When I cold-call Solstice (877/727-5535; www.solsticecollection.com), managing director Mark Cibik spends over an hour explaining the financial ins and outs of destination clubs before he even begins telling me how pretty the houses are. "This is a big purchase," he says. "People shouldn’t take it lightly; don’t just get caught up in the sexiness of joining." Cibik admits that Solstice lacks a colorful promotional brochure; instead, he promises me a third party-audited financial statement and a full refund option, valid after two years of membership. The starting price: $535,000, plus dues and surcharges for the right to use 10 properties (one of them a 90-foot yacht) for 14 days each year, with additional "space-available" usage for an unlimited number of days.
And what about those pretty houses?Nothing remains constant in the real estate market except the old saying, Location, location, location. Know what $4 million gets you on Maui these days?Hint: the Pacific won’t be visible from your front door. Solstice has some tempting stand-alone residences, such as a fresco-filled apartment in Florence and a two-story flat on the Île St.-Louis in Paris. But most clubs opt for the safety of cookie-cutter developments. On the plus side, resorts offer value-added services—spa, golf, tennis, pools, restaurants, security—that would be prohibitively expensive for a club to provide independently.
Steve Healy of Ultimate Resort (877/955-1900; www.ultimateresort.com) mentions that among his company’s 100 properties are houses at three Baja California developments: Palmilla, Esperanza, and Cabo del Sol. He answers my initial inquiry about membership by saying, "You couldn’t have called at a better time." (During our conversation, he juggles several calls.) He is also a little eager to suggest that the club might go into a "waiting list phase" soon. Healy explains that the application requires background and credit checks and personal and professional references. While my application is being reviewed, I will be allowed to talk to members about their experiences. Among the clubs I’ve called, Ultimate Resort is the only one to suggest I "test-drive" a residence—but not, Healy is quick to add, during a holiday. If I like what I see, a basic membership will be $125,000 with $10,000 in annual dues; this entitles me to 14 days at club properties.
Joining doesn’t guarantee I’ll be staying in my dream house, however, especially during major holidays. Tiered membership means there is no level playing field—some entry-level plans black out holidays. With Exclusive Resorts (866/863-2688; www.exclusiveresorts.com), at 2,500 members the largest club, Elite status ($425,000) guarantees four advance reservations; Affiliate members ($225,000) receive only two. The more you pay, the more choices you’ll have during Christmas week. At the moment, Exclusive Resorts has 300 residences, and more than 100 will be added over the next two years, including estates in Tuscany, Anguilla, and Maui.
Among all the clubs I contact, Exclusive Resorts has the most eager sales pitch. After my initial call, I am passed to Peter Hannesson, a regional director based in New York City, who overnights me a large portfolio containing a contract, extensive financial data, and a persuasive DVD of interviews with satisfied members. He offers to make the four-hour drive to my home upstate to take me out to dinner and discuss the benefits of joining. (Later, he even sends me a Christmas card.) Finally, when we talk terms, Hannesson extends a $15,000 discount voucher. If I had an American Express Centurion Card, my discount would be $32,000, plus a bonus of one million Membership Rewards points. (Note: American Express, which has partnered with Exclusive Resorts on various offerings, is the publisher of Travel+Leisure.)
So: Deal or no deal?Despite being assured by sales representatives that a new generation of time-starved people craves bonding experiences in fabulous locations, I still wonder whom destination clubs are really targeting. The super-wealthy don’t share homes. Couples don’t need that much square footage. Independent travelers rarely sit still in one place. Dropping my role as a potential member, I seek straight answers from industry boosters. Jim Tousignant, CEO of Ultimate Resort, suggests that those accustomed to leasing jets and Jags will find the concept appealing. "Owning a multimillion-dollar home means always working on your property," he explains. "We see consumers who think it’s great not to have to worry about the costs of ownership." Michael Beindorff, COO of Exclusive Resorts, says, "This is not designed to be an investment, it’s supposed to be a lifestyle return." I may remain an antisocial skeptic who actually prefers to vacation in the same weather-beaten cottage every year, but sumptuous destination clubs continue to attract the interest and capital of others. Texas oil magnate Ray L. Hunt just purchased a sizable chunk of BelleHavens, and AOL founder Steve Case owns a majority share of Exclusive Resorts. In the end, maybe I’m just too Groucho for these guys.