Resort Trades Pioneer: Deborah Linden, Founder & CEO Island One Resorts

Deborah Linden

Imagine, if you can, that you are a woman who has moved with her developer father from Chicago to Orlando in the midst of the 1980 recession. You attend a conference and are intrigued by the little-known concept of timesharing. Disney’s EPCOT is under development and there is only one active timeshare resort (Vistana) in town. But you and your dad have the ability to envision Orlando’s future and purchase a parcel of land a mile from Disney’s main entrance, launching Island One Resorts (IOR) in 1981. At the age of 26, you are named CEO of the new timeshare business.

Reflected Deborah Linden 36 years later in 2017, “Coming from a family business of residential and commercial real estate development, the transition to timeshare was not a serious stretch. But starting out as a young, female CEO on the ground floor of a new male-dominated industry came with major challenges. Since Island One Resorts was a family business, I had tremendous support, but because of my youth and inexperience, I felt obligated to work harder and find newer, innovative opportunities. In looking back, it was an energizing time, pioneering a resort company in the destination that ultimately became the timeshare capital of the world.”

Deborah took control of Island One Resorts in 1994 when her father retired. Throughout her career, this true pioneer was consistently at the forefront of product evolution, with several vacation ownership industry “firsts.” In 1998, the Liki Tiki Lagoon was the first water park at a timeshare resort. In the mid-1990s, her company was the first to offer a three-bedroom villa lock-off design, targeting multi-generational travelers. IOR was one of the first to align themselves with an outside retail company, Ron John Surf Shop. Deborah also navigated Island One through fixed and float usage to points-based vacation clubs, and in 1999 developed Club Navigo, a points-based vacation club.

In 1993, she became the first – and only female to date – to be selected as ARDA Chairman. During this time, hotel brands were entering and totally changing the timeshare industry. She was eight months pregnant at the end of her chairmanship with son Jimmy but this did not keep her from “waddling about” (her words) and traveling to member resorts creating a much-needed sales and marketing taskforce.

Deborah’s list of timeshare industry and Orlando civic accomplishments and awards is so long, there is not enough space in this publication to list them all. During her 30 years at the helm of her company, they include being named ARDA’s Professional of the Year, Leader of the Year, Lifetime Achievement, plus Entrepreneur of the Year, Top Five Central Florida Women Who Mean Business, Business Owner of the Year, and providing leadership to dozens of various boards of directors.

By 2007, Island One Resorts was a $100 million company with a 1,250-person staff, over 65,000 vacation owners, and nine resorts throughout Florida and the Caribbean. With a consistent emphasis on family, the company was named an Orlando Sentinel “Top 100 Company For Working Families” for many consecutive years.

“Today there are more women in leadership roles in the timeshare industry, but what hasn’t changed is that it is still important to hire people who are experts in their fields,” shares Deborah. “Every CEO understands that their success is predicated on having a strong team. You are only as good as your people. I was blessed to have an amazing staff, which enabled us to grow gracefully and survive tough times. Many of my team members were with me for over 15 years and Sulyn Stumbras-Gruber was with me for 30 years. One of the most rewarding aspects of owning the business was watching three generations of loyal families who worked with our company, resulting in a true family atmosphere for our entire staff.

“Helping to make memories for families in nice accommodations was a rewarding business. To industry newcomers, I urge you to get involved with ARDA and become an advocate for the industry. Ours is truly a great product backed by an outstanding trade association with incredibly competent and passionate people. And to the female timeshare professionals, don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot be on an equal playing field with your male counterparts. It’s all about building dreams and working hard to fulfill them,” she says.

“Pivotal points in my career include the honor of becoming ARDA’s Chairman in 1993, overcoming a hostile takeover attempt from a shareholder in 1995 and surviving the financial crisis of 2008. Being Chairman gave me a perspective few had in the industry. And being an independent developer, this perspective enabled me to use innovation and technology to compete with ‘the big boys’ in town. As the business matured, it enabled me to grow professionally and personally and positioned me for an amazing journey.”

Deb served as CEO of Island One Resorts for 30 years until 2011 when the company came through a successful restructure. She continued in an advisory capacity for two years until October 2013. The company was subsequently sold to Diamond Resorts. In a separate business venture, in 2005, she acquired a B&B in Breckenridge, Colorado and in 2007 she acquired land next to it to build a townhome development, which was completed in 2016.

Today, after over 30 years in the vacation ownership industry, this 61-year old, high-energy lady has started a totally new career by taking a holistic approach to wellness and healthy lifestyles. In 2017, she opened The Vitality Center Orlando, which offers personalized wellness programs that focus upon nutrition and a balanced lifestyle to help maximize energy, boost immunity and combat disease. The Vineyard Wine Bar and Healthy Bistro, which opened in the Windermere area in Orlando in 2016, offers nutritious foods and dietary boosters as well as a menu with vegetarian and vegan options. She is partnering with companies and individuals that share her same commitment to community and individuals.

Son Jimmy is nearing completion of accounting and finance studies at Florida State University and Deborah’s future is as bright as the Florida sunshine. She continues to support community programs through her nonprofit DL Foundation, teaches a Junior Achievement Entrepreneurial class to high school students – sharing life lessons with young people who have their sights set on business success – and frequently hosts ARDA’S WIN Wednesday gatherings at The Vineyard. All of her business ventures have been based on a belief that her services, products, and actions can positively impact the lives of others.

Deborah Linden seeks opportunity instead of challenges and believes the passage of time has not changed the importance of providing exceptional experiences for your customers, no matter what the business or product may be.