Beneath a picnic pavilion on Sunday at Holiday Inn Club Vacations Galveston Seaside Resort, a group of guests enjoyed the cross breeze and blue skies while nibbling on a potluck spread. Laughter bubbled out of the enclosure, but the subject at hand was not funny to anyone present.
These were owners of timeshares for Silverleaf Resorts, the company that previously owned Seaside Resort on the island’s West End and 12 other properties in Texas and beyond.
Since Silverleaf sold to Orange Lake, a Florida-based holding company that also owns the brand Holiday Inn Club Vacations, these owners say they feel they’ve lost benefits they’ve been paying for over decades, and the new company’s response to their complaints has been trying to up-sell them to membership in their brand.
But officials with Orange Lake-Holiday Inn Club Vacations say they haven’t violated any agreements and have done nothing wrong.
Sousanne Stanfa, of The Woodlands, has been coming down to Seaside for many years, enjoying the full benefits of her Silverleaf membership, including Endless Escape, a benefit that allowed timeshare owners to book additional weeks at Silverleaf properties on a space-available basis for no charge above the monthly maintenance fee they paid for their unit.
That benefit, along with others, has gone away, Stanfa said.
“Endless Escape and bonus time benefits we were promised for a lifetime when we purchased our units were something members counted on having after retirement,” Stanfa said. “People on fixed income are now having to pay a fee for any extra time beyond their one week a year, and for many, that makes it unaffordable.”
In January, Orange Lake-Holiday Inn Club Vacations instituted a $25 a night fee for weekday nights for bonus bookings and $75 a night on weekend nights, bringing the cost of a six-day stay up to $250, compared to a previous cost of nothing, except that monthly maintenance fee.
Members argue they’ve paid maintenance fees, many of them for as long as 20 years or more, sinking as much as $60,000 into Silverleaf properties, and now have to pay for the privilege of staying at the units they’ve been paying for all along.
Member Carrie Harper, of Hudson, Illinois, has been a member for 20 years and owned two Silverleaf timeshares until she converted to the plan Orange Lake-Holiday Inn Club Vacations is now trying to sell to all members.
“I transferred the deed of one of my properties to them and paid a fee to become a club member under their points-purchasing system,” Harper said. “Then 12 days later, got a letter saying I’d be charged $25 during the week and $75 on weekends.”
She’s miffed, like the others, in part because she has enjoyed stays that didn’t require cash payment beyond monthly maintenance fees in the past, but also because she feels she was misled by a sales representative in the presentation she sat through before converting her membership, she said.
“That sales person promised me the best of both worlds, his words,” Harper said. “He said I’d get all the Silverleaf benefits plus Holiday Inn Club Vacation points that I could use at any of their properties.”
The part about keeping the Silverleaf benefits she’d been counting on for 20 years turned out not to be true, she said.
Brian Martin, senior manager of public relations for Holiday Inn Club Vacations in Orlando, said the charge for staying at the resort is a legitimate change that doesn’t breach any existing contracts, arguing that the owner of the resort can’t just get rid of bonus time but has the right to change the bonus time structure as needed.
“It was free for a while, but costs were increasing year after year because of usage by a select group of members,” Martin said.
What members are buying into when they convert to Holiday Inn Club Vacations memberships is a trust or a points-based system, not a traditional timeshare, Martin said.
Leah and Cory Froelich, of La Marque, timeshare owners for 21 years with Silverleaf, said that’s not OK with them.
The Froelichs originally purchased a time share in 1998 and were careful to retain the benefits promised in their original contract each time they upgraded, they said.
Eventually they purchased another unit to gain Presidential or Diamond benefits including early check-in and late check-out times, use of multiple deeds to book concurrent units or consecutive stays, VIP reservation and check-in lines and a welcome gift when checking into any Silverleaf property, the couple said.
Despite the contract they maintained, those benefits have disappeared, Leah Froelich said.
“The benefits once provided Silverleaf owners are now only being offered to Holiday Inn Club Vacation Elite or higher level members, based on points,” she said. “And anyone can go to a major travel site online and book into one of these resorts, often at a cost lower than what members like us pay in monthly maintenance fees.”
Offers to convert deeds to the points system are unreasonably priced and require an additional investment of anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000, Leah Froelich said.
She contends those costs and likely additional maintenance fees are downplayed in the sales pitch to move the sale forward with a promise of full benefits she and her husband feel they’ve already paid for in full.
Silverleaf members around the country are aligning online, on Facebook pages and in a Go Fund Me campaign, threatening to organize a class action lawsuit to demand benefits from Orange Lake-Holiday Inn Club Vacations.
Those gathered Sunday in Galveston hadn’t necessarily made a decision to join in any legal action, but were considering their options, they said.
In the end, asking that the terms of their agreements be honored by Orange Lake-Holiday Inn Club Vacations has had no effect, Leah Froelich said.
“When we complained about our lost benefits, they just said they don’t have to honor that contract any more.”