THE TIMESHARE INDUSTRY has seen a tremendous amount of change in the past decade, with rapidly evolving technology and generational shifts in prospective buyers and owners. Resorts that want to stay on top make it a priority to put energy and resources into innovation across the board, from adapting to and incorporating new technology to coming up with new and exciting experiences and décor to updating and upgrading their sales centers and the training of the sales team.
We invited an experienced panel of industry experts to talk about how they innovate and where, and why it has been important. Here, Ira Kristol, chief innovation officer at Welk Resort Group; Maria Ruiz-Hays, senior vice president, sales development, recruiting, and training at Wyndham Destinations; and Jorge Herrera, managing director, Unlimited Vacation Club by AMResorts, discuss the challenges and changes they have faced and what successes they’ve achieved.
V: What has your company or brand done to innovate in the vacation ownership industry over the past five years?
IK: We’ve applied a focus on enhancing the on-site experience for our owners and guests. We hired a chief fun officer, who developed our award-winning Inspired for You program, offering unique activities for all ages. From a state-of-the-art 6,000-square-foot fitness center in San Diego with a rock-climbing wall to the infinity edge pool overlooking the Sea of Cortez in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, our resorts provide first-class signature amenities to our owners and guests. Additionally, we created Experiences by Welk, our discount- and reward-travel website; the Experiences Collection, Welk-owned inventory added to the Welk Resorts Platinum Program; and Auditions, our short-term-lease membership product.
MRH: Wyndham Destinations and the brands that make up our company have long been at the forefront of innovation in the vacation ownership industry—from creating points-based ownership to our Ovation exit program, a safe and free program for qualified owners to sell or deed back their timeshare. We’ve created emotional and interactive experiences at our sales centers, and this year we updated the content with our new Wyndham Destinations branding and are using new flexible technology for the presenters so they provide a more personalized experience. Another innovation is the Personal Interval Choice Program, which provides RCI members the opportunity to enroll qualified non-Wyndham timeshare weeks affiliated with RCI and make them a part of the Club Wyndham Plus program. This program helps provide RCI members with another way to experience the Club Wyndham resorts. We are also reinventing our physical and virtual spaces to deliver a customer journey that drives guest engagement.
JH: AMResorts created an all-inclusive loyalty-club template with Unlimited Vacation Club (UVC). Where most clubs are limited to one or two resorts in the same resort destination, UVC now offers its members more than 50 resorts in 23 destinations located in six countries. Our innovation, unique in the vacation-club industry, is to offer UVC members seven distinct vacation experiences at AMResorts properties when using their membership. They can choose not just a family-friendly or adult-only vacation experience but also what type [of activities and atmosphere they’d like]. Members can choose to stay in any of seven brands: Zoëtry Wellness & Spa Resorts, Secrets Resorts & Spas, Breathless Resorts & Spas, Dreams Resorts & Spas, Now Resorts & Spas, Reflect Resorts & Spas, and Sunscape Resorts & Spas.
V: What has changed the most about resort experiences, guest experiences, technology, and sales in the past 5 to 10 years?
JH: In our segment, the luxury all-inclusive space, the growth in number of those seeking a true luxury experience has been the biggest change. When AMResorts started, the all-inclusive model was a lower-quality experience, and AMResorts raised the bar on the level of service and product that could be delivered to guests. Over the past several years, the demand from guests looking at all-inclusive resorts for gourmet food, cutting-edge entertainment, premium cocktails, and elevated service levels has been increasing.
MRH: The world of vacation owner-ship has shifted. [As we increasingly] balance an aging, traditional owner base with an emerging digital-savvy consumer, we [can see] our business has crossed an inflection point. We’re continuing to evolve how we approach sales. This type of owner presentation has evolved to become more engaging and more inclusive. The owners really appreciate the opportunity to talk about their ownership and share their experiences with one another. We try to make it fun and informative so that they feel like their time is well spent and they’ve learned something. Over time, we’re going to create customer-experience centers that will help keep people in their vacation mind-set while they’re visiting with us. We want to make the sales experience an extension of people’s vacations.
V: How have you innovated when it comes to technology?
JH: At each hotel, AMResorts offers UVC members state-of-the-art technology with its own Unlimited Connectivity app. This unique app can be downloaded to the members’ tablets, smartphones, or computers and give them Wi-Fi access throughout the hotel for the duration of their stay. In recent years, technology is increasingly focused on enhancing the guest experience. The Unlimited Connectivity app allows guests to get all the information they need for their stay, such as restaurant hours and options, activity schedules, and even the ability to make calls via the app. At a growing number of resorts, we have in-room tablets that allow guests to get resort information, order room service, make spa appointments, and control the room temperature and lighting. Behind the scenes, AMResorts is in full swing with developing guest profiles that record guest preferences so that we can elevate their experience with personalized touches throughout their stay.
MRH: In our sales centers, we’ve integrated RCI LiveStream into our telesales team to make that connection more dynamic, which helps people connect online in a way we haven’t done before. Today we have technology on the iPads in the hands of our sales associates that allows them to share 360-degree views of the different resorts while they’re meeting with customers. Prospective owners can really get a virtual view of the resorts while they’re sitting with us.
V: How have you innovated the resort experience?
IK: The Inspired for You program introduced four pillars of experiences. Inspired Studios takes guests deep into emerging technology with dedicated virtual reality rooms, iMovie®* production, spy camp, and drone flight schools. Inspired Adventures takes guests off -property for experiences such as glassblowing or kayaking. Cupcake Wars gets the whole family involved, and Craft Culture invites guests to craft-beer tastings, cultural dinner shows, and home-brewing and cooking classes. We’re passionate about delivering the most fun and unique vacation experiences in the business. Whether it’s flying drones, sleuthing through an escape room, or blowing glass on a south-of-the-border city tour, we’ve created a countless number of seasonally changing events.
JH: Staying ahead of guest trends is something AMResorts was founded on and places an emphasis on today, and guests are interested in unique experiences. Across all of our properties, we innovate with our entertainment and daily activities to provide more-engaging interactive experiences to meet this expectation. At Breathless Resorts & Spas, we introduced experiences like mixology, DJ lessons, day clubs, and fashion shows. While Breathless provides the ability to have a relaxing vacation for anyone who wants that experience, it also provides a lively atmosphere for those looking for a higher level of energy on their vacation. This type of entertainment is also important for the Breathless guests, as we see that they seek vacations where they can share “bragworthy” experiences on social media. Creating spots around the property that are a natural draw for Instagram photos is something that we definitely have a focus on and that we have been successful at. And it is more than just creating a spot on-property; it also is creating a full-on social campaign through which guests can win stays. For instance, at Breathless Riviera Cancún, we have the xCelerate pool with a clear edge facing the ocean. With the resort logo on the glass, we have seen tremendous social sharing at this area, and so we developed the “CoolPool” social contest in which guests can win a stay for posting their picture from that location and tagging us on social media channels.
V: What has been a successful physical change?
JH: The in-room tablets have been a big success. Guests have really responded to the ability to order room service and see resort activities using that tech. Another change that our Breathless resorts implemented was with fun lighting options where guests can light up their room in a variety of different colors to set the mood. Another well-received physical change is our Secrets Box. It started with our Secrets brand—though it’s not exclusive to that brand anymore—and allows for guests to get room service in privacy. The box allows room service to deliver food into a box that guests can access privately at any time. Thus, no need to worry about disturbing the guest’s evening or for them to worry about what they are wearing. For our family brands, we are looking at the composition of our guests and offering more connecting rooms that can be booked in advance.
MRH: We innovated a group-presentation environment in the sales center. The vast majority of our touring guests go through a sales presentation where they participate in a sales program in a larger group setting, and we’ve found that provides a better guest experience. Both owners and nonowners alike enjoy the group- presentation environment, which makes it more fun and interactive. It allows guests to interact with one another and with the presenter in a more casual environment. That’s been a key ingredient to our sales success and to the satisfaction of our guests.
V: What has been a successful strategic change?
IK: One strategic change that Welk has implemented successfully is our outdoor VIP check-in for our tiered owners at our San Diego resort. This reduces the overall traffic in the lobbies while providing the extra benefit of expedited check-in for our valuable owners. Additionally, Experiences by Welk adds more value to the Welk Resorts Platinum Program offerings. Welk owners are provided a full travel platform that offers exclusive discounted rates on hotels, car rentals, and activities. It incorporates a reward component in which the owners earn Welk Reward Credits (WRC) for every purchase and transaction they make on the site, and they can apply the WRC to future transactions on the site, including payments for association dues.
MRH: We’ve evolved sales presentations to respond to the needs of our owners. The owner-update presentations allow owners to share their experiences with one another, to learn from one another, and to grow in their community of owners. The technology allows the presenters to evolve the presentation easily by club, by location, or by region so that owners continue to learn something valuable every time they visit, regard-less of which resort they visit.
V: What do you do to spark innovation and foster ideas from sales or other teams?
MRH: We invest significantly in training. We have 50 trainers in the field working across the business to ensure consistency in programs and practices. All of our sales associates go through two weeks of dedicated training before they ever get in front of a customer, and then there’s an additional 90 days of onboarding with dedicated trainers to help ensure our teams are set up from the beginning to deliver a great customer experience. We’re exploring virtual reality and augmented reality to assess how we can use the technology to be impactful to the sales process.
IK: We have formed a new division within the Welk organizational structure named Strategic Solutions. This division has many responsibilities, but at its core it is responsible for new-product development and strategic initiative planning and deployment. The team focuses on customer and owner experience at each potential touch point and interaction.
JH: Social sharing is a big focus of the company’s marketing and operations partnership. We ask our operations team to “think like marketers” so that every guest becomes a brand ambassador. Every company uses influencers, as do we, but what if every guest shared something? This has the potential to be way more powerful. As a result, we encourage resorts, especially at Breathless, to think about their traditional tasks in a new way. How can we develop stunning cocktails that are so visually appealing that people share them on Instagram? What service elements can be done with flair so that guests share the video on Facebook? Lastly, we continue to test technology apps and on-property signage that encourages sharing of moments of the guest stay. Internationally, Unlimited Vacation Club’s top executives attend and participate in the primary seminars, conventions, and conferences in the ever-evolving vacation-club and hospitality industry so that we are current in the available technology, legal issues, and social media issues that affect our industry. On a corporate level, UVC has developed the U Academy for all employees, not only for training but also to create open forums for discussion of new ideas. Moreover, at each of the 35 sales centers, weekly meetings are held to foster new ideas from within. Some of the best ideas that have lent to the growth of UVC have come from the frontline members of operations, sales, and marketing.
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Image credit: courtesy of Welk Resort Group