Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I would have been happy with a single pumpkin. But Lori decided to take this year's Halloween decoration one step further:

Ugh. I really need to do something about that mildew on the vinyl siding above the porch.

We also made a monkey out of Kirby this year:

Of course, very few monkeys actually wear Chuck Taylors, but hey...

Anyway, I've always enjoyed the delightful absurdity of Halloween. It's the one night of the year when it is perfectly acceptable for complete and total strangers dressed in costumes to show up on your doorstep and demand that you distribute to them fattening and unhealthy snack foods.

Good stuff. Happy Halloween!

Puerto Vallarta and the timeshare industry

As I noted previously, Lori and I had a great time in Puerto Vallarta last week. We consider PV to be our favorite vacation destination (this was my fourth trip there) for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that PV was an actual city before it became a tourist destination; it is not a place manufactured expressly for tourism like Cancun and so it has a lot of historical charm. For all of its historical authenticity, however, it is clear that Vallarta's economic engine is powered by tourism. Hotels, resorts and condominums line the length of Banderas Bay and new developments are being built all the time. A substantial number of these developments, old and new, are timeshares.

Let me start by making it clear that I am NOT an opponent of timeshares. While the industry doesn't have a great reputation and there are plenty of people who are opposed to the timeshare concept because they think they are scams or bad investments or whatever, we (meaning my parents - who collect timeshares like some people collect stamps - Lori and myself) have used and enjoyed them for years. In fact, the place we stayed while were were in Vallarta was one of my favorite timeshares of all, a small complex in the old town directly facing the beach.

There are a few caveats about timeshares, of course. Most importantly, they should not be considered "investments" like other types of real estate. A timeshare, like a car, is a facility that you use, not a commodity that you save; they lose value, the same way an automobile does, and the chances of anybody recouping their initial purchase price through resale are somewhere between slim and none. For this reason, the best timeshare deals can be found in the secondary (resale) market, and people wishing to purchase a timeshare might consider looking there before sitting through a new timeshare presentation. People looking to sell their property on the secondary market, likewise, need to beware of sleazy resellers: if somebody claims that they can get you more money for your timeshare than what you paid for it, and wants a several-hundred-dollar fee up front to "list" your timeshare, run away. The ability to exchange your timeshare week for another timeshare week somewhere else (through exchange companies like RCI or Interval International, for example) is certainly useful, but getting a location you want during the week you want is never a guarantee and exchange companies do charge fees for their services. Finally, it should always be remembered that, in addition to the initial purchase price, timeshares also require the payment of periodic maintenance fees. These fees are perpetual, and can be substantial.

With all that said, timeshares can be an economical way to vacation - if they are used and understood properly. Unfortunately, the way timeshares are marketed and sold leaves something to be desired. As our experience with Puerto Vallarta's timeshare industry suggests, there's a reason why the timeshare industry has cultivated a less-than-stellar reputation: the developer's need to lure people to their resorts and make a sale comes well ahead of the consumer's need to make an educated purchase.

The first problem is the presence of the ubiquitous "wranglers" who try to get you to go to the timeshare presentations. These guys, of course, are not actual timeshare salespeople; they don't care if you buy or not. They're merely the folks who try to get you to attend the sales pitch by offering you free trips, dinners, goods or even cash - anything to collect the commission that the timeshares pay them for sending tourists their way. They've been a PV fixture for as long as I've been traveling there, of course, and they're by no means confined to Vallarta. But they are now more numerous, more aggressive and more annoying than ever. It is currently impossible to walk down a Puerto Vallarta sidewalk for any appreciable length without being pestered by somebody standing at a storefront or sitting behind an open-air desk trying to get you to go to a timeshare presentation. They try to be friendly, asking you where you're from, welcoming you to Mexico, extending their hand to shake yours, telling you a joke, or asking if you'd like to go on a wonderful boat excursion for free - anything to get you to stop, listen and sign up. It was really rather bothersome and it detracted from our enjoyment of the town; at one point I was looking through the t-shirts at a market stall sincerely wishing that somebody printed one that said "NO QUIERO TIMESHARE!" on it.

They're getting craftier in their lures, as well. In Puerto Vallarta today, there are numerous "tequila shops" where unsuspecting tourists can walk in and sample fine - and pricey - 100% blue agave tequilas. But they're not there to sell you any of these high-end tequilas. They're there to give you a couple of bottles - free! - if you attend a timeshare presentation!

To be sure, the loot one can receive simply by agreeing to attend a timeshare presentation is not inconsequential. Many savvy tourists like to "play the game" by signing up for a presentation with no intention of buying a timeshare simply to get the goodies being offered for attending. The first day we were in Puerto Vallarta, Lori decided to "play the game" in order to snag a couple of free excursions: a zip-line "canopy tour" through the jungle south of town and a boat trip to the Las Caletas beach on the south side of the bay. These tours, together, would have cost us around $300 had we paid for them ourselves. But if the both us sat through a ninety-minute timeshare presentation, they were free. It sounded like a plan.

So, Lori and I were driven up to a sprawling development in the Nuevo Vallarta zone of Nayarit (Puerto Vallarta itself is in Jalisco state, but much of the new development is taking place north of the town in Nayarit state) where a sales representative sat down with us to fill out a questionaire. He then took us to lunch and then on a tour around the complex. It was indeed an impressive development, with well-furnished units, a wonderful view of the bay and numerous amenities that all of us - Kirby especially - could enjoy. A nice part of the arrangement was that, as owners, we would be able to use not only that particular resort, but the multiple other resorts that the development company owned throughout Mexico and Latin America (including one in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which Lori and I want to visit in the near future).

With the tour over, the sales rep asked if we liked what we saw. Even though we still had no intention on making a purchase, we were curious to see what their pricing was like so we humored them by telling him that we did. That led to the actual sales pitch, which closely followed this procedure. We sat at a table, the sales representative who gave us the tour was joined by a sales manager, we were presented with a bunch of slick brochures about the development company and its resorts, and we were finally given some offers, starting with the most expensive package and working down to smaller packages based on the type and size of unit, the number of weeks available for use, and other factors.

Even if I had been interested in buying a timeshare, there were many facts about the sale that I found to be turn-offs. The first was the terms of the sale: a 35% down payment, with the rest of the purchase price financed at a ridiculous 14%. (Not enough money in your bank account for the down payment? No problem! Just apply for this credit card and use it to finance the down payment as well!) There was also a whole list of benefits and incentives - a "First Visitor Incentive" program- that we would get along with the property if we purchased that day. If we declined to purchase that day, however, those benefits would be lost to us forever. Remember those other properties, such as the one in Buenos Aires, that the salesperson said we would have access to if we purchased? Turns out that arrangement was part of the First Visitor Incentive as well. That revelation raised the red "bait and switch" flag in my mind.

In arguing for the long-term value of a timeshare, the sales rep and the sales manager kept referring to the $2,500 that they thought Lori and I annually spent on vacations - a wildly-speculative number based on some estimates we made about our vacationing habits when we were filling out the earlier questionnaire. I felt that this tactic was a bit presumptious. The sales manager's penchant for speaking quickly, writing down confusing bunches of numbers on his legal pad, and mentioning various discounts, promotions and rebates we could use to lower our purchase price raised yet another red flag in my mind. I was not entirely clear where he was getting some of his numbers from, and a few of his suggested ways to lower the purchase price of a given package were a bit too "creative" for my tastes. It seemed more like an Enron accounting scheme and less like a sales pitch for a vacation property.

After Lori and I finally made it clear to them that we were not going to purchase - we explained that our financial situation would not allow it - we were subjected to the inevitable guilt trip. They made sure to mention the fact that they had spent hundreds of dollars on incentives aimed at getting us to attend their presentation, as if that weren't part of their cost of doing business (this, incidentally, is one of the reasons timeshares lose their value so quickly: the considerable costs of marketing the timeshare inflate the initial purchase price) or that we somehow owed them something. They also seemed to imply that, in sitting through their presentation but opting not to buy, we had wasted their precious time.

But even after the sales rep and the sales manager finally let us go, we still were not finished with our ordeal. The next step was to send us to another room to meet a developer's representative, who tried to sell us another vacation package associated with the resort! By now Lori and I were becoming annoyed. We declined, and they eventually relented and sent us to the travel desk to pick up our vouchers for the canopy tour, the beach excursion, and a cash reimbursement for the taxi ride back to town. (In examining the travel vouchers, we also realized that the tour operators provide significant discounts to the timeshare developers, i.e. maybe they're not really spending as much money on you as they claim they are.)

By the time we finally left the resort, we had been there for a solid four hours: considerably longer than the "90 minutes" we were promised when we agreed to attend the presentation. And, while we definitely saved money on our excursions (both the canopy tour and the Las Caletas excursion were very enjoyable), I still can't help but wonder: was it really worth spending four hours of our vacation week sitting through a tedious, high-pressure timeshare presentation?

All in all, it was an interesting experience, and it gave Lori and me an idea of what to watch out for if we do decide to actually buy a timeshare of our own in the future (and, to be honest, we really don't need our own as long we can keep using my parents' weeks for free). But after sitting through the presentation, I can fully understand why a lot of people have a negative impression of the timeshare industry. It's not just because of the hordes of wranglers throughout Puerto Vallarta (and, for that matter, every other Mexican resort) that degrade the quality of one's vacation by incessantly pestering people to attend a presentation. And it's not just because of the factors and tactics, as I've described above, used during the sales pitches themselves. A lot of it has to do with the overall sales philosophy of the timeshare developers: make that sale now.

Much like auto dealerships that subject you to a high-pressure sales pitch for fear that you'll never return if you're allowed to walk off the lot, timeshare developers feel that the only way to make a sale is to pressure you into making a purchase on the spot. They don't want you to think about it for a few days. They don't want you to go home and do your research about the proper use of a timeshare or search the web to see what kind of deal you could get on the secondary market. They don't even want you to know that Mexican law mandates a five-day rescission period wherein you can cancel your purchase. They want to lure tourists off the street (unprepared though they might be), bring them into the development, impress them with an array of sales tactics, and have them walk away with a unit-week that same day. Thus, the free stuff they use to entice you into the presentation, the slick brochures, the tag-team pressure from the sales rep and the sales manager, the "First Visit Incentives" they dangle in front of you, the guilt trip you get if you don't decide to purchase. These developers expect that vacationers will purchase a piece of real property, commit to its long-term use, and shell out an amount of money equal to the price of a decent automobile completely on the basis of impulse. Obviously, a lot of people do it. And just as obviously, a lot of people later come to regret the decision they made.

I understand that it's all about making money. And I still think that timeshares are a good value if they are used properly. But is what Lori and I experienced really the best marketing model that the timeshare industry can come up with?

Once we got back from the presentation, the wrangler that sent us to that resort approached us, asked us if we liked the resort and thanked us for helping him earn a commission. Then he asked if we wanted to go to another timeshare presentation at a different resort later that week.

We said no.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Following up on old news

Lori and I have returned home after an enjoyable, if not short, week in PV; I have a post or two about that trip that I'll write shortly. First, there are a couple of follow-ups to previous posts of mine that I wanted to note:

Last January, I wrote about the unbelievable story of Genarlow Wilson, a young man from Georgia who was sentenced to ten years in prison because he, when he was seventeen years old, received consensual oral sex from a fifteen-year-old schoolmate. I am pleased to discover that, as the result of a ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court, his draconian punishment has been lifted and he has been freed.

In a 4-3 decision, Georgia' high court decided that Wilson's prison sentence - he was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation, and the ten-year sentence was mandatory - constituted cruel and unusual punishment:

"Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children," the court's majority found.

"For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," the majority opinion concluded.

With that ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court - or at least a majority of it - finally injected some sanity into what has been a truly insane debacle. Wilson was offered a plea-bargain that would have kept him out of prison, but he turned it down because he would have had to register as a sex offender and wouldn't have been able to live at home with his nine-year-old sister anymore. The jurors who convicted Wilson were outraged by Wilson's sentence because they were not told until after they rendered their verdict that the ten-year sentence was mandatory. The Georgia State Legislature changed the law under which Wilson was convicted, but did not make it retroactive to apply to his conviction. A Georgia county judge later voided Wilson's conviction, but Georgia's Attorney General appealed the ruling. The case gained international attention and generated considerable outrage.

Now it's over. Genarlow Wilson can move on with his life. He has plans to enter college and study sociology. Perhaps he can pick back up on his plans to play college football as well. "I plan on succeeding in life," he says. Good for him.

As a teenager, Genarlow Wilson exercised poor judgement. (What teenager doesn't?!) And, while Wilson should have been held responsible for his actions, the idea that a kid can be labeled a sex offender, be thrown in prison for ten years, and have his life ruined simply because he was a horny teenager in a room full of other horny teenagers doing what horny teenagers typically do is, in a word, cruel. I'm glad Georgia's high court was able to recognize this and, finally, bring an end to this absurdity.

Back in July, I wrote about the All American Football League, a new professional football league that plans to begin play in the spring of 2008 and hopes to appeal to collegiate, rather than pro, fanbases.

The league has announced a six-team lineup for its inaugural season; each team carries the name of a state, and no team nicknames have as of yet been revealed. Alabama will play in Birmingham's Legion Field, Arkansas will play at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Florida will play most of their games at "The Swamp" in Gainesville, Michigan will play at Ford Field in Detroit, Tennessee will play at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and the Texas team will play right here in Houston at Rice Stadium.

Given the desire of this league to tap into rabid college football fanbases, I was surprised that a Texas team would be located here in Houston instead of in Austin (presumably, this team will wear the same burnt orange color that the Longhorns wear) or even College Station. Houston itself is not exactly a college football hotbed, as attendances for Rice and University of Houston games can attest, but the league appears to be banking on the idea that they can attract the tens of thousands of football-crazy Longhorn alumni who live here in Houston.

I'll probably attend at least a few of these games next spring, not just because I am a college football junkie but also because I am intrigued by the fact that the team will be coached and managed by infamous former University of Houston head coach John Jenkins. Jenkins, who proved his worth as an offensive genius at UH but, unfortunately, not as a defensive mind or a keen recruiter, left the Cougar program under a cloud of controversy in 1993 (allegations against him included charges that he spliced game films with pornography to keep his kids' attention) and wandered through the football world, coaching in both the Arena and Canadian leagues. Most recently, Jenkins served as the head coach of the CFL's short-lived Ottawa Renegades franchise. Now he finds himself back in Houston, bringing his wild offense to a new league that hopes to succeed where other spring football leagues - the USFL, the XFL and the NFL's own World League among them - have failed. Only time will tell if things will be different for the AAFL.

Team Texas expects to begin its season on April 12th. The preliminary schedule can be found here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Greetings from Puerto Vallarta

I´m currently writing from the Casa de la Playa´s single internet-connected computer, trying to get used to this Spanish-layout keyboard. Lori and I safely made our way here Saturday evening, and are enjoying ourselves. It´s going to be weird for both of us to be away from Kirby for an entire week, but we know he´s in good hands with my parents.

Yesterday was rather cloudy and rainy, but today the skies have cleared and the sun is back. We haven´t done much so far except relax, walk around town, eat at a couple of restaurants and attend a timeshare presentation (no, we didn´t buy; more on that when I get back). Tomorrow we´re going on a "canopy tour" where we get to ride on ropes suspended from trees, and Thursday we´re going on a cruise. Otherwise, it´s just eat, drink and relax, the way a vacation should be.

Puerto Vallarta is our favorite Mexican vacation spot. It's got a lot of activities to offer, a lot of historical charm, and a killer view of the sunset.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Light blogging

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. Between work, the start of football season, my parents' return from their two-month-long western journey, my brother-in-law Danny coming to visit for a couple of weeks, and other events, I just haven't had much time to write anything lately. That's probably going to continue to be the case for the rest of the month, as Lori and I are going on vacation the week after next.

The good news is that the impending business trip to Dubai doesn't look like it's going to happen until after Thanksgiving. That takes some stress off of Lori somewhat. It also means that I won't have to miss any football games (except for this weekend's game, which I'm going to have to skip because Lori and Danny's cousin just had to get married on a Saturday during football season...) this time around.

Speaking of football, I do plan to write a halfway-through-the-season analysis sometime next week. But other than that, don't expect a lot of new blog entries from me until November.

Is summer finally over?

The last couple of days have been absolutely beautiful, with clear skies, low humidity, and highs in the mid-80s. Last night it actually felt cool outside.

Fall in Houston usually doesn't begin until mid-October, so it seems to be arriving right on schedule this year. And I couldn't be happier.

Monday, October 01, 2007

What now for the Astros?

The local baseball team's otherwise-forgettable 2007 season ended on a memorable note yesterday, as 43,832 people - the largest crowd in the history of Minute Maid Park - witnessed the Astros defeat the Atlanta Braves 3-0. They were there, of course, to see Craig Biggio play the last game of his 20-year career. Biggio, who notched his 3,060th hit in yesterday's game, has now officially retired.

He, along with Jeff Bagwell, were the face of the Houston Astros for so long that it is going to be hard to think of the Astros without them. But their era is over, and now it's time for owner Drayton McLane, new manager Ed Wade and new general manager Cecil Cooper - the "interim" was removed from his job title a few days ago - to plan for the next era. Coming off a 73-89 season - only their second losing season since 1991 - there's clearly a lot of planning that needs to be done.

For starters, the team has to hit better. The team's .260 season batting average was 12th in the 16-team National League (although it is a tiny improvement over 2006, when their .255 season BA put them at the very bottom of the league). They also need to pitch better; their team ERA of 4.68 was, likewise, 12th in the league. Fixing the team's broken farm system is also a priority. To that end, a flurry of coaching changes were made on Sunday, including the reassignment of director of player personnel and scouting Paul Ricciarini.

In spite of the disappointing season, the Astros did do well in one rather important category: attendance. An average of 37,289 people attended each Astros home game this season, putting the Astros 7th in the NL in attendance and bucking a trend whereby Houston's fickle, fair-weather fanbase usually deserts teams with losing records. Of course, Craig Biggio was the big attraction; people wanted to come out to see the legend play his last season. Next year, Drayton McLane is not going to have this box office advantage.

His team is actually going to have to start winning again.

Biggio finishes his career 20th in major league history in hits (3,060), 12th in runs (1,844) and fifth in doubles (668). Here are some more of his career numbers, if you're interested in that sort of thing. His retirement, unfortunately, also brings to a close a rather unique local blog.