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Has Timeshare Become an Edsel?
by Doug Milbrath, CEO


The timeshare product has evolved considerably since its introduction in the 1960s: These changes, revisions, and "improvements" have been so numerous that modern timeshares bear almost no resemblance to either the original product or concept. While some owners enjoy the flexibility of the new timeshare products, many others seem to find them simply too confusing to use effectively. What's interesting to note is the process of how timeshare evolved; a process that has some history of its own.

Behold, The Edsel

In the mid 1950s, Ford Motor Company began development of a car for "young professionals on their way up." These were thought to be folks who had outgrown a Ford, but were not yet rich enough to buy a Mercury or Lincoln. In order to keep them from moving on to other products, such as a Chrysler or Packard, an "entirely new kind of car" was created: the Edsel.

During the planning stages, groups of target buyers were assembled and asked about what features they would want in a new vehicle. Feedback from these focus groups was later used in the design process. Ford assured investors that "the details of its styling and specifications were the result of a sophisticated market analysis and research and development effort that would essentially guarantee its broad acceptance by the buying public." Thus, the Edsel became the first car to be designed by focus group... and it was a notorious flop.

Timeshare Presentation Focus Groups

In many ways, timeshare sales presentations resemble focus groups; participants are compensated for their time, they are exposed to a new product, and they are asked to provide feedback about their experience. Additionally, people who buy timeshares, and have the opportunity to use them, are later brought back on "in-house" tours, and again exposed to the product and asked to provide feedback. Timeshare developers have then used this feedback (reasons for not purchasing) to guide the creation of new vacation ownership products.

When focus group participants complained that "fixed" weeks were not flexible enough, "floating" time was introduced. When some participants thought the timeshare was just too expensive, "biennial" and then "triennial" ownerships were created. When participants refused to buy because they didn't travel for one-week intervals, "points" came onto the scene. When some participants found the word "timeshare" to be a turn-off, non-deeded perpetual trust vacation clubs were sold as the alternative. And on, and on, and on... Now, it's not uncommon for resorts to sell a timeshare that's "points-based, every-third-year usage on the "B" cycle, held in a trust, mortgaged to the owner, gold membership level, with a pickle on the side." Just kidding, about the pickle.

What I wonder is whether all this added complexity has really made timeshare better, or has it just made it an Edsel? Some of the best-loved products were created without consulting consumers: Carol Shelby said the name "Cobra" came to him in a dream. The Aeron chair was despised and considered ugly for its first two years, until it became the most popular office chair in the world.

Back to Basics/To Infinity and Beyond

In the course of my work in timeshare marketing, I spend a lot of time thinking about the Millennial Generation. For timeshare to have a future, Millennials will need to buy it, use it, and love it. They will need to "share" timeshare with their friends on Facebook and Twitter - and for this to happen, they will need to experience "pride of ownership." Millennials are certainly comfortable with technology, and so it is possible they would take advantage of the complex systems of modern timeshare products to maximize their vacationing value. Were this to turn out to be the case, timeshare developers could keep on innovating and take vacation ownership "to infinity and beyond!"

But I'm not so sure Millennials will see the appeal in timeshare presented as a cutting-edge efficient solution to their vacationing needs (whether it actually is or not.) In their fascinating work on Generational Theory, Williams Strauss and Neil Howe suggest Millennials have a strong sense of community, and are civic-minded. These tendencies may actually make timeshare attractive to Millennials - if the timeshare industry can stop making Edsels and get back to basics. When timeshare was sold as a fraction (1/52) of a whole property, a shared ownership so to speak, it was a much more tangible product. Owners would expect to be involved in HOA matters, and to know each other personally. Certainly, Millennials will value the ability to exchange through RCI or Interval International, but the appeal of knowing their "neighbors" when returning to their home resort could be equally important.

Even though the Edsel turned out to be a failure, Ford actually sold quite a few of them: over 63,000 in the first year. Likewise, the modern "Edsel" timeshare continues to be sold at a decent pace. One could argue that the lessons learned from their Edsel experiment helped Ford become the company that made the Mustang. It's time for the timeshare industry to build our Mustang - let's get to work!


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