As headlines announce yet another acquisition of a storied timeshare brand by a large publicly held company, one privately held timeshare company continues to hold its own: Westgate Resorts. Founded in 1982 by David Siegel, the Orlando-based company now operates 27 resorts in premier travel destinations throughout the United States, and according to the Orlando Business Journal, has annual revenues in excess of $1.31 billion.
To find out what makes Westgate tick, Resort Trades spoke with Chief Operating Officer Mark Waltrip, who leads the company’s acquisition, design, development, operations, and marketing, as well as the development and operation of all Westgate non-resort projects, including commercial office space, apartment complexes, land development and a variety of restaurant concepts, retail shops, and destination health spas.
RT: What makes Westgate Resorts unique?
MW: We have a completely different business model. Where the hotel brands are lodging-centric, we are centered on creating unique experiences for our guests. Our resorts are themed destination experiences. We have a dude ranch, a colonial inn, mountainside luxury cabins in Gatlinburg, and a Park City, Utah, ski resort that has been consistently named the best resort in the state. Each resort is like a cruise ship on land, and we want guests to immerse themselves in the individualized experiences that each destination offers. You can’t really do that in a one-night stay, so we really hope guests will stay at least four nights to a week or more.
Our resorts are centered on four things: immersion, education, excitement, and engagement. We are in the business of creating vacation memories, and we roll that into every Westgate property.
Some hotel-centric brands concentrate on brand standards, sometimes so much so that if you arrived blindfolded at their properties and then took the blindfold off, you’d have no idea where you were. With Westgate, you would have an immediate sense of place; our brand standards are centered on service levels.
RT: It seems that maintaining control of every detail is important to Westgate?
MW: We want to create an authentic experience. Take, for example, Westgate River Ranch Resort, which is an authentic Florida dude ranch just one hour from Orlando. We want to entertain our guests but also educate them about the rich heritage of the ranch, which is where cattle were loaded on barges to be shipped from Florida, which was and still is a top cattle-producing area. These authentic connections get guests to educate and entertain themselves, from the weekly rodeo to horseback riding to accommodations that include our new Luxe Conestoga wagons, luxury tepees, and glamping.
RT: Westgate hasn’t really grown by purchasing other resort developers. Why is that?
MW: While we have done that in the past, it’s very difficult to create the experience we are going for when you are working with the history of someone else’s decisions. We prefer to start with a blank canvas and develop the story from the ground up.
We have 27 great locations, and our resorts are massive. At Westgate Lakes, we have over 2,200 villas; at Gatlinburg, we have over 1,100 villas and cabins, and in Las Vegas, we have over 3,000 villas and suites. Some of our resorts have giant waterparks. We prefer to enter high-density tourist destinations and become part of that story with a property uniquely themed to that destination.
RT: So, what are the growth opportunities for Westgate Resorts?
MW: Westgate is constantly looking at the next evolution of where we can best take our story. For example, we see New York City as a market that will rebound quickly, and I can confidently say, after completing a full remodel last month, we now have the best timeshare product in that market. Just as important, we took this historic landmark hotel and designed based on the history of the Tudor City neighborhood to create a real connection to the local community. As a private company, we don’t have to make decisions based on shareholder expectations, whereas in a public environment, it’s more difficult to take risks and make bold moves. The moves we have made in the past paid off, so that’s what we’re going to continue to do.
RT: Is there a particular area of the country that you are targeting?
MW: We prefer destinations that have a year-round draw and in a high-density tourist population. That being said, we’re not afraid of entering a market where we have to create the demand, like River Ranch.
RT: How is Westgate able to compete against the Wyndham and Marriott ecosystems that have developed?
MW: We don’t see ourselves in competition with them. A rising tide lifts all boats and that’s one of the reasons that at the executive level, we all get along so well. There really are no secrets, so we are more likely to work together for the betterment of the industry as a group with a strong interest in protecting the consumer’s perception of the industry. I’m excited about ARDA’s new #LoveMyTimeshare campaign, where owners share their experiences on social media. When 90% of our owners love the product, that’s a story the industry needs to tell.
RT: How do you see the industry developing over the next few years?
MW: The timeshare industry, because of the quality of the product, has an extremely bright future. We have strong leadership at ARDA and across all the major companies that will continue to move us forward.
One of the things we’ve noticed is that one- and two-bedroom products aren’t the future, rather large, four-, six- and ten-bedroom units are what our owners want now. As vacation time has become scarcer, spending time with extended family has become that much more important so we need units that accommodate that.
RT: So, how is Westgate’s Legacy program going?
MW: We’re very happy with the program and the impact it has had. Our goal is to give owners an education on all of the safe options available to them. Sometimes it’s as simple as service recovery and helping them get back on vacation, and other times it’s walking them through their end-of-product options.
RT: Do you think there’s still room for new independent resort developers?
MW: I hope so; it’s the independent developers who continually raise the level of creativity. We like to think of ourselves as the little engine that could with developing our own restaurants and spas.
Still, when the big brands take over properties, it’s usually a benefit for the industry as a whole because they raise the resort’s quality level. It gives owners at an under-capitalized resort the opportunity to enjoy vacations again.
RT: How has this past year been for Westgate Resorts?
MW: This has been a difficult year for everyone, not just within our industry. What makes it more difficult is the continuing nature of the pandemic and all the uncertainty around it. It really shows just how difficult it is to predict the future. But we have come out of it pretty well—I’m so proud of our team. From day one, our goal was to protect our team members and guests as much as possible. We tried to be ahead of all the governmental mandates, and I think we succeeded in that.
We were one of the first resort companies that required guests to wear masks, well in advance of government mandates. We started buying them in January 2020 to ensure we had ample supply. We were well prepared and, as a result, had a low incidence of infection at our resorts.
We also developed WestgateCARES, our detailed enhanced health and safety plan, in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, and we made all of the plans publicly available on our website so that those resorts that did not have our level of technical know-how could still have best-in-class safety procedures. They are all available at www.WestgateCares.com.
- Operates 27 themed destination resorts nationwide with more than 14,500 luxury villas and hotel rooms.
- More than 500,000 owner families.
- Locations in Miami, Orlando and Cocoa Beach, Florida; New York City, New York; Park City, Utah; Las Vegas, Nevada; Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Williamsburg, Virginia; Branson, Missouri; Mesa, Arizona; and Tunica, Mississippi.
- Original concepts for amenities include Drafts Burger Bar, Edge Steakhouse, Westgate Marketplace & Deli, and Serenity Spa by Westgate.
- For more information about Westgate Resorts, visit www.westgateresorts.com.
Judy Kenninger has been covering the shared-ownership industry for nearly two decades.