
So said chief executive Harry Taylor in a comprehensive report to delegates attending the annual conference and A.G.M. in Warrington, Cheshire.
Acknowledging that some key objectives were "work in progress," he identified the following achievements:
Implementation of a Resort Accreditation process
Development of a certification programme for sales staff
Creation of an individual membership platform
The re-launch of a revamped web site
Publication of a new member magazine, SHARETIME
The recruitment of strategic sponsors
An increase in the number of affiliated companies
New impetus to a press and public relations strategy.
Mr Taylor also applauded the Associationâ€™s working relationship with the industry. While its prime interest was the consumer, TATOC would continue to forge professional ties with reputable timeshare companies.
"We will do this in part through the Resort Accreditation and Affiliation programmes," he said. "We are keen to work with companies that share the TATOC vision of enhancing the holiday experience for existing and prospective timeshare owners. We also aim to be the voice of timeshare owners."
Lobbying efforts with the European Parliament and Commission had been successful in generating enhanced protection for owners and prospective owners via the new Timeshare Directive. "TATOC will monitor closely the implementation of the EU Directive into national law which will help close many loopholes that rogue operators are currently exploiting," he said.
Constructive meetings had been held with senior officials at the Department of Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR), formerly the Department of Trade and Industry. More were planned with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), Consumer Direct and representatives in Brussels.
TATOC chairman David Eastburn introduced a video message from MEP Arlene McCarthy who publicly thanked TATOC for its assistance in drafting the new Timeshare Directive. Representing the North West Region of England in the European Parliament, she also chairs its Internal Market & Consumer Protection Committee.
In an upbeat address to the conference, Mr Eastburn told delegates: "Only by pooling our resources and working together can we as consumers ultimately achieve our goals."
TATOC was addressing a growing list of problems including high maintenance costs, re-possessions, re-sales "and a media that too often confuses itself and the public by equating timeshare with the likes of non-timeshare holiday clubs".
He added: "With the enthusiastic and committed support of the TATOC membership, we can and will achieve all our current objectives."
In 2008 membership rose 20 per cent and a new impetus to the membership drive is planned later this year. Mr Eastburn said: "I am confident that by March 2010, TATOC membership will be a compelling need for any self-respecting resort. Our members will benefit from all the services we offer, confident in the knowledge that their resort either has, or is moving towards, the standards that we, as consumers, are demanding."
He publicly thanked the major sponsors of the TATOC conference for their support: Dial an Exchange, Diamond Resorts International, Group RCI, Interval International, Macdonald Hotels & Resorts, Needham & James (Solicitors), Perspective International, Thomas Westcott (Chartered Accountants) and Worldwide Timeshare Hypermarket.
In other news the HelpLine has logged some notable successes, having helped thousands of timeshare owners to save or recoup more than 1 million pounds in its first year of operations.
Now based at offices in central Manchester, TATOC has increased staff coverage with the recruitment of Mark Caldicott. He has industry experience, having formerly worked with Diamond Resorts International in Lancaster.
In a presentation to the conference, TATOC board director Geoff Chapman said more than 6,000 phone calls were handled by the HelpLine last year â€“ 60 per cent being general enquiries, the remainder complaints. Most complaints related to dubious re-sale practices or scams based on non-timeshare holiday clubs. Phone volumes were augmented by significant postal and email communications.
This year the HelpLine fielded more than 1,400 calls in January and February. The service is free of charge and available to member and non-member resorts and individuals.
According to Mr Chapman, the HelpLine continues to have a crucial role to play. "Many problems are still out there and the demand for our services is growing," he said.
In an overview of legislative developments, Philip Broomhead, a member of the Legislative Council at the Organisation for Timeshare in Europe (OTE), said consumer complaints channelled through OTE were down to "very low levels" and satisfaction rates were "high". At the same time it was gratifying to note the authorities were clamping down on rogue operators.
The current year would be difficult because consumer spending was down. Other factors such as inflation and cost increases, exchange rate fluctuations and financing for consumers and resort developers were also major concerns.
While acknowledging that the EU Directive was a good one, Mr Broomhead said the new legislative environment for timeshare would "increase costs". Its implementation by Member States would be complicated. However the EU required the same legislative rules to be in place no later than 23rd February 2011.
Recognition by Brussels of timeshare as an important and integral part of the tourism industry was welcomed. Mr Broomhead told delegates that OTE - soon to be re-launched as the Resort Development Organisation (RDO) - would offer TATOC full insight into the guidance it is preparing for its members "so that clubs and committees will see how the Directive will impact their organisations, responsibilities and liabilities".
Still on the legal front, John Hughes, a senior partner with Needham & James (Solicitors), listed consumer protection legislation that has been introduced over the past 22 years.
The latest include regulations - they came into force in 2008 â€“ that protect consumers against "aggressive commercial practices". These are defined as unfair if they breach professional diligence and "materially distort" the economic behaviour of the average consumer.
They also outlaw high-pressure sales tactics that would lead consumers to enter into transactions as a result of "harassment, coercion or undue influence".
Barrister Sandra Wrightson, a partner with DeCotta McKenna & Santafe, spelled out the benefits of mediation and arbitration in disputes involving timeshare owners, resorts, management companies, re-sale firms, clubs and trustees. And she stressed that litigation was not always the most cost-effective solution to a dispute.
Arbitration is a formal procedure where a judge gives a written opinion. The decision is binding in law although it can be subject to an appeal.
Mediation is a more informal process where both parties work to reach a solution. "It is particularly suitable when two parties are not too far apart in their dispute," said Ms Wrightson.
In a blunt assessment of the timeshare business, David Lilley, managing director of Dial An Exchange, said the TATOC conference was "a fitting arena for an honest appraisal of our industry".
While timeshare had many happy owners, the industry had "an aging owner base". Most major industry players had failed to attract the under-40 age group. Many marketing practices remained old fashioned. And data protection laws were simply being broken in a prolific manner.
Repossessions represented a major challenge for owner-run resorts as did careless rental programmes that caused owners to question the value of their timeshares.
Mr Lilley told delegates: "You are the most important element in the industry. It would not exist without timeshare owners. The way you are treated is fundamental to the success of the business."
His key conclusions were:
Customers want to fully understand what they own and how it works, particularly products such as points, and they want to feel the value received from their apartment is worth the recurring financial commitment.
A panel of experts, chaired by TATOC director Jennie Thompson, addressed the often-contentious issue of re-sales that for years had been suppressed by resort developers who feared they would "cannibalise" retail sales. This "ill-conceived" notion was based on the belief that owners would not need to sell their timeshare in future when in fact their personal circumstances change due to factors like poor health, bereavement, financial problems or divorce.
That was the view of Jason Tremblay, Sell-my-timeshare-NOW, whose website logs thousands of 'hits' a day. When efforts were made to eliminate fraudulent schemes, "crooks would still remain crooks," he said. The major problem was not the crooks but "the lack of liquidity in the secondary (re-sale) market".
Re-sale companies in Europe and America often confront similar problems. "We are seeing significant brands that would not have addressed re-sales a few years ago doing just that," said Mr Tremblay. His company acts as the authorised re-sale agent for Hilton Grand Vacations Company in North America.
Phil Watson, Worldwide Timeshare Hypermarket, underscored that view. "For a long time developers would not speak to re-sale companies," he said. "That has changed. My company now has a portfolio of resorts that are working with us."
Another panellist, Sarah Hulme, Diamond Resorts International, was confident new legislation would help drive out the fraudsters whose activities have tarnished timeshare. Her company provides owners wishing to sell with a list of reputable re-sale outlets.
"We have to bring respect back to the industry," said Ms Hulme. "We have got to stop consumers being victims of scams that are out there now. Legislation has to work for us as a business."
In a presentation on media and public relations, Jennie Thompson said TATOC would continue to raise its profile, work to project a positive image of timeshare and promote the value of holiday ownership.
An on-going task was to be pro-active with media outlets so that journalists would communicate with TATOC as the first port-of-call for an authoritative response to their enquiries. As an independent consumer association with integrity and credibility, it would develop and expand its role as "the voice of timeshare".
In a special readership survey, Paul Mattimoe, publisher of Owners' Perspective Magazine, revealed 81 per cent of respondents were actively looking to buy or rent a timeshare.
A key objective of the new publication was to promote a renewed demand for timeshare by focusing on positive news. It targets existing owners as well as prospective buyers. "We aim to increase awareness and credibility of the industry and its products," said Mr Mattimoe, adding the magazine was available free of charge on-line. A print version was launched in January at a small subscription charge.
Patrick Duffy, who holds the novel job title of chief experience officer at Diamond Resorts International, delivered a motivational presentation, stressing the importance of holidays to the consumer. In the UK, most workers get four weeks annual holiday, in the United States just two weeks.
"Think how important we are in that contextâ€¦ in their holiday experience," he said. "As hospitality-driven professionals, we can bring reliability and dependability together. Itâ€™s what our owners have come to expect when they arrive at our resorts."
Sensitivity is "the oil in the engine" of resort hospitality. "If you have that along with loyalty, you will enhance your ownersâ€™ holiday experience," said Mr Duffy.
The plenary session of the conference was augmented by a series of break-out presentations hosted by Dial an Exchange, Diamond Resorts International, Group RCI, Merlin, which specialises in software products and services for the industry, and Resort Solutions.
Special presentations were also made to two companies that have successfully met the criteria of the Resort Accreditation programme â€“ Club Las Calas in Lanzarote and Macdonald Villacana Resort on the Costa del Sol.
An informative and interactive session was staged on Day 2 of the conference with the theme 'Setting and Achieving Goals'. Adam Johnson, chairman of Club Las Calas, who led the session, urged delegates to set goals "that support your strategy," adding, "most objectives and goals are inter-related and mutually supporting".
Goals were best achieved by effective planning, provision of necessary resources, monitoring progress and rewarding success.