In 1989 on my first day of work as membership director at the American Resort Development Association ARDA (then called ARRDA for the inclusion of the word, residential), my boss, Cynthia Huheey, and then-president Tom Franks began to explain “timeshare” to me. It was a business about which I was unfamiliar and, in fact, what little I had heard was not very positive. Over the next few years ARDA and its volunteer officers and board of directors faced down challenges: There were a number of crooked marketers selling ‘vaporware,’ plus one of the biggest scandals occurred in California when a company called Glen Ivy sold the same inventory to multiple customers.
For the most part it was an energy-charged, positive period encouraging creativity among entrepreneurial developers, marketers and exchange companies. Marketers were in their element: sending direct mail, opening off-premises sales booths in high-traffic tourist areas and employing contests to gather names and phone numbers. And of course there were those who sought to hoodwink the crowd. It was the Wild West and ARDA served as posse for the straight-shooters by denying membership to unethical players.
With limited consumer protection in place at the time, Tom, Cynthia and our highly respected legislative affairs person Stephany Madsen helped lobby larger developers and marketers to self-police the industry to shut down miscreants. As I remember it, ARDA did it all with a team of less than ten people. We each did the work of two or three. (Today, ARDA has approximately 30 employees.)
A tribute to ARDA’s success was the entrance into the market by publicly-held hoteliers including Disney, Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt and with them, the decade of consolidation. The new millennium witnessed the growth of large companies becoming public and performing asset-backed securitizations. These larger developers provided a clearer field of play for smaller, independent developers and with them, brought greater security for a handful of specialty lenders. Interestingly, the recent recession separated the wheat from the chaff, both among developers and lenders. Resort operators with sound marketing practices who set higher credit score standards and their lenders were the victors.
These days ARDA continues to face down threats, most of them in the form of governmental groups looking to double-tax timeshare owners. Typically, owners hold an interest in real estate that is often held in a trust in exchange for vacation points, which can be put to use for greater flexibility when they don’t wish to visit their “home resort.” One of ARDA’s never failing duties is to explain to bureaucrats that owners pay property taxes and should therefore be exempt from transit occupancy taxes charged to hotel guests.
When I left ARDA’s employ in 1992, there were approximately 800 corporate members – just about the same number as today. The majority – approximately 80 percent – of ARDA’s corporate members are suppliers and vendors if one includes resale, exchange and management companies in addition to those who provide everything from finance, marketing and legal services to mattresses and outdoor furniture. In essence the value ARDA provides to its members comes from participation in the annual spring convention and the fall conference. Attendees come to discuss deals, find new business or, simply, to remind one another they are still viable.
Amazingly, the ARDA events continue to witness the nascence of creative new ideas, such as new pay-for-service arrangements whereby established developers provide sales and marketing services for resorts no longer in development. If you could time-travel to past ARDA conventions, the attire of the attendees would indicate where you were on the timeline: Gold chains and white bucks signified the late 80s/early 90s’ mavericks; three-piece designer suits befitted the heyday of the late 90s until shortly before the recession. These days, ‘resort casual’ signifies a more self-assured, confident group intent on making sound business decisions, rather than an impression.
With the economic crisis now in the rear-view mirror, today’s attendees most likely will continue with a no-nonsense approach by bringing thoughtful, inventive ideas that innovate new ways to promote the vacation lifestyle. It would be unfair not to mention the ARDA team’s innate sense of dedication to improving the lives of their members and member resorts’ customers. There are more than 2,000 trade associations operating in the Washington, DC area. It’s doubtful that many of them share this level of commitment.