I had filled out a form to win a Whole Foods gift certificate. Instead I got a phone call from "Hannah" at FantaSea Resorts congratulating me on winning a travel package.
My gift sounded promising: Four airline tickets worth up to $4,500, a weekend at an East Coast resort and more. "All you have to do is come to Atlantic City to pick up your gift," Hannah said.
The penny dropped. "This is a timeshare pitch, isn't it?"
It was. I would have to show up at the Flagship resort with an ID, a credit card and sit through a 2½ hour presentation. "There's no obligation to buy."
I had zero interest in a timeshare, but my husband and I had never been to Atlantic City and the airline tickets sounded promising. We decided to go.
We told several friends what we were doing and without fail, they said, "Oh, my mother-in-law (or brother-in-law or...) has a timeshare. Watch out, she never intended to buy one either."
I started to get nervous. What if I got sucked in, hypnotized, drugged on the sea air? What if the salesman and my credit card got on the same wavelength and cut me out? We registered on a Saturday morning and were seated at a conference room table surrounded by dozens of other couples at tables, all of us getting the pitch.
Our salesman asked us about our family, travel desires, annual travel expenses, where we like to go, what we like to do on vacation and where we'd like to go next. "Argentina. Venice. The Carolinas," we said.
If we bought a timeshare in Atlantic City, he said, we could exchange it for timeshares around the world. He showed us their exchange stock in those places, along with Jamaica, Hawaii, Paris.
His pitch was periodically interrupted by a master of ceremonies — a manager with a microphone — noting the stars who'd be performing in Atlantic City in coming weeks: Smokey Robinson, Santana, Sting. Then he called out birthdays and anniversaries. And each time someone signed for a timeshare, he'd request "a round of applause for our newest members of the Flagship family" and the room would erupt.
We had coffee, water, bathroom breaks and a rundown of investments being made in Atlantic City to compensate for the shuttered Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza and Revel. More than two hours in, we were shown a one-bedroom suite that we'd be buying into. It had oceanfront views, a breezy balcony, marble countertops in the kitchenette and bathroom, king-sized bed and sofa bed.
I was getting antsy. There was no mention of money. I kept thinking of someone we'd met the night before, Theresa Clinton, 50, a dental hygienist from York, Pennsylvania, who'd bought a timeshare more than a decade before. "I never thought I'd buy one," she said before rattling off a dozen places she'd vacationed. "I love it."
More than 9 million U.S. households own timeshares. According to the American Resort Development Association, the vast majority are happy they do. But about 20 percent regret signing and want out.
Others may enjoy their timeshare for years but then want to get rid of it after their kids are grown, their finances have changed or they can no longer travel. Selling is not easy, giving rise to a timeshare exit industry. "There's definitely a lot of people out there who want out," said Timeshare Exit Team owner Brandon Reed.
We were approaching three hours at the Flagship Resort when our salesman finally pulled out the numbers: The one-bedroom timeshare would cost more than $23,000. We'd get to use it just one week a year. Paid over seven years, that would come to about $400 a month plus annual fees of about $1,000. (According to Consumer Reports, fees have risen 5 percent annually on average since 2010.)
We didn't want the timeshare when we went into the sales meeting, and we definitely didn't want it after we saw the price. When we said no, the salesman summoned a manager who just happened to have a timeshare resale for $10,000 less.
We could see the attraction for young families and for people looking at retirement with lots of travel. After seven years, the cost would be $1,000 a year for a week and reduced rates for extra weeks. The timeshare could be shared with family and bequeathed to offspring.
But it wasn't for us. We don't like to vacation in the same place twice. Even at the reduced price, the annual payments for each of the next seven years exceeded what we spend annually on travel accommodations. And we don't have a hankering to own. We like Airbnb.
I thanked them for their efforts. Our poor salesman looked really dejected. One more manager came over to try to make a deal. Finally, they let us go and gave us our gift package.
The tickets are real enough, though they come with strings attached. You have to book a hotel through the same agency. Lots of advance notice. I'm betting they won't be for the most direct flights when it comes time to book.
I was happy to get them, though I would have been just as happy with the Whole Foods gift coupon that I tried to win in the first place.