I had to hand it to her. Amber was a pro. No doubt about that. Very smooth, but not so slick as to be disingenuous. On a recent vacation, Gary and I attended a timeshare/vacation club presentation at the hotel where we were staying. We signed in by sharing our names and our joint income, knowing that we would be asked to make a purchase.
For the sake of full disclosure, I was most interested in seeing this experience from the perspective of the church, whose mission is also to make “The Ask.” No, we are not selling vacations, but our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ is to invite others into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ through worship, mission, outreach, and spiritual growth.
Even though both the environment and presentation were clearly and carefully staged, Amber immediately connected with us. Congenial and a good listener, she asked what we did.
“Do you get vacation time?”
“Yes, but we can’t get away on weekends like most people can.”
“We’ve got to give things like that up to God. There’s no other choice.”
Learning #1: We cannot ask without being authentic. People do not want to be part of a church where they have not been able to form deep connections with God and others. And they certainly won’t join if they think our motives are questionable.
Amber inquired about our vacation habits and how many big trips we take every year. We explained that we usually take our vacation to visit elderly parents or our children and grandchild.
“How do you feel about this presentation? Most couples make a pact beforehand not to buy anything. They just endure it in order to get the discounted hotel rate.”
“I guess we’re part of that crowd.”
“Well, you’re in good hands with me. You do know that I am going to ask you to purchase points in a vacation club, so all I hope for is that you keep an open mind.”
“We will,” I said, remembering our United Methodist tagline, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
“Oh, you’re taking notes,” Amber said to me. “That’s great. That means you’re really listening. How did you both get into the ministry? Were you called?” We gave the brief version.
“That’s wonderful. So how do you like to travel? Once I know what is most important to you, I’ll present an individualized plan for your Vacation Club. Trust me, once you share your vacation goals, my plan will make financial sense, be realistic and enhance your life.”
Learning #2: Learning clients’ vacation histories forms a road map that entices and even manipulates people into buying. In the same way, listening to others’ stories plays an essential role in the church’s call to help people discover their particular gifts, encourage their spiritual growth, and inspire a passion for making a difference in the world.
“Where do you like to travel?” Amber asked. “We have sixty-four Grand Vacation Clubs around the world and four thousand hotels in fifty countries. Wherever you’ve wanted to travel, we have a place for you, except maybe in remote locations. You can even take your children and grandchild with you and stay in a three bedroom condo. Even though you are not purchasing property per se, you will have a deed that is transferable to your children.”
Now Amber moved to The Ask. “If you take two vacation weeks a year at $150 a night, and you retire in ten years, you’ll pay out $24,074.14 for hotels. We can match that with vacation club points so that after ten years you’ll pay off your ‘mortgage’ and end up with points forever. Oh, and there is a yearly maintenance fee that could be up to $2,000 a year.”
“This is what I think you should do,” Amber said confidently. “I am recommending that you purchase seven thousands points a year for a cost of $52,500 plus the yearly maintenance fee. All you need to do today is make a $7,875 down payment plus $2,157 closing costs. Talk it over and let me know yes or no.”
Learning #3: Unlike the timeshare industry, which is dedicated to profit by convincing people to enjoy themselves through vacationing, the church is in the business of inviting people into a way of life that involves losing our life in order to save it. Investment in being a Christ follower invites surrender, letting go, turning the other cheek and giving up self. It’s a different type of joy.
I smiled at Gary. Isn’t this fun? When Amber returned, we told her we could not afford such an investment. No problem, however, because Amber had a Plan B. It was all part of the strategy. Present something that is really outrageous, then come back with a more reasonable figure. Kind of like buying a house.
“Okay. How about this? We’ll sell you 4,100 points every other year for $11,970 plus a maintenance fee of between $700 and $1,453. You could do a week trip every year with just the two of you or one week every other year with your entire family in a three bedroom condo.”
When Gary excused himself for a few minutes, I asked Amber where she was born and raised. “Ocean City, New Jersey,” she said.
“Why, our family vacationed there every summer growing up. I love Ocean City,” I replied. “How did you get into the time share/vacation club business?”
Amber said she worked in a casino with time shares, earned a real estate license and was very successful. She said, “I like to make people’s dreams come true. I change people’s lives.”
Learning #4: Changing lives in the church is not related to where and how we vacation. Lives in the church are changed by genuine disciples of Jesus Christ who model self-giving love and ask others to join them in the journey of faith.
When Gary returned we said, “We don’t want to be locked into this kind of vacation every year or every other year.” At that point Amber gave up The Ask and brought in Jason, the manager, to give us an incentive for buying on the spot. He offered 8,800 vacation points plus two silver vacation club credit cards if we bought that day.
“No pressure,” Jason said, “We just want to enhance your life through your vacations.”
“Thank you, but we don’t think so.”
So Jason gave up The Ask and brought in James. “Gary and Laurie, we’d like to give you a free week for a trial within the next eighteen months. It only costs $1,795, and if you decide you want to buy, we’ll deduct the $1,795 from the cost of your purchase.”
“Thank you very much,” we said. “It’s a generous offer, but we know right now that in the next eighteen months our time away is already pretty much accounted for.”
James then asked, “Were all of the presenters clear? Did you know exactly what they were asking?”
“Yes,” we said.
Lesson #5: The church is not often clear about the commitment that we are inviting from those who seek to become part of our community of faith. We make The Ask by presenting a watered down, apologetic brand of Christianity that demands nothing and expects nothing. And the result? We often get nothing.
So James gave up The Ask and sent us downstairs to Carol. But not before Gary asked James what percentage of people who take advantage of the “trial” he just offered actually end up purchasing a vacation club package. One in five, James replied.
Our free gift was $100 in gift cards to local restaurants, which we could not use because we were leaving, so we gave them to our son. Plus, we received 20,000 credit card points.
Lesson #6: Timeshare strategists know that thanking people for attending the presentation by offering a gift might pay off in a future Ask. So gratitude and grace form the language of the church. Our ministries are open to all whether they choose to become members or not.
Fall is almost upon us. It’s a time when church school, programs, classes and ministries begin. It’s also a time when people are searching for greater meaning in their lives and are open to making new commitments, including finding a faith community.
The church is not a vacation club where people are emotionally manipulated into making impulsive decisions, even though it does, unfortunately, happen. Admittedly, Christians are not always of the same mind about the best way to connect with people and make The Ask, inviting them to make a life-changing commitment to follow Jesus. Do we humans gradually live our way into commitment and a different way of life, or do we make a commitment first and then change our life?
Either way, we make The Ask because Jesus commanded us to go out into the world and make disciples. No down payment, no closing fees and no maintenance fees. Only the chance to give our life away in faith, hope and love.