Real estate lore says that the concept of time shares was born in the 1960s in Europe, when a ski resort owner in the Alps promoted his resort by encouraging guests to buy fractional ownership of the hotel. The idea quickly gained favor around the world, boosting sales of surplus vacation units at a time when the resort industry was depressed.
A 2008 economic impact study prepared by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that time share owners and their guests took approximately 506,300 time share vacations per year in South Carolina, spending an average of $1,450 per trip.
The Lowcountry has a thriving time share scene, as beach lovers continue to purchase traditional time shares on Hilton Head Island. Innovative fractional ownership projects also are sprouting up in other parts of Beaufort County.
Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce said that Hilton Head Island has 6,000 home and villa units, 3,000 hotel rooms and 2,000 time-share units.
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Time shares have an important economic impact on Hilton Head, and Marriott Vacation Club International is the major player. The company owns eight time-share resorts with a total of 1,000 units and 42,000 owners on Hilton Head Island. In 2009, Marriott Vacation Club had 53,000 check-ins, said James M. Woelbern, director of public relations for Marriott Vacation Club International.
"We employ more than 500 people, from resort operations to sales and marketing," he said.
Almost every owner uses his or her week, or invites friends or family members to use it, so time-share units rarely sit empty, industry expert say.
"What makes time shares so attractive for our area is a constant level of occupancy, which helps keep our local economy rolling year round," Clark said.
Time-share visitors tend to stay longer than hotel guests, Clark said, which means more dollars spent on dining, golf, shopping, eco-tour excursions and other experiences.
Marriott and other large time share companies allow owners to swap weeks among themselves, when timeshare owners want to visit other vacation destinations. Clark said that because Hilton Head Island is a popular destination, owners of time shares here easily swap weeks with others around the country and internationally.
TIME SHARES IN TODAY'S ECONOMY
Steve Likins, owner of Hilton Head Timeshare Resales, has sold time shares on Hilton Head Island since 1983. He says that despite a recent weaker real estate market around the country, people still maintain a strong interest in buying time shares. Especially in hard economic times, a time share is an affordable option for families who dream of owning a place at the beach, real estate experts say.
Most of the time shares Likins sells on Hilton Head are about 1,250 square feet in a Marriott property, he said. They sell for $1,000 to $40,000, depending on the season, the week being purchased and the location of the property, Likins said. In addition to the purchase price, each buyer also agrees to pay an annual maintenance fee of $400 to $1,000 a year per unit. Pets usually aren't allowed, Likins said.
TIME SHARES: A FIRST STEP
Many people who buy time shares eventually become permanent residents of the Lowcountry. Andrea and Gene Bigelow lived in Raleigh when they bought three time shares on Hilton Head about 20 years ago.
"We fell in love with Hilton Head Island," Andrea Bigelow said. "We liked everything about it, and we kept coming year after year."
When the couple retired about six years ago, they moved to Sun City Hilton Head and still own their time shares at Harbour Point, Barony Beach Club and Grand Ocean.
Many say buying a time share can be an emotional—almost spontaneous—decision.
Mary Lynn Potts, also of Sun City, remembers that during a vacation on Hilton Head in the late 1980s, she and her husband, George, attended a time-share sales presentation.
Ohio residents at the time, the Potts agreed to sit through the presentation because "they said there's no commitment, just come hear the talk and you get a big seafood buffet," Mary Potts said.
They ended up buying a time share, and still own it.
"We have kept our two-bedroom time share in Island Links in Port Royal because it's a two-bedroom unit and great for our children when they visit us. We play golf there, use the new pool and enjoy it for one week each year," Mary Potts said.
A NEW RESIDENCE CLUB ON THE MAINLAND
While most time-share sales on Hilton Head don't involve deeded real estate, a new fractional ownership project in greater Bluffton does.
In Hampton Lake, a neighborhood called the Sanctuary includes homes sold in one-eighth shares.
For $175,000, buyers purchase fractional ownership in a 3,100 sq. ft. luxuriously appointed, professionally decorated home near the community's amenity village. Owners have a minimum of six weeks per year plus unlimited space available usage. Well-behaved pets are allowed, and buyers have full membership privileges at Hampton Lake, access to all amenities on site and to Pete Dye golf at Hampton Hall.