Hospitality, one of the hardest-hit industries in the wake of COVID-19, is expected to struggle for some time to come. One emerging bright spot, however, is vacation ownership, according to Nordis clients that include Holiday Inn Vacation Clubs, Diamond Resorts and Bluegreen Vacations.
Ownership automatically confers more loyalty than transient guest stays at hotels and vacation rentals. But the timeshare companies did not depend on that fact to survive the pandemic. Rather, they moved quickly to leverage digital technologies, institute new procedures and communicate early and often with owners.
“The most fundamental thing we’ve learned is that we need to take care of each other. We are all part of a group, team or community and we must rely on each other,” said Kathy Wheeler, vice president of asset management for Diamond Resorts.
As a result, they were ready to safely welcome back owners as COVID-19 restrictions eased.
“Timeshare has historically been the first hospitality sector to come back,” said Steve Pflugner, senior vice president of capital management for Holiday Inn Vacation Clubs. “At this point, there’s pent-up demand. Outside of Orlando and Las Vegas, we are seeing close to what we’d normally see for reservations.”
Interest in new ownership also is surging. “We are seeing an historic high in close rates—27% versus our traditional 17% after people take a timeshare tour,” he said.
There have been some notable changes in preferred destinations and trip timing, however. “Drive-to resorts are doing infinitely better. People are willing to take a longer drive now instead of flying from, say, Philadelphia to Florida,” noted the senior vice-president of a large timeshare operator. “We are also seeing more bookings after the traditional start of school.”
Some traditionally popular markets that depend on theme parks, indoor attractions and air travel, such as Orlando, Las Vegas and Hawaii, aren’t recovering as fast.
Not all owners are able or willing to travel to resorts, so the vacation ownership companies also changed the rules on using points and other requirements to accommodate these times, allowing owners to defer their use for future travel.
“During COVID-19, we respected all decisions made by our owners. If you are comfortable traveling, we are here. We are open. If you’re not, then let’s put together a plan for what your travel future looks like,” said Angela Blevins, senior vice president of club services and customer care at Bluegreen Vacations.
Digital Makes the Difference
Companies relied on existing technology, including Expresso® and ExpressoVote®, to enable remote work for call-center representatives and other non-resort staff, electronic HOA voting and other activities. “We’ve learned that having technology in place and employees trained to use it ensures success,” said Diamond’s Wheeler, vice president of asset management for Diamond Resorts.
One major vacation ownership company has moved to all-virtual HOA annual meetings this year, “Zooming” as many as 400,000 owners at a time. Bluegreen created customized communications to keep owners updated on new processes, such as remote curbside check-in, socially distanced outdoor activities and enhanced cleaning.
“We have been very fortunate to partner with Nordis. Nordis had no interruption in service so it made our lives so much simpler with no interruption in owner statements or other communications since the start of the pandemic,” noted Holiday Inn’s Pflugner.
Some rolled out or expanded new electronic initiatives. Holiday Inn went live with digital contracts around the same time it began reopening resorts this summer. It also launched an augmented website that creates real-time resort and amenity updates. “In Orlando, owners could see which of our four mini-golf courses and x pools were open,” noted Pflugner.
The Future Is Now
Like other businesses, vacation resorts and their owners are adapting to different ways of interacting. “We are all adjusting to the new normal as face-to-face encounters can include face masks, plexiglass shields and rubber gloves,” noted Diamond’s Wheeler.
Other changes clearly improve the owner experience and operational efficiency. Instead of going back to hundreds of people lining up to check in at the same time, curbside check-in “is a clear process win for both resorts and owners,” noted one operator.
Added Pflugner: “I’m very excited about how the business is changing. COVID has just accelerated our digital focus and launching of new products.”
For many resorts, that means they’ve concluded that some pandemic-induced innovations and mindsets are here to stay.
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