Donita's Vacations Unlimited - Largest of The Small Independent Timeshare-Exchange Companies

By Rosalie E. Leposky

The announcement that the corporate parents of the major exchange firms intend to merge has created a surge of business for the oldest and largest of the small independent timeshare-exchange companies.

On May 27, 1997, Walter A Forbes, chairman and chief executive officer of CUC International, Inc., and Henry R. Silverman, chairman and chief executive officer of HFS Inc., announced the intended merger of their organizations. Last fall, HFS purchased Resort Condominiums International (RCI) for over $625 million. CUC acquired Interval International in December of 1992.

"Since the CUC-HFS announcement, we've heard from national and international timeshare developers who in the past might never have considered us," reports Donita M. Cilch, founder and president of Donita's Vacations Unlimited, Inc.

"I'm concerned that the average timeshare exchanger will find it harder to make exchanges," she says. "Since last spring, RCI-controlled resort inventory has been sold off through travel agents. In our business, customer service and satisfaction come first. At Donita's, we build relationships with our members and with timeshare developers."

Donita's counts its audited exchanges each year in the thousands (over 12,000 in 1996), while Interval International and RCI complete hundreds of thousands a year — over 90 percent of all timeshare exchanges.

Still, Cilch plays a key role in timeshare exchange because her firm often provides timeshare owners an exchange when other sources fail. She also claims to offer a more personalized service.

"Donita has built up professional relationships with many people in the industry. In my male-dominated company, we sometimes forget the importance of such relationships," says Woody G. Cary, president of  Tricom Management Co., Inc., which manages 20 resorts with 750 units and about 35,000 owners.

Midwestern Origins

Born in Dubuque, Iowa, in the late 1930s, Donita Cilch is the oldest of three daughters of Mary Lorraine Anthony, a housewife now deceased, and Drew M. Anthony, 84, who for 52 years owned and operated Anthony Auto Sales, the Dubuque Pontiac dealership. "My father retired three or four different times," says Cilch. "Now he’s the official greeter on the locally owned Diamond Joe River Boat, a gambling boat that cruises the Mississippi River." Cilch's middle sister, Carol F. Downey, lives in Dubuque. Her youngest sister, Susan Riedel, lives in Ames, Iowa, and works for the Iowa Food Stamp Program.

Although a Catholic, Cilch enrolled at the University of Dubuque, a Presbyterian school. "My parish priest was very upset when I attended a Protestant school," she says. She left in her sophomore year to get married, and later took business classes at other schools in Dubuque and in southern California.

In the late 1950s Cilch and her husband moved to California, but they separated about three and a half years later when he wanted to move back to Iowa. They were subsequently divorced. "I love southern California, and I have never missed the freezing cold Iowa winters," she declares. "I have lived ever since in Fallbrook, a small unincorporated community 45 miles north of San Diego and 25 miles inland."

Before entering the hospitality industry, Cilch opened a women's-wear firm, Boutique A-Go-Go, which she operated for nine years. Meanwhile, she invested in the 125-seat Valley Fort steak house restaurant and bar in Fallbrook. "The restaurant was my introduction into the hospitality industry," she says. "We had a live band and were open Wednesday to Sunday nights." Cilch owned Valley Fort for four and half years. During that time, she closed Boutique A-Go-Go and became the restaurant's full-time manager.

Following the sale of her interest in Valley Fort, Cilch worked for four years as night manager of the Pala Mesa Resort. Consisting of 133 hotel rooms and 134 condominiums, Pala Mesa is about 12 miles north of Lawrence Welk Resort Villas in Escondido.

A Timeshare Pioneer

Pala Mesa developer M. J. Leonard created one of timesharing's first right-to-use clubs. "In 1979, Pala Mesa Gold Key Resort Club sold out in about five and half months," recalls Cilch." Leonard's new owners did not know how to use their club membership or to use RCI's exchange service. He admired my efforts on behalf of his hotel guests and asked me to help with his resort club. He gave me a 10-minute lecture on timesharing, why he offered timesharing and held his own paper, and how important it was to keep his 2,500 club-owners happy."

Cilch recalls that Leonard had sold timeshare space in perhaps five condominiums and about 40 hotel rooms, and 65 of the privately owned condominiums were part of the hotel’s rental program.

"Our owners came whenever they wanted," she says. "Some owners owned as much as six weeks and could stay longer at discounted rates. My job was to help owners use their time through RCI exchanges. I learned quickly that RCI was good, but my job also was to keep members happily traveling to their desired destination even when it meant finding other ways for them to use their time."

Cilch also was responsible for reminding members to stay current with their contract payments and maintenance fees. Delinquent members could not use their space or exchange.

Leonard sold Pala Mesa Resort in 1985 and arranged a transfer of club membership to World Wide Vacations, then based in Los Angeles. Following the sale, she left Pala Mesa to establish Donita’s Vacations Unlimited.

Filling a Vacuum

Donita's began with one employee (Cilch herself) in a home office and about 2,500 members from Pala Mesa. "Some of the original Pala Mesa timeshare owners or their heirs still trade with me," she says. In its first year, without any promotional advertising, Donita's made just over 5,000 exchanges. "I depended then and still today, for the most part, on word of mouth, good will, and personal contacts," Cilch says.

"When I started doing exchanges, Donald Estvold Sr., founder and president of World Vacation Travel, suggested that I register my name, forms, and logo. I'm glad that I followed his advice."

Through the years, Cilch converted her personal knowledge and connections into a viable service company. In 1986 she developed a working relationship with Aero International Tours, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, travel agency that was the parent company of Aero Coach, a small airline serving a few cities in Florida and The Bahamas and one Bahamian resort, Abaco by the Sea. In 1991 the Donita's/Aero International relationship dissolved. "Due to mismanagement, Aero International Tours failed," Cilch explains.

Donita's then opened its own Fort Lauderdale office. "My workday begins on east coast time and ends on west coast time," Cilch says.

One obstacle she had to overcome was the discovery of improper business practices and the theft of over $200,000 of company assets by a trusted long-time Fort Lauderdale employee. "The scenario of how we caught him reads like the script for an adventure film," she says, "with bragging about illegal activities, alcohol abuse, a high-speed chase, international travel with a younger unmarried woman, private detectives, and stolen property."

Donita's Today

Donita's Vacations Unlimited, Inc. (Donita's ), now has 16 employees in four offices — in Fallbrook, California; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Seattle, Washington.

Today Donita's has about 90,000 full members and almost as many associate members. (Full members pay an annual fee and have a variety of privileges; associates pay a different fee and have other privileges.)

"In 1995, we had about 20,000 members and associate members," Cilch says. "This year our membership has grown faster than in the past because some Latin American and Mexican developers have started offering our club memberships at point of sale."

More than 1,500 resorts now use Donita's services. "Many of these resorts are affiliated with one or the other of the major exchange firms, and some are dual-affiliated," says Cilch. "Whatever I've done, I've tried to carve my own niche. It never felt politically correct to butt heads with the two bigger exchanges companies. It has been to my advantage to co-exist."

While Donita's does not affiliate resorts, it assists resorts and their owners who for a variety of reasons cannot comply with the rules and regulations of the systems established by Interval International and RCI. The firm also keeps a list of people who can travel at the last minute, and tries to find inventory that becomes available on short notice to accommodate their desires.

"When someone needs help with an exchange, I always help," Cilch says. "Sometimes timeshare owners double-bank, or the plumbing breaks, or something else unpredictable happens. There are developers and marketers who will give me weeks that they will give to no one else because they know that if they get in a tight spot I will help them."

She recalls a Pala Mesa club-owner who wanted to go to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. "I called Hilton Head resorts. The sales-office manager of one of the Hilton Head resorts had a week that my club-owners requested. I offered him a week in California, which he refused. He said he would trade his week for a winter skiing week in Vail. I arranged for the winter week, and obtained a week for my club-owner. Perhaps I'm a better horse trader because my father was an Iowa car dealer."

The Tricom Connection

Cilch was with Pala Mesa Resort in the early 1980s when she asked Tricom if its owners could exchange with her owners. "My philosophy then and now," Cary says, "is to offer my owners the best available exchange systems. Almost from the beginning, to ensure that owners made note payments, we recognized the need to provide them with alternatives to the existing exchange companies, so we have always operated our own exchange system."

In 1987 or 1988 Tricom did business with the consortium of banks that owned World Wide Vacation Club notes, including the former Pala Mesa Gold Key members. "We folded the Gold Key owners into our organization," says Cary. "Throughout all the changes, Donita helped these owners make exchanges. She has a good track record, and I've never hesitated to recommend her services."

"We've learned working with Donita that when one of her customers has a check-in problem, if we have another property in the area, she will call on us for help and we will resolve the problem later. We work together to get the owners quickly into a unit, and enjoying their vacation."

In 1988, after Hurricane Gilbert, Cilch gave away over 150 weeks to Royal Holiday Club members. "Donita has also helped other owners to find alternative exchange destinations. She had no way of knowing when the damaged resorts in Jamaica and Mexico would re-open," says Patricia J. "Patty" Bauer, who worked for RCI and Royal Holiday Club before joining Donita's in 1991. A member of the American Resort Development Association since 1989, Cilch has been a member of ARDA's Chairman League since 1995.

Cilch is an energetic, petite woman, just five feet tall with blond hair and hazel eyes. She shares her home but not her office with energetic Thelma Louise, a three-year-old, 16-pound white and black Lhasa Apso. "Thelma Louise chews on everything within her reach," she says. In her free moments, Cilch likes to walk her dog, ride her exercise bicycle, paint flowers, and play tennis. A new set of golf clubs sits unused in a closet.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

For More Information

Dial An Exchange http://www.dialanexchange.com.au

Donita's Vacations Unlimited, Inc


Copyright 1997 Ampersand Communications
All Rights Reserved
Published in The Resort Trades, July 1997.

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