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Interview: RCI VP business development EMEA Dimitris Manikis

Diane Fermin Roeder, January 10th, 2018

Back in 1974, the concept of vacation home timeshare ownership took the sunny state of Florida by storm when the global oil crisis resulted in a glut of unsold condominiums littering the landscape. Instead of purchasing an entire condominium unit or vacation home, the idea of buying a block of time to own or use the unit during a given year took hold of the public imagination.

During this period, a couple in Florida named Jon and Christel De Haan took one look at the existing timeshare ownership model and added the then-pioneering dimension of the holiday exchange concept. The De Haans developed a membership exchange programme, enabling vacation homeowners to exchange the time they had purchased at their home resort for a stay at a different resort property.Thus, Resorts Condominiums International (RCI) was invented.

Today, as the world’s oldest timeshare exchange company, RCI is also the world’s biggest, spanning 4,500 affiliated properties and resorts in 120 countries and six continents and counting four million member families across the globe.  In 2005, RCI was bought by Wyndham Worldwide, one of the world’s biggest hospitality companies which also happens to own the Wyndham Hotel Group. These days, RCI is part of the Wyndham Destination Network.

RCI vice president business development Europe, Middle East & Africa Dimitris Manikis is himself absolutely sold on the concept of shared-holiday ownership, actually putting his money where his mouth is.

Narrating to Hotelier Express, Manikis says: “My family and I love a particular Greek island, and we would visiting every year.We then asked ourselves, are we buying a holiday home or are we buying time?”

He continues: “My wife actually made an interesting point at that time. She said, I’m not going to buy something that I need to clean, maintain and do exactly what I do back home each time I go on holiday. So we ended up buying two weeks of timeshare at a particular property.”

“Every year we go there, it has become a holiday home. Plus with the help of RCI, if we don’t want to go to that Greek island one year, we actually swap our time there with thousands of other properties anywhere in the world.”

Manikis goes on to enthuse about the benefits of timeshare exchange ownership which he and his family are able to experience firsthand, citing the convenience and affordability of access to a preferred destination, yet without the heavy financial responsibility and commitment that vacation home ownership usually entails.

“If you buy a holiday home, what do you actually buy? You buy something for life, more or less, but which you merely use twice or three times a year, if you’re lucky to get enough time off or enough holidays from work. You have all sorts of expenses with home furnishings, upkeep and maintenance, plus you do not get the pleasure of being in a hotel or resort environment,” he says.

In the Middle East, while Manikis recounts that business in Lebanon is growing and that he has tremendous aspirations for Dubai, he shares that Egypt remains RCI’s biggest, most dynamic and most stable market in the region.

Describing the situation in Egypt as  possessing “quite an interesting model”, Manikis says: “We’ve got Egyptians selling to Egyptians in Egypt, so it’s a very homogenous local market.” He goes on to add that despite the occasional geopolitical hiccups erupting in the region, the Egyptian market has actually proven to be “very resilient”.

According to Manikis, the product’s reliability during challenging times is one reason why large hospitality companies like to have a vacation ownership arm. “In general, we are a very resilient product. No matter what the geopolitical climate may be in any given region, timeshare owners will always feel their timeshare units are home. That’s why you see all the big hospitality companies have a vacation ownership concept, for example, Disney, Marriott, etc. Everybody is involved in this space. Why? Because timeshare is a very resilient product.That product provides a lot of cashflow and  brands can create a very strong sense of loyalty among members, resulting in repeat business and a steady income.”

“We are a segment of the hospitality sector that is not widely known but we provide comfort to a lot of these big brands,” Manikis asserts.

When questioned about potential barriers to entry and development in the Middle East, Manikis cites the current lack of legislation, the need for more diverse quality products as well as growth in disposable income and destination airlift.

“You need a market that is thriving, lots of people with disposable incomes, and you need the airlift,” he says, continuing: “We have a saying in the hospitality business in general: follow the plane. Where the plane lands, there will be buyers. Let’s say you have the best products in the world but nobody flies there.What are you going to do?”

While qualifying that in other parts of the world, the timeshare exchange concept has expanded, from solely targeting families in the past and now catering to diverse segments, with millennials and couples buying timeshares and signing up for an exchange network, Manikis concedes that in the Middle East, families, especially middle-class families, still comprise the predominant customer base. He is particularly enthused about Dubai’s transformation as a tourism destination, with its emphasis on family-friendly attractions and affordable accommodation.

On the buy-side in the Middle East, Manikis cites RCI’s partnerships with companies such as India’s Mahindra conglomerate as particularly successful in targeting non-resident Indians, as well as Arabian Falcon Holidays, which he credits with an effective sales presence for timeshare projects in Dubai as well as elsewhere in the region and overseas.

On the supply-side, Mainkis circles back to the earlier question pertaining to barriers to entry and development and brings up the regulatory environment (or lack of) for the sector in Dubai.

“Once you’ve got the legislation, once you’ve got the rules, for sure all the big players, Emaar, Damac, all these real estate players will want to come in and say, ‘you know what? It’s time to look at timeshare as an option’,” he says.

He points out: “All this supply is coming into the market, for which you have to find alternative products: fractional use, vacation ownership, condo hotels. I think in this market, every single concept within the hospitality industry will have a role to play. One size does not fit all. As the destination matures, products also need to diversify.”

Back in 2016, Mohannad Sharafuddin, chairman of Arabian Falcon Holidays, had expressed his hope during a press interview, that Dubai’s Timeshare Law, reportedly in the draft stage that year, would be passed by year end.

When pressed regarding his outlook about the law, which still has not materialised nearly two years later, Manikis says: “My feeling is, they have to do it sooner rather than later.  I think the market will push the authorities to actually regulate this business or introduce a legislation that protects the consumer, the seller, the developer, because the market needs this product.”

While he thinks the regulatory infrastructure is necessary to protect all stakeholders involved, it is Manikis’ opinion that the free market should still reign.

“Legislation can make or break an industry. Where we come from, as RCI and as Wyndham, is to introduce the right legislation so you can allow the market to grow. Create frameworks to protect the consumer and protect the developer but at the same time, allow the business to take care of itself,” he asserts.

“We believe that the government has a lot of vision; look at what they’ve done with branded residences, with mid-market hotels, it’s just getting to that vision sooner rather than later,” Manikis says, adding: “It’s going to happen; that’s no question. The question is: when exactly?”

Meantime, he says, RCI and Wyndham remain very much committed to Dubai and the UAE as a destination.

“It’s about planting the seeds in order for us to harvest when the right time comes. As a business, you have to be there early and commit from day one.”