Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sundance Vacations- Is There Really Value In Buying 30 Vacations Wholesale?

On Friday night my wife got an interesting call. Last month we took our kids to the Thomas and Friends Day at the Toy Train Emporium. They had a drawing for a grand prize of tickets to the Thomas Show at the Tweeter Center. I rarely if ever enter drawings for money anymore, but I do occasionally enter for things like that. We filled out cards for our kids, partly because the cards enrolled them in the Birthday Club that the store offered. Just after we got home, I got a call from the store saying that the card I filled out for Joshua won and we had 4 tickets to the show plus a special Meet and Greet with Sir Topham Hat. That sounded good. I ended up not being able to go because I had class that day but my wife took her sister along. While there, she filled out a card for another drawing (my wife is more likely to fill these things out than I am; I've gotten on too many junk marketing lists that way) and that drawing won. She was told on her call last night that she won a free vacation to Orlando or Las Vegas. We just had to come pick up the tickets and pay the taxes on them. The company, Sundance Vacations, from research I did is headquartered in Wilkes-Barre, PA and has six more offices in the PA-NJ area. The office in King of Prussia, PA is closest to us. They had an appointment for Friday night but we originally took one for 11 AM Saturday morning because we were supposed to have company over for dinner.

I thought it had to be a scam, or a time share presentation, which I partially consider to be a scam anyway. There isn't very much in this world that you get for nothing, especially something like a vacation. These things cost money, and companies don't just go giving them away because you were nice enough to fill out a card with your name, phone number, address, annual income, or whatever else they required. I really didn't want to have to go Saturday, because I needed to go to work to make up for taking off on Monday to finish a flooring project that went horribly wrong last weekend. Also, due to other events, I needed time on Saturday to finish my weekly assignment for my current class at the University of Phoenix, and being at the office on Saturday provides me with a quiet environment to do that, once I get through my work that I went in to do, of course. When our dinner guests didn't show up, my wife asked me to call them. It turns out that they were under the impression that she was going to call them during the week to confirm, and she didn't. I told her to call the place that claimed we won a vacation and see if the 8 PM appointment was still open. After all, what's a 40 mile drive to King of Prussia on Philadelphia's poorly designed, patchworked, scenic and deadly Schukyll Expressway at the end of Philadelphia's Friday night rush hour anyway? My sister in law, who lives with us, was willing to watch the kids for the evening, so we set out. Actually, if they hadn't expressly forbidden children, I would have brought them. Bored and cranky children make an excellent excuse for leaving an uncomfortable situation. Fortunately, all of the traffic jams were in the eastbound lanes, and we made it in time for our 8:15 PM appointment. (I actually prefer military or 24 hour time, but I'm doing AM and PM for any readers who don't know what I mean when I say we arrived at 2015.)

I wish I'd had time to do an Internet search before we left, but the search I did while conducting research for this entry turned up little useful information. We arrived just about on time for our appointment. The office was in a corporate park. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I figured there would be a travel agency layout and decor to the office. There wasn't. We walked into a lobby that seemed comfortable enough, The receptionist greeted us and gave us a form to fill out. The form, in addition to the basic questions about name, address, occupation, income, etc. also asked questions about where we vacation, who we go with, where we go, what we like to do, and the ever ominous question about whether we have been forced to sit through been to a time share presentation. That, to me, was a dead giveaway what we were being pulled into but we drove 40 miles so we figured we'd see what they had to offer.

The woman assigned to our appointment came out to get us and walked us down a long hallway plastered from ceiling to floor on both sides with Polaroid pictures of people holding beach balls and smiling. She said it was their "Wall of Success" or something and she seemed highly confident that our picture would be on that wall shortly. I wasn't so sure, but I kept that to myself. She took us back to a large room with inflatable beach balls all over the place and many tables with presentation folders on them. The outside of the room was lined with offices. It was just like cubeville but without the cubicles. The beach balls were a nice touch, and I should have taken some with me. They might liven up cubeville where I work.

When we sat down at the table she explained what we already knew, to get our free vacation we just had to give her 20 minutes. Then she took the presentation folder and launched into the presentation. I was once in a multi-level marketing organization, and although I never did very well, I was highly trained in the "sales and marketing plan", which I was once able to do on a bar napkin. I was pretty good at it, actually. I recognize aspects of that method in situations like this one, and to be honest it really destroys any sense of legitimacy for me. She went through the pages in the presentation folder, and she also had a printed page with numbers and slogans on it that she kept circling and writing on, just like the sales and marketing plan form I once used.

Here is the gist of the presentation for any who are interested. It actually doesn't sound like a bad idea, and I'll explain our thinking and what we did in a little bit. OK, you probably take vacations once in a while. What this place, Sundance Vacations does, is buy vacations wholesale. They don't advertise, and they pass the savings along to their members (that's the claim). You buy all of your vacations at once, sort of like the difference between, say, paying $3 a beer at a bar versus buying a case for $14.99. (They used soda in their presentation). You get 8 days of vacation a year in a nice vacation condo in locations all over the world, from the Jersey Shore (great place, really) to Las Vegas to the Caribbean. You make a call to them and pay $99 for them to book your vacation. As best as we were able to reconstruct the details in the car on our way home, it sounded like you had to pay airfare but they got you the best rate possible. You also had to pay for the condo, but it was much cheaper than if you went to the destination retail. They had a peak season cap. Also, somehow the plan was completely protected against inflation. If you buy now, in 20 years you'll still pay the same price. I should have asked how they did that and what would happen if the economy tanked so badly that it would take $48 to get one Euro, but I didn't. I honestly didn't expect her to have an answer to that worst case scenario. This plan, which is as best I recall because they didn't exactly offer to let us take any materials home, cost *only* $15,000. You just have to put down $2400 and finance the rest for several years at 16 3/4% interest. I laughed at that. Seriously, if I really wanted to finance $15,000 I can get a much better interest rate than that.

Of course, that wasn't all. For that day only, they had a really special package with 5 more vacations at a lower cost plus a few bonuses for $12,000. That required putting down less money. We told her it would be nice if we could have time to think about it. I've made some really stupid decisions over the years because companies like this force you to make a decision on the spot, so by this point in my life I refuse to do it. To my thinking, instant decision = scam. If they're really afraid of losing a sale because they gave me time to think about it, and of course do some research on the Internet, then it cannot be legitimate and I will walk away. Of course, I'm not equating illegitimate with illegal. I'm sure this is perfectly legal, but I don't consider it a legitimate place to put my money if I have to decide right now. Even in the multi-level marketing system I did, we would send people home with materials and tapes (which really told them nothing) and give them 48 hours to think about what they heard.

By this point, the woman had finished her presentation and we politely declined, but of course they can't just let you walk away, so the heavy artillery or "bad cop" is brought in. She said she had to get her manager just to make sure that she did a good job and answered all of our questions. Now, of course the first person you deal with will be very pleasant, but there is a second tier of salesmanship. She brought back a man in a pin-stripe suit who seemed very authoritative and imposing. When I was younger, I might have folded under his pressure, but at the ripe age of 33 I've seen enough that I wasn't intimidated by his act, nor was I impressed. He went through the formalities of asking how our presenter did, and of course we said she did fine. Then he asked if they could give us another package that would be more to our liking, but of course, this package was only good for today. We said we would probably be interested but of course would like to have some time to talk it over and think about it. We also explained that we are about to undertake a massive home renovation project and we've barely even started getting the details together, so we really need to keep our budget clear and our savings up. We remained pleasant. Finally, the man stood up and said "I'm sorry we couldn't help you", like he was disappointed in us. It was at that point that I realized there was no way we would consider any offer from them, because somehow he made the deal seem much more personal in a not so nice way with that statement and tone of voice. I actually think it's the other way around; we're sorry we couldn't help them.

Finally, we were ushered into another office to pick up our free vacation. The woman in there was much less pleasant than the receptionist or our presenter. She seemed cold. She took out another plan page and drew out a package that was still less and offered it to us. Of course, like all of the others, this was good only for today (Friday, actually).

I'd like to call at this point what we referred to in the Navy as a Training Time Out. I can't help but wonder, and my wit wasn't working fast enough Friday night to think of this until we were in the car on the way home, what their reaction would have been if I'd asked them "We originally had an appointment for tomorrow, but changed to tonight. What '1 day only' offers would you have given us tomorrow? What '1 day only' offers did you give to people yesterday? What's on tap for Monday?" I actually love these high pressure sales tactics with their "1 day only" special offers. Think about this in the grand scheme of things. In all of history, there is only one day on the entire timeline during which you could possibly expect to get a special deal on a wholesale vacation package from Sundance Vacations, which has been in business since 1992 (1996 according to the BBB), has seven offices, and the office in King of Prussia seems equipped to handle many presentations at once. Never mind that you're about to sell one house and build on another, no, you have to get that vacation package today or you'll be staying at a Motel 6 for the rest of your life and your children will go on Oprah and tell the world what a horrible parent you were for missing that one day in time that could have changed all of your lives for the better! You family will be disgraced for generations to come! Think about it, anyway. Secure from Training Time Out (that means return to our regularly scheduled blog entry).

We politely told the woman that again, we would consider the deal if they would only give us time to think and talk about it. Sadly, this final offer was only good for Friday night. It will never be offered to anybody again, apparently. I still wonder what they would have told us had we kept our original 11 AM appointment Saturday morning. We were asked to sign a paper saying that we received the vacation. We were then ushered out of the building to our car. When we got there at 2015 (8:15 PM) we were the only people in the lobby. When we left at 2038 (8:38 PM), the lobby was utterly packed. I asked my wife how many of those people would be pressured into that deal and regret it later.

On the way home we talked about it, and we both believe that we did the right thing. Can you really plan out your next 30 years of vacations? What happens if one of you gets sick, or something happens to a family member? What if I lost my job, or the economy tanked, or something? What if I actually managed to succeed as an independent IT consultant and didn't have time for a vacation? Heck, we don't really take vacations anyway. I do manage to eat up several weeks of vacation a year, but most of that is for home improvement or taking care of the kids when my wife is sick or when I'm waiting for Window Wizards to show up for a service call. I can't remember the last time I actually used my vacation balance to take a vacation.

Now that I've laid out the story as best as I recall, I'll give you some tips on how to survive a high pressure sales environment.

Be Pleasant and polite

You have nothing to gain by growing impatient. Keep yourself calm and be polite. In these situations, I would love to grab these people by the collar and tell them "It's because of people like you that I have to spend an hour every year sitting through ethics training". That would get me nowhere, and I'd probably have yet another yearly training session to sit through. Be kind.

A Better Business Bureau Award Doesn't Mean No Scam

During the presentation, our presenter made a big deal out of how many awards Sundance Vacations has from the BBB. To be honest, a BBB rating doesn't mean a good value to you, the consumer. Don't forget, the BBB represents Businesses, not consumers. They do attempt to enforce certain ethical standards, but businesses can maintain those ethical standards while providing no real value to their intended customers. Check out Sundance Vacation's page on the Rip-off Report, a service of the Bad Business Bureau. According to Wikipedia, Sundance Vacations has BBB complaints against all of it's offices. While I was still in the Navy, I went through a phase where I was getting constant calls claiming I had won sweepstakes and lotteries all over the world. Of course, I woudh have had to pay to get the funds released. Most of the phone calls came from businesses claiming to have high ratings and many awards from the BBB. Once again, a BBB rating and awards really don't mean that you won't get ripped off. Actually, I have stopped trusting any business which works like Sundance Vacations and makes a big deal out of their BBB affiliation. I consider it one thing to stop into a mom and pop restaurant to get a cheese steak and see a BBB plaque on the wall and another thing entirely to sit through a sales pitch for a product that I wasn't even looking for that tries to use a BBB award to gain my confidence.

You are under no obligation

No matter how you find yourself brought into these situations, you have no obligation to anybody but yourself and your family and your existing creditors. Even if you win something, or they feed you, they still cannot legally obligate you to buy into their program. They'll try to tell you "It's only $90 a month", but I know we've had quite a few months in our lives where $90 in the budget would have made a huge difference. My wife and I try to keep our outgoing cash flow to a minimum, barring of course the mortgage payment and utilities and an occasional credit card. When we do finance things, we try to buy on a "12 months no interest" deal, which Lowe's runs several times a year. We bought a stove and refrigerator one year and paid them off over the next 12 months with no interest. We bought our Sleep Number bed on a 16 month no interest deal and paid it off with our tax refund. When we absolutely must finance a car, we spend time researching our needs and we find a used car that meets those needs that we can finance for $200 a month or less. Financing can be a useful tool, but don't turn it into a slave driver for yourself and your family no matter how good the deal sounds at the moment.

Why can't you think about it or take some literature home?

I immediately grow suspicious when I have to make a decision on the spot involving my budget and financial future. It took me a long time to learn that my wife hates it when I try to get her to tell me her opinion in front of a salesperson, and that's gotten us in trouble in the past. My wife would rather let me browbeat her into agreement then be mad at me for the next few weeks than publicly discuss this kind of deal in front of a salesperson. I've learned that in order for us to make a good decision, we have to get away and do it in private. This also allows us to play our own game of "good cop, bad cop" for the salespeople. When they look at me and say "Can't you come up with $2400 tonight?" I say "I don't know. My wife handles the budget. All I know is when I stick my Check Card in the gas pump, gas comes out."

All that aside, ask yourself what they could be so afraid of if they give you the chance to walk away and think about their program. I don't know much about the psychology of sales tactics, but I do know that they lay heavy on the emotions and keep away from the rationalizations. When I used to present that sales and marketing plan, I was trained to focus on emotions. I had to get people to think that their lives were incredibly boring and routine and I what I was offering was wealth and excitement and adventure. The people who come up with these sales tactics probably know that most men are likely to make a rash decision and most women aren't comfortable standing up and saying "What do you think you're doing? We can't afford this!" in front of a salesperson. If they're so afraid to let you go home and think about it and research it, what is it that they're worried about you'll find?

Keep it in perspective

Seriously, is this really that life altering decision that you have to make on the spot or your kids will hate you? Really, if you don't buy this vacation package tonight, because you'll never, ever see it again, what is the impact on your life? Does it really matter? Will you kick yourself in the butt later if you don't do it? Most people I know who have bought into these things come to regret them later anyway. When my wife had preeclampsia and the doctors needed a decision that moment to perform a C-section, that is what I consider a life altering decision that must be done on the spot with lives hanging in the balance and the possibility of lasting ramifications for all of us. On the last day of my mom's life, when the hospice nurse wanted to transport her to a respite care facility even though there was a high probability she wouldn't survive the trip, that was a life altering decision which had to be made on the spot and may have been regretted for the rest of our lives. This is only a vacation package, and it really won't matter in the grand scheme of things. Trust me, another company, if not the same one, will call you later. Programs like this will always be around.
And of course, for all I know, it's a perfectly legitimate program and our lives could have been greatly enhanced by participating in it. Too bad they wouldn't let us think about it overnight.

Note: I originally wrote this entry with the wrong name. Somehow I remembered this place as Paradise Vacations, when in fact it is Sundance Vacations.

UPDATE (29 Mar 2012): I wrote this post 7 years ago. Of close to 1000 blog posts I've written, this one has generated the most traffic of all. At the time I wrote it, hardly any information was available on Sundance Vacations. Today, there are stories on the news and class action lawsuits. There is also a Facebook group dedicated to spreading the word about Sundance Vacations.It's also linked in the comments, but every time I update my template, Disqus gets flaky.

Reading through this blog post after five years, I can't say I'd change anything. OK, I'd take out a few "honestly"s and "actually"s, since I try to avoid them now. I've had a few people contact me to say thanks. If this blog post has been helpful to you, I'm glad.

Life experience has taught me I made the right decision. I've met people who have bought into programs like Sundance Vacations and regretted it. I have yet to meet a person who doesn't regret it. I'm not saying they don't exist; just that I haven't met one. In contrast, I do not regret my decision to walk away from the sales pitch.

UPDATE (19 Jan 2013): I've been asked several times both through comments and email if we ever took the "free" vacation. We did not. We got the feeling that it wasn't truly free. We figured they'd find a way to add a bunch of fees onto it and/or make us sit through another sales pitch. Note that I have no way of verifying any of those "feelings". We simply didn't want to find out.

UPDATE (06 May 2013): A comment below provided the following video for our enjoyment. For those researching Sundance Vacations, hopefully it will give you a glimpse of what you're in for. For those who walked away or got out of a contract, hopefully it will give you a laugh. Remember: THE MATH DOESN'T LIE! MATH IS YOUR FRIEND!





And for the record, it's been more than 6 years since I walked away from Sundance Vacations without signing a contract. I have NEVER regretted my decision. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize for once in my life, I actually did the right thing. It's probably one of the smartest things I've ever done. And that's considering that I bought a timeshare in 2008, about a year after this visit to Sundance Vacations and this blog post.

If I were to write this blog post again, after 6 years, the only thing I would change is "kids" to "children". A kid is a goat. A child is a human that is to be raised into a man or woman. Other than that, I can hardly believe I did a decent job of writing this 6 years ago.


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