Thursday, 9 June 2011

Holiday clubbed?

I’m on holiday as I write this. Away from home for a few days, enjoying the silence of the bush, enhanced only by the sound of kids playing and the occasional cork being removed from a bottle of wine.

But not everyone has such a positive experience on holiday. In fact some holiday ideas can turn out to be nightmares.

We’ve reported several times in the past on various holiday club schemes that have plagued consumers, causing them emotional trauma and significant financial hardship.

Most holiday clubs are effectively mobile timeshare schemes. You buy points that you can later spend on holidays at the locations they offer. Superficially this is a perfectly acceptable concept. There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with a timeshare concept. It’s just a shame that almost always it turns out to be oversold, a con or a scam.

The information timeshare salespeople provide is full of pictures of glamorous locations, sandy beaches and glorious sunsets being watched by happy, beautiful people. It’s very seductive. Very often you’ll meet the salespeople when you’re already on holiday in the place of your dreams, knowing in the back of your mind how expensive it all is. You’ll be sitting there with a fancy cool drink with a little umbrella with your loved one, fantasising about spending more time in such a beautiful place. That’s then the creepy salesman creeps out from beneath his creepy rock.

How would you like to come here more often he’ll ask? All you need do is sign up for our scheme and pay a simple annual fee you can choose from a range of beautiful places like this and come as often as you choose. After another of those fancy drinks you’re in a presentation surrounded by other happy smiling people who all want a bit of the holiday action as well. Before you know it you’ve signed on the dotted line and they’ve got you.

That’s when the victims often begin to realise that they’ve been suckered.

Where to start?

To begin with these holiday club schemes are based on a false premise. They’re not a cheap way of taking a holiday. When we’ve actually looked at the details we’ve almost always found that they’re no cheaper than going to your friendly local travel agents and asking what last-minute specials they have on offer. You’d be surprised at the bargains they’ll offer at the last minute. They’re certainly cheaper than the financial commitment demanded by holiday clubs.

Even the initial sales job is often deceptive. I’ve heard of cases when everyone else in that presentation was in the pay of the timeshare scheme, just there to help catch one victim. They certainly make enough money to pay everyone some commission.

Even the holidays they actually offer you are disappointing. Very often the locations you want aren’t available at the times you need. Public and school holidays are either not available, require you to spend more points than other times of the year or they’re simply booked way ahead of schedule by other people. There was a case in the USA that finally reached the courts some years ago when it emerged that all the prime slots in the calendar were reserved as bonuses for the sales team. The victims, sorry, members never stood a chance of getting them.

Then there are the contracts you sign with these schemes. A few years ago we received a series of silly legal threats from The Holiday Club promising us legal action when we reported on their “irrevocable” contracts. These contracts, the victims were told, were for life. There was no way to cancel them, not once a 5-day “cooling off” period had expired. Of course a 5-day opportunity to change your mind is next to useless. That 5-day period almost certainly expires before you get home and let reality sink in. I saw one contract that required any change of mind to be submitted, in writing, to an address in KwaZulu Natal within the 5-day period. Effectively the cooling off period was impossible to use.

Even when customers wanted to cancel their membership at a later date and even when they were prepared to waive the membership fees they had paid, all the annual fees and the points they earned, they were told they could only cancel the contract with the permission of the Club. Needless to say this permission was remarkably slow to arrive.

Of course the threats we received came to nothing because we’d only reported the facts. Yet again bullying tactics didn’t work.

Since then we’ve reported on a variety of similar schemes but the problems were often the same. Just last week we heard from a reader who had a problem with a company called Holiday Access. It began with problem actually paying them but when things became so complicated and he decided to cancel his membership he was apparently told that he’d signed a 3-year contract and there was no way to cancel it. He was warned that if he stopped paying they’d set their lawyers on him. This is despite him having had absolutely no benefit from the scheme since he joined.

I think it’s simple. The benefits of these clubs are either non-existent or marginal. The contractual conditions are often incredibly one-sided and exploitative. The costs are often excessive. Why would you want to burden yourself with such an obligation?

If you want a decent holiday I think the last thing you want is a holiday timeshare scheme.

This week’s stars
  • Korabo at Orange at the Bus Rank in Gaborone who our reader says is a “shining star who went above and beyond the call of duty to keep me as a customer”.

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