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Timeshare Developers Defy Economic Slowdown

The outlook for the timeshare industry was a decidedly cheery one during the recent Midwest Lodging Investors Summit held at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. It’s no wonder given that several of the speakers at a session titled “How to Develop a Successful Vacation Ownership Project” were leading executives at chains that are erecting new developments this year at an impressive pace.

“The panel was very upbeat. Everybody was feeling quite good about industry conditions,” observed Peter Giamalva, president and managing director of consultancy NorthCourse Leisure Real Estate Solutions Inc., who was one of the invited speakers. NorthCourse is a division of Wyndham Worldwide based in Parsippany, N.J., whose Wyndham Vacation Ownership division is reputed to be the largest of the national timeshare developers.

Giamalva conceded that some timeshare companies are watching the credit markets with growing unease, but he pointed out that “so far there has been no real uptick in credit problems. Many of the developers provide their own financing to their timeshare buyers, and so they’re not immediately affected when banks cut back on their lending.”

NorthCourse, which provides feasibility studies to developer clients, conducted a study that showed the timeshare industry has grown every year in the past three decades except for 2001. Giamalva doesn’t expect that upward trajectory to reverse itself anytime soon, even if the current economic slump sinks further.

“From the 1970s on, timeshares have shown a unique capacity to keep growing. We’re recession-resilient, not recession-proof,” he said. “Only a small fraction of American homeowners at this point own timeshares. So the sky is the limit. This remains a very vibrant industry.”

That notion was seconded by another speaker, Howard Nusbaum, president of the trade group American Resort Development Association in Washington, D.C. Nusbaum observes a growing dominance of big national lodging brands in the timeshare sector, with Marriott and Wyndham together representing more than one-third of the industry’s $10.6 billion in revenues in 2007. But smaller independents are still a factor, too; there are 1,650 resorts overall in the U.S. currently, and nearly 100 developers.

And yet the small players face a big challenge as raw land and construction materials soar in price. In the 1970s, when the industry was young and land was plentiful and Marriott was still concentrated solely on hotels, independents were able to mount projects with minimal financing. Not anymore. “The ability of an undercapitalized developer to do a project today is virtually nil,” Nusbaum said. “The business now is very capital intensive. You need deep pockets to compete.”

A broad perspective helps, too. The era when timeshare development was largely confined to Florida and the Southeast has long since passed. Franz Hanning, president and CEO of Wyndham Vacation Ownership Inc. who was a speaker in Chicago, presides over a mushrooming empire of 17,000 units spread among 145 resorts. Last year the company added 1,500 units in 13 new properties to its portfolio.

Wyndham put up its first timeshare resort in Honolulu, followed by another in an emerging Wisconsin market, the Wisconsin Dells, the nation’s water park capital. Wyndham also opened a development in Yellowstone Park, its first in the state of Montana.

These diverse destinations have helped fuel Wyndham’s growth, the company believes. Timeshare owners freely exchange their shares each year to vacation in Wyndham properties in various far-flung markets. “A couple can go to the beach with the entire family for a week or just the two of them can visit an urban timeshare in a city like San Francisco for a weekend,” said Alan Litwack, executive vice president of development and acquisitions for Wyndham. “We try to have something for everyone, and we have pricing to match all needs. That kind of flexibility is what helps keep us growing.”

Years ago the timeshare industry was notably undisciplined, but Giamalva at NorthCourse and other consultants are bringing some order to the development process. NorthCourse is persuading growing numbers of developers to share information on absorption rates and price points and other key metrics. That’s helped planners and architects to more closely judge the location, unit sizes and prices for new projects they’re engaged in.

Still, demand is difficult to assess, Giamalva admits. Timeshare developments rarely fail. “But in the end, every developer makes an independent decision whether their product will or won’t be successful,” Giamalva concluded.

The three-day Midwest Lodging Investors Summit was sponsored by NREI, Lodging Hospitality and Retail Traffic magazines. The event attracted more than 500 industry professionals, including developers, owners/operators and lenders.

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