When does selling cross the line? Charleston council responds to claims of abuse, harassment

The Vacation Station storefront — and its sales force — gets passers-by to pause to hear about vacation packages Monday in downtown Charleston.

Rob Gilman and Betsy Bert, a young couple visiting Charleston, were strolling on Meeting Street Monday evening when they were accosted by a vacation club membership salesman who asked them two questions:

"Are you going to be in town tomorrow?"

"Yes," they replied.

"Did you get your tickets?"

"Yes, we did."

The second "yes" was a little white lie, Bert said.

The couple has been approached by street vendors before. They know the drill.

The "tickets" he was referring to were sure to be discount coupons offered to those who are willing to sit through high-pressure sales presentations for time shares and vacation club memberships.

"I was just trying to be polite, walking by," Bert said.

They live in New York where there are beggars, she said. "You have people on the street trying to sell you stuff all the time."

It's getting harder to walk through the City Market area without being accosted by someone trying to sell time shares or vacation club memberships.

Now, Charleston City Council is poised to crack down on aggressive salespeople who allegedly harass passersby and misrepresent what they are selling.

"In some cases, there is physical contact," said Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who chairs the city's Public Safety Committee. "They will grab you."

An ordinance the council will consider tonight would address what the city describes as "deceptive, misleading, and aggressive" sales tactics, and among other provisions would prohibit solicitors from touching people, intentionally blocking their path, or using abusive language.

Complaints received

Visitors to Charleston have been complaining about such tactics, The Post and Courier reported last summer, and city officials presented letters from upset visitors at a Public Safety Committee meeting last week.

"Being somebody who works downtown, and experiencing on a regular basis the way the businesses operate, quite frankly I'm embarrassed for our city when I see it happen," said Councilman Gary White.

"I know they are selling time shares, but they are portraying themselves more as visitor information businesses," he said. "When the unknowing visitors stop to talk to them, they end up in a high-pressure sales pitch."

Not everyone succumbs.

One couple walked into one of the time share storefronts Monday, grabbed a few maps and brochures and walked out.

"I'd rather pay for lunch myself than sit 45 minutes and watch a slide show," said Evelyn Kilgore of Harrisonville, Mo. She and her husband have seen similar sales approaches in other tourist towns, she said. They just wanted to get a few brochures and move on.

Another couple, Phil and Donna Anderson of Cary, N.C., were walking by a tiny tourist info kiosk on Meeting Street when the man behind the podium noticed the Red Sox insignia on Phil's shirt and asked if he was a fan. They all started talking.

"The first thing he said was, 'It's not a time share,' " Donna Anderson said.

The Andersons ended up agreeing to return today for a 90-minute presentation by Wholesale Escapes, which used to do business as Wholesale Travel Connection.

The couple even gave the salesman a $20 deposit. He told them they would get it back, along with gift certificates , discount coupons and other freebies, after listening to the presentation.

Not with the city

The proposed regulations would require businesses to identify themselves as selling time shares or vacation club memberships, and to make clear that they are not affiliated with the city.

Several attempts to reach companies engaged in that business in Charleston were unsuccessful Monday, with calls being referred to answering machines. One salesman working on Meeting Street Monday said his boss told employees not to talk with the media.

Wilson said that at the committee meeting last week "there were some (time share) representatives, and they swore up and down that they don't engage in those practices."

'Bait and switch'

Often, time-share companies will offer incentives to people who agree to sit through a lengthy sales pitch. City officials said that in some cases, however, businesses pretend to be offering visitor information or other services in order to get people in the door. Aggressive salespeople have followed prospects down the street and even into restaurants, officials said.

"They would have signs on their kiosks that would say things like 'carriage ride tickets,' but once they got you in the door it would switch to time- share sales," Councilman Aubry Alexander said. "It's classic bait-and-switch, to me."

"I don't want to put regulations on businesses, but in my mind if you're in a business you tell people the business you're in," he said. "When you're verging on not being completely honest about what you're selling, that becomes an issue, and the government can set ground rules."

"By far, the most common complaint we receive is from visitors who mistakenly believed they were being assisted by the city's official visitor center, but were actually at a sales center for a time-share company," said Helen Hill, Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director.

When similar issues arose last year, time-share companies said they had no intent to mislead visitors, and said they helped local businesses by bringing tourists to Charleston for time-share presentations.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.