Monday, October 01, 2007

The Sales Pitch

Maybe it was because my mind was fried after an intense few days of discussions about staying in California. Maybe it was because I’d been at home all day by myself and was just happy to hear a human voice. Whatever the case, when my cell phone rang and a man said, “Congratulations—you’ve won a trip for two to Las Vegas! All you have to do is come and pick it up, and you’ll just have to listen to a short presentation about vacation condos,” I said, “Great!” (Good thing I didn’t receive an email on this particular day from Nigerian royalty promising a million dollars if I’d only just send my bank account information. What kind of mood was I in??)

“Are you serious?” Andrew said when I called to tell him we’d be heading to a presentation after work.

Overcome by greed and, for some reason, missing my usual critical faculties and skepticism (maybe I’ve already been in California too long), I said, “But it’s a free vacation!” Andrew, because he is loving and forgiving, agreed reluctantly to go.

This is how we found ourselves sitting in a small, crowded room last Thursday evening, with tropical music playing at an unnecessarily loud volume, responding to a saleswoman—our “host”—who asked questions about our vacation habits. It took approximately three seconds to realize we were in for a long, horrible evening. We answered her questions reluctantly, inwardly sighing at the shock that crossed her face as we explained that we’d lived in Spain, had traveled widely, and would love to visit Thailand as a honeymoon. “No one’s ever said Thailand before,” she said. We were, to put it mildly, not the company’s target audience, and this was not the passive hour of watching a promotional video that I’d naively thought it would be. No, we were for much, much more.

“Well, we have a lot of properties in the West,” she said, pointing at a map of the U.S. “There’s a great area in Arizona called the Four Corners—” she studied the map, her finger drifting over the area. “I’m not sure where it would be,” she said.

“I think it’s here,” I said, indicating the four corners.

“No,” she said. “That’s not it.” She indicated the confluence of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, clearly three corners. “It’s here.”

“Ah,” Andrew and I said. We said nothing more, awkwardly avoiding each other’s eye, as she was obviously struggling with her job and was clearly a very nice lady who was simply not the sharpest knife in the drawer. My heart sank. Guilt washed over me. We were her hope for a commission that evening, and she didn’t have a chance in hell of selling us a thing.

We were ushered into another room, where a frighteningly Botoxed, tanned, and peroxided woman delivered a pitch meant to disarm us—“Now who came tonight to get the free gift?”—try to win us over—“All we ask is that you keep an open mind”—and convince us that this was the deal of a lifetime by making some clearly inaccurate vacation-cost calculations that had my newly minted MBA fiancé writhing in his seat. “Now how many of you have stayed at the—the—what is it—Seven Seasons?” she asked. Seven seasons. Winter, spring, summer, fall, and three dismal and endless seasons of sitting in sales presentations because of a very stupid lapse in judgment. The evening yawned ahead of us, dark and foreboding.

After the presentation, we were seated down once again with our “host,” who began a very confusing, very involved sell for the timeshare-type properties, the actual concept of which neither Andrew and I could fully understand. “Now how much do you think an investment like this would cost?” she asked. Andrew and I exchanged glances. We had no idea what we were looking at. “Three hundred thousand dollars,” I said. Her eyes grew wide. “That’s the highest number anyone has ever guessed,” she said in awe. Dramatically, she wrote down the figure: twenty thousand. Of course, today was a deal: eleven thousand, never ever to be offered again.

“That’s crazy!” Andrew said appreciatively. “That’s so low! Can you believe that?” He turned to me, his face open and enthusiastic.

“Um, it’s great,” I said.

“And another great thing is that the company is debt-free,” she said, writing “debt free” on the brochure.

Andrew primped his MBA feathers. “Well, I’m sure that’s not true,” he said. “I’m sure the company has debt. All companies do.”

She looked at him blankly. “We’re debt free.”

“It’s not—” he stopped. “Okay,” he said. Like the four corners, we let it go.

It was time for the hard sell. Our host’s manager came over to explain financing options, offering us a free week of “time” for our honeymoon. “Our interest rate is 17.5%,” he said. “Isn’t that great?”

“Not really,” Andrew said. “That’s really high. I’d like to call my bank and explore some other options.” He looked at me, nodding, assuming my approval.

The pitch droned on. There were options for lower interest, options for lower down payments. “This all sounds really great,” Andrew kept saying, nodding and asking questions. “We could do that. This sounds like something that will really work for us. We love vacations. This is a really great deal.”

“Well,” I said again and again in various forms, “I actually really don’t think we’re interested at this time even though you’ve made us EXTREMELY interested in timeshares. They sound FANTASTIC. Vacationing in condos sounds exactly like what we want. In six months we might really want to go forward with this.” It was becoming very clear that we were never going to get out alive, that we were going to have to buy the timeshare to escape the building. There was no way out—and Andrew seemed more than happy to be swept along.

“I think the whole thing sounds great,” Andrew said, leaning back in his chair, pleased. “This is a really amazing deal. What do you think?”

I looked back at him in horror and confusion, my eyes silently screaming What is wrong with you?? “Shall we start the paperwork?” the man asked. “Or do you two want some time to discuss this privately?”

“Yes,” I said.

The salespeople walked away, and I turned to Andrew. “Are you crazy?” I hissed. “Are you seriously interested in this?? For eleven thousand dollars??”

Andrew smiled, squinting thoughtfully into the distance, then turned to me, quickly dropping his act. “Of course I’m not interested!” he said. “But you got us into this. And I’m going to let you get us out of it.” He patted my hand. “Good luck.”

“I can’t do this alone,” I begged. “I’m trying my hardest. I need help.”

The salespeople returned. “I couldn’t convince her,” Andrew said sadly. “We’ll have to say no for today.”

“Timeshares sound FANTASTIC,” I said. “Really. I really really want one. This sounds so great. Just not tonight.” Please please please let us go, I silently begged.

A tray of champagne flutes adorned with small umbrellas went past our table. “When you buy something tonight, you get champagne,” the man cajoled. Andrew and I looked over to the couple who had agreed—on this random Thursday night, at this nondescript building in suburbia—to fork over eleven thousand dollars with a 17.5% interest rate for a product whose actual description was so vague that it should have been setting off the alarm bells of everyone in the room. The sad truth is that there was simply no possible way this couple could afford this, and I began feeling really, really full of self-loathing for having anything to do with this dark little world at all. “Smile,” someone called, and snapped the couple’s picture.

We didn’t buy a timeshare, obviously. We refused and refused and refused and when finally—finally, and not without a struggle—we were released, with our hateful and dirty Las Vegas trip certificate that I now feel too implicated to even use, I looked at Andrew and whispered, Run.

“Allow me this,” Andrew said when we were in the car, breathing in our freedom with the doors locked. “I get to make fun of you for this until we go on that vacation. And since I don’t think we’ll ever actually see that trip, I can make fun of you for this for the rest of our lives.”

“Agreed,” I said contritely.

It’s been a few days since our brutal sales experience, and it hasn’t yet released its grip. “That’s another reason why we’d hate a timeshare,” we remarked now and then this weekend as we explored L.A., seeing an article about an out-of-the-way place or shuddering at the thought of the vacation-condo lifestyle. Our protests, made only to each other, are more aggressive now than we’d been able to muster for our “hosts”: “We’d have to go only where they have properties! They don’t even have properties in Spain!! Eleven thousand dollars and we haven’t even seen a property—who would do that?” The whole concept seems utterly absurd. And even more clearly so the longer we have to think about it.

We went there (I brought us there) of our own (my) free will, but we feel defensive—and corrupted somehow, man-handled, and a little uneasy about all the hapless souls who can’t see through the “deal of a lifetime” pitch to the high interest, limiting exclusions, and overall ick factor of the whole thing. Eleven thousand dollars—gone in an instant, a looming specter of sure financial difficulty or ruin, because of a sales pitch that wasn’t even any good. I know sales is a job, but it just seems—awful. Strong-arming people into something clearly inappropriate to make a commission.

I know Andrew and I are lucky people. And I have a lingering sadness and unease from seeing so many less lucky people tricked—yes, that’s the right word—into buying something that seems to promise endless perfect vacations, an instant pathway to a better life. All at the low, low interest rate of 17.5%. Just sign here, and hand over your credit card. Your champagne will arrive shortly.

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