Keith Trowbridge: The ‘father of timeshare’ in North America

Back in 1973, Keith Trowbridge was living on Sanibel Island in Florida. He had just completed three successful whole-ownership projects – Donax Village, Coquina Beach and Villa Sanibel. Although these were successful projects in the long run, the length of time and the cost of sellout were considerable.

During this time, Sanibel incorporated into a city and drastically reduced how many living units that could be built per acre from 20 down to five. This action by the city tripled the price of land per unit. At that moment, there was no way regular condos could absorb that increase in land cost, so Keith looked at other ways to spread the increased cost of land to more owners.

“I had read about timeshare in Europe, but it was always a lease program and not an ownership style,” said Keith. “Americans favored a type of ownership similar to their farms and homes that carried deeds, ownership, title insurance, and they owned it into perpetuity.”

Keith developed the first successful purpose-built interval ownership resort in the United States in 1974 on Sanibel Island. Sanibel Beach Club, a 31-unit condominium project, was built and completely sold out in 18 months.

He founded Captran Resorts International Ltd., and at its peak in the late 1970s, the company posted annual timeshare sales of $50 million. Keith has since been involved in the development and marketing of 35 timeshare resorts in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.

“We use the term ‘vacation ownership’ because it was true ownership. Vacation ownership came with a deed, title insurance, and could be transferred and inherited,” Keith said.

“The term timeshare in the 1970s had already been captured by the computer industry, but as developers in this country moved into leased programs, the name vacation ownership did not apply. Thus many started using the term timeshare to cover both ownership and lease. I did not like this substitution, but over time ARDA-affiliated developers and the general public started using the word timesharing more often and it stuck. I still prefer the term vacation ownership, as it does a much better job of describing the resorts I built and sold. Of the 17 resorts that I built, all were vacation ownership.”

Since the timeshare concept was new in North America, Keith said it was difficult to get backing and sell the weeks. “There was no financing available for the concept. I was fortunate to find two local banks that agreed to fund some of the paper, but their funding was minimal, and as I recall it was in the 50 percent range. A lot of the paper I sold to individuals, and we pressed for cash on every sale, giving sales people increased commissions with higher cash purchases. For example, they would be paid 5 percent for 10 percent down, 7 percent for 20 percent down, 10 percent for 50 percent down, and as high as 15 percent for all cash deals.”

Keith said they started out their price structure in 1974 with off-season weeks (called shoulder) for $900 to $1200. “Summer and winter weeks started at $5,000, and winter weeks reached an astronomical number of $10,000 per week. Today those same weeks at Sanibel Beach Club are selling for $4,000, $15,000 and $30,000, respectfully.”

Most of their sales and marketing in the early days followed the pattern of land sales in Florida. “I hired a number of people who had a background in land sales. That followed through in hiring people who had a background in selling cars or boats. We finally struck gold when we figured out that mothers with families were great sales people. And as the women were the influential buyer in the family, the women in our sales organization were always in the top sales flight.”

At what point did Keith realize that he had helped start a whole new industry in North America? “I believe this concept of a whole new industry struck me when I tried to take Captran public in 1981. This followed my book ‘How to Buy an Inflation-Proof Vacation for Life,’ which was published by Simon and Schuster and had an initial printing of 50 thousand copies. This turned into a book tour of North America, when I appeared on many TV and radio shows, ending on a high note with an appearance on the ‘Today Show,’ being interviewed by Jane Pauley.”

In 1988, Keith founded Executive Quest Inc. (www.execq.com), an executive search firm for the timeshare industry. In addition to helping companies find candidates for employment, Executive Quest conducts an annual salary study of the industry. The most recent survey shows flat growth the last few years.

The salary figures for the 2013 study originated from the 27,000-plus contacts maintained by Executive Quest through its newsletter subscriptions. The figures reported are salary, commissions, bonuses, perks earned in 2012 for reporting in 2013.

Anyone who participates in the study get’s a free copy, otherwise it can be purchased. For more information, visit www.execq.com/salarystudy.htm.

“The job market in the industry recently suffered the same downward spiral as the economy. It is looking up today as sales pick up and new resorts are converted or built,” Keith said.

“The timeshare industry, like all other industries, suffered from the recession, and sales dropped from $13 billion to $6.9 billion. The industry is now going through a recovery period, and my best estimate to when it gets back to the numbers it had before would be 3 to 5 years. It is still not a sought item, but one that must be sold in a face-to-face process.”

We asked Keith what, in his opinion, are the most significant issues facing the timeshare industry today. “Resales, resales and resales are the number one, two and three problems facing the industry today. There are some companies doing a good job of resales, but nothing replaces a competent on-site sales person and a good resort rental program.”

And what does Keith predict for the future of timeshare? “Timesharing will continue to grow, as it makes so much sense to only own what you can utilize.”