I am a Marriott owner who just received an e-mail about a new program called Pulse, which will enable me to start using Destination Points to stay in major cities. What's this program all about and how does it work? Do I have to buy more points to participate?
To answer this question, RedWeek contacted travel professionals, industry leaders, Marriott executives and other timeshare companies. What we discovered is this: the entire industry is setting up shop in urban hotspots (or looking at doing so) to attract new buyers and offer additional travel options to longtime owners. The big-brand developers are also hoping to introduce the benefits of timeshare vacations to a large group of urbanites who have traditionally shunned timeshares. Here's our report.
Bright lights and big cities beckon timeshare owners as developers set sights on new markets in major metropolitan areas
Marriott Vacation Club, generally viewed as a forward-looking company that continuously tweaks travel programs, recently announced a brand new program called Pulse (an unfortunate choice, in light of events that followed), that opens up Marriott timeshare travel to five big cities. Following the lead of Wyndham and Hilton, companies that already have urban properties, Marriott thinks the future of timeshare includes a lot of gritty subway rides, famous museums, sidewalk pizzas, a walk to the White House and the sights and sounds of the inner city. That's a big leap from the industry's traditional portrayal of timeshare, where families frolic in the ocean at world-class beaches, visit Disney World, ski effortlessly in Vail and Lake Tahoe, or play golf at desert resorts in Arizona and California. Traditional timeshare, in fact, was designed to help people vacation when they got OUT of the city.
Now, companies like Marriott, Wyndham and Hilton are flipping the script, in part to expand vacation options to existing owners, but also to appeal to Millennial travelers who are attracted to the rough-and-tumble, bright lights authenticity of big cities (and who are also disinterested in traditional timeshares). To be sure, timeshare owners can see a Broadway play using intervals or exchanges in Las Vegas and Branson, MO., but there's really no substitute for seeing one in the Big Apple.
Manhattan is prime destination in program that also offers timeshare travel to "pulse" properties in Boston, Washington, D.C., South Beach and San Diego
Manhattan may become the top choice for Pulse participants, but the other four Pulse properties, in Boston, Washington, D.C., South Beach and San Diego, have their own historic, walk-around-town appeal that will attract families, eventually (when they get tired of all those beach-and-golf vacations).
That's the idea behind Pulse, which was introduced on April 27 to a fair amount of positive timeshare media coverage. It generated a lot of buzz a week later at ARDA World, the annual developers' convention hosted in Florida by the American Resort Development Association. Marriott Vacation Worldwide CEO Stephen Weisz, who is also chairman of ARDA, sounded like a proud papa when talking about the program.
"New York City has been on our list as a destination for owners to explore for quite some time," Weisz said during the announcement of MVC's purchase of The Strand Hotel, now rebranded as MVC Pulse.
With the exception of San Diego, a new property that opened July 1, the MVC Pulse properties are all renovated hotels where the villas aren't villas --- they are much more like the traditional hotel rooms or small studios without full kitchens that drove families to buy timeshares in the first place. In all cases, the primary "amenity" of a Pulse property is its proximity to the heart of the city, not the hotel. Like all real estate, they are all about location, location, location. Marriott is reworking each property to ensure the overall experience lives up to the generally high brand expectations that MVC has carefully crafted over the years for owners used to luxury villas.
"Because the action is found outside the property --- in the city and the neighborhoods --- the guestrooms and suites are designed for shorter, more active stays," Marriott says on its website.
So Marriott's move represents both forward thinking, plus retrenchment, as it goes head to head with hotel companies, including its former parent, the Marriott hotel chain (which no longer owns MVC), in major metropolitan areas. There are five Pulse properties today, but expect more to follow.
"We're not the first but we're in the forefront" of building urban timeshare portfolios, said Ed Kinney, global vice president of corporate affairs and communications for Marriott Vacations Worldwide. "We looked at what our customers are looking for, as well as ways to attract new customers. Nobody was doing any (expansion) during the downturn, but this is an evolutionary time for the industry. This is a great example of how robust the industry is."
Each Pulse property will have its own sales showroom and city-centric marketing programs to attract potential buyers who live in those cities. In the long run, these new sales centers may prove to be more economical, for Marriott, than offering discount travel packages to travelers to introduce them to timeshares at far-away sites.
Wyndham & Hilton Launched First Urban Timeshares
Marriott's following a path well-traveled by Wyndham and Hilton, who established urban footprints long before the demographics of new timeshare buyers started shifting, as it did in the past few years, toward younger people who like AirBNB accommodations, spontaneous travel, and shorter stays.
Wyndham, the world's largest timeshare chain, offers numerous urban resorts dating back to Old Town Alexandria in 2001 (and now includes sites in Washington, New York, Atlantic City and other cities). Wyndham's "Avenues" program, which launched in 2007, is a direct response to customer demand for shorter stays in big cities and timeshares that are close to home, easy to reach by car. Avenues also complements a points-based system that enables owners to book rooms by the day, if needed, rather than a week at a time. Using this system, no one loses points.
"The entire travel industry is firing on all cylinders to determine what these urban destinations mean, not just for business, but for leisure vacations," said Adam Schwartz, senior vice president of branding and communications for Wyndham. "At the end of the day, you have to give people an enhancement to the product. Our owners told us what they wanted so we could understand the demand for urban locations. We have 18 urban-located resorts, but owners still have demand for more."
While rolling out Avenues, Wyndham discovered a very BIG silver lining: urban timeshares make money. "These locations run the highest occupancy (rates) in our entire system," Schwartz said.
Hilton Grand Vacations Club has two flagship urban properties in Manhattan, known as "West 57th" and "The Hilton Club." They are located a few short blocks from another fancy timeshare, the Manhattan Club (see other RedWeek forums for more about this unusual timeshare). But overall, timeshares are few and far between in the Big Apple, which explains why so many companies are thirsting to raise timeshare flags --- and new sales offices --- in the world's most famous city.
But not all companies are stalking urban sites. Disney Vacation Club, for example, is still overwhelmingly focused on theme parks, cruises and, for the most part, Florida. It has 13 Vacation Club Resorts, 10 in Florida and one each in California, Hawaii and South Carolina. None are urban properties. Disney club members, however, can use their points for vacations at Disney theme parks in Southern California, Tokyo and Hong Kong, as well for affiliated hotels in many major cities, including San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
Hyatt Residence Club offers 16 traditional timeshare properties, but none of them are in urban sites. But, thanks to its affiliation with the Hyatt hotel chain, Residence Club members can book reservations at nine Hyatt-owned properties in Manhattan, and dozens surrounding the Big Apple.
The good news: you don't need to buy more points
Perhaps the best part of this program, for Marriott owners, is the fact that they DON'T have to buy more Destination Points to reserve nights at the urban timeshares. They can use the owner-services hotline to reserve stays, just like they do with their existing timeshares. They can also book as many, or as few, nights as they wish, depending on availability and the amount of points required for the per-night stays. Marriott says that the rates will be similar, in point values, to reserving weekly intervals at the non-urban timeshares. But they expect most reservations to be for mini-week stays, not entire weeks. Reservations for all Pulse properties are available now.
The bad news: getting in may be tough, because of high demand
Based on Wyndham's experience, the demand for urban properties is higher than all of its non-urban resorts. That suggests two things. One, it is easy to understand why timeshare companies want to expand their urban networks, since they spell nearly full occupancy and higher revenues. Second, it will take a crafty or lucky owner to secure reservations at the urban sites, particularly in Marriott's case, because they are only starting with five urban properties.
Here are some of the equivalent retail values for Marriott's new Pulse NYC timeshare in Manhattan, formerly known as the Strand. It's a 177-room property whose best rooms offer views of the Empire State Building. A four-night mid-summer stay, Aug. 24-28, in a deluxe 306' ft. king bedroom, runs for $368 or $1,652 for four nights. Parking is $59 per night. No resort fees.
To book the same Empire State Building view unit for Dec. 22-26, the rental is $359 per night or $1,817 for four nights, including Christmas. This is the most expensive, and largest, room available at the MVC hotel. It may even come with a telescope for viewing the Empire State Building, though that's not guaranteed.
Interval International, MVC's preferred exchange partner, has already embraced the program, which suggests (while not promising) that even non-owners will be able to exchange-and-reserve rooms at Marriott's urban properties.
Marriott's Pulse properties include:
- The Custom House in Boston, located in the city's historic downtown and waterfront district. It is also Marriott's first branded metropolitan property, since 1997.
- The infamous Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC, near DuPont Circle and the White House and site of many historic political shenanigans.
- The former Strand in Manhattan.
- A new 264-room property in San Diego near the Gaslamp Quarter.
- And a small, renovated boutique, beachfront property in South Beach, which will open in 2017.
There's only one downside to Pulse, so far, and it has nothing to with the program. Six weeks after MVC launched Pulse, it was swallowed up in the aftermath of the June 12 terrorist shooting at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Marriott's HQ. Don't be surprised if the program gets rebranded.
What do you think - do you have any interest in urban timeshare destinations? Let us know below. For more information, visit Marriott's web site or call owner services at 800-845-4226.