Through its extensive research and advocacy efforts, the American Resort Development Association (ARDA) has played a pivotal role in shaping today's timeshare experience, enhancing its flexibility and accessibility while paving the way for a promising future.
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The staples of today’s sharing economy — think Airbnb, Uber, Turo, crowdfunding, and co-working — are often lauded for prioritizing flexibility, convenience, and ease of use. But how does the timeshare industry, widely acknowledged as the “original” sharing economy, stack up?
Timeshare, also known as vacation ownership, has made great strides in all of these areas thanks in large part to the ongoing research and advocacy efforts of the American Resort Development Association (ARDA), a membership organization representing the industry that develops, manages, and services timeshare resorts in the United State, as well as the interests of millions of timeshare owners nationwide.
One of ARDA’s primary roles is to represent the legislative interests of its members and timeshare owners, ensuring regulation strikes a balance between promoting strong consumer protections and effective economic development policy. Essential to ARDA’s local, state, and federal advocacy efforts are the research and insights produced by the ARDA International Foundation (AIF).
SkiftX recently sat down with Jason Gamel, president and CEO of ARDA, to understand how the organization’s research and advocacy efforts provide added support and protection for today’s timeshare owners.
The Evolving Role of Research
“We recognized early on that we needed to use data to tell the story of timeshare,” Gamel said. “Part of the challenge of telling that story is being a hospitality product that is also a real-estate product at its core.”
When ARDA started doing research in the early 1980s, an importance was placed on sizing the industry against other products in the hospitality sector, such as hotels. So, there was a focus on comparing the number of timeshare units to hotel rooms, along with other data points. This was very helpful in growing an understanding for financial analysts, banks, and local legislators, who generally did not have a comprehensive understanding of the product or the players involved. Over the years, as larger brands helped professionalize the sector, ARDA’s research enabled the timeshare industry to expand its story to serve public relations and further advocacy efforts.
Even though the data has evolved from the early days of the industry, data comparing timeshare and hotel occupancy rates has been essential to support the story of timeshare’s resiliency and recovery post-pandemic. For example, according to the most recent AIF State of the Industry Report, average annual timeshare occupancy in 2022 bounced back more quickly than hotel occupancy, at 77.6 percent compared to 62.1 percent total room inventory (TRI) at U.S. hotels.
“Today, ARDA’s research helps our communications team tell a variety of stories that help shape current perceptions about the modern timeshare industry,” Gamel said. “Stories about how owners experience their timeshare, how they vacation, who they are, who they travel with, and how they impact the local economy in travel destinations.”
One of the biggest stories about modern timeshare ownership in recent years has been the generational shift taking place with the owner base. As Skift reported in our annual look ahead at the megatrends that will shape travel in 2023, the average age of today’s timeshare owner is 39, and 57 percent of timeshare owners are Gen Z and millennials.
“This research provides clarity about the type of products and services our timeshare developers need to offer to meet the needs of this changing demographic of owners,” Gamel said. “It all ties back to providing flexibility, convenience, and ease of use, and also the unique experiences that younger travelers want.”
How Research Powers Advocacy
In addition to demographic trends, ARDA also uses data to tell stories about how timeshare supports local economies, making positive contributions that extend beyond the resorts and into surrounding communities. According to AIF, the average spending for a travel party of four is over $2,200, with total off-site consumer spending at around $4.56 billion.
“Owners are traveling, occupancy numbers are high, and they’re spending in local communities,” Gamel said. “It’s clear that timeshare has contributed in a significant way to the travel industry’s recovery.”
This kind of research helps ARDA build case studies to fight on behalf of developers and owners for reform in areas like tax regulation.
“We have extensive data points about how much owners pay in real-estate property taxes,” Gamel said. “They end up paying for local services like schools, even though they don’t use those services the way full-time residents use them.”
If local governments argue that owners don’t pay their fair share of taxes, ARDA can defend owners by pointing to research showing how much they contribute to the local economy.
“Timeshare owners shop at grocery stores, eat out more frequently, and show up regardless of negative conditions, economic or otherwise, because they’ve prepaid for their timeshare,” Gamel said. “We have data points on all of this, and it helps us prioritize proactive education so when the issue comes up, we’re ahead of the game.”
Advocacy: Influencing the Regulatory Landscape
In the early 1990s, ARDA established the Resort Owners’ Coalition (ROC) to harness the voices of timeshare owners and finance political activities to safeguard them from unfair and restrictive regulations. ARDA-ROC’s primary mission is to protect and preserve the vacation ownership experience by representing the interests of timeshare owners at local, state, and federal levels of government.
In recent years, laws designed to keep homeowners from turning their properties into vacation rentals have had an adverse effect on timeshare owners. Regulatory fights about short-term rentals have cropped up in communities like Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where a lack of affordable housing is pushing people who work in the city’s ski resorts and hotels to live an hour or two outside of town.
“Steamboat is going to lengths to make sure people are not buying properties and simply renting them out,” Gamel said. “But timeshare owners can rent out their properties like anyone else does, and prohibitions don’t make a lot of sense if the renter is one of 25 or 50 other owners in a unit. We want to make sure owners are caught up in regulations that say, for example, that they need to register with the city before they can rent their property, which cannot be a primary residence.”
ARDA uses its research and resources to educate lawmakers about the differences between full and fractional ownership so they don’t simply throw timeshare in with every other form of property regulation.
“We’re sold and look like real estate, but we act like hospitality, so timeshare is in a unique position that requires a lot of education,” Gamel said. “We pride ourselves on being part of the development of almost 100 percent of all the timeshare laws in existence, whether drafting them, helping with amendments, or proposing changes.”
Gamel credits regulation for saving the timeshare industry in the 1980s and 1990s, back when the industry was plagued by bad players and needed to be cleaned up.
“Regulations helped weed out the bad players and gave the industry the structure it needed to attract the big hospitality brands to the space,” Gamel said. “You wouldn’t have seen the likes of Marriott, Hilton, Disney, and others get involved in the industry if they didn’t think it was reputable and a smart investment”
Shaping the Timeshare Experience
Over the past decade, with ARDA’s research and advocacy efforts paving the way, these larger hospitality brands have been able to reinvent the timeshare industry, adding point-based products that offer greater flexibility and exclusive experiences that appeal to a new generation of owners.
Even the process of purchasing timeshare products has been updated for this changing demographic, reflecting the fact that over half of today’s timeshare owners are Gen Z or Millennials.
“Purchase documents used to come in a big binder of papers that was a foot thick in some states,” Gamel said. “But younger consumers expect everything in electronic form, so we worked with regulatory agencies to allow for digital delivery of documents.”
It all ties back to enabling greater flexibility, an increasingly important need for all travelers in this age of travel evolution and fragmentation.
For free access to ARDA’s latest research and insights about the vacation ownership industry, click here.
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