A terrible price for a place in the sun

The couple who abandoned a baby in Portugal were drifters on the 'holiday club' tide. Theirs was a tough trade, says Elizabeth Nash
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Albufeira, the resort on Portugal's southern coast most popular with British visitors, is the hub of one of Europe's biggest timeshare operations. But anyone hoping to prosper selling timeshare while enjoying the sunshine should brace themselves. It's a cut-throat, precarious world, as the British couple Marc Beddoes and Katherine Penny discovered to their cost.

Albufeira, the resort on Portugal's southern coast most popular with British visitors, is the hub of one of Europe's biggest timeshare operations. But anyone hoping to prosper selling timeshare while enjoying the sunshine should brace themselves. It's a cut-throat, precarious world, as the British couple Marc Beddoes and Katherine Penny discovered to their cost.

Like many other young Britons, the pair came to Portugal hoping to make a good living while enjoying a life in the sun. While Mr Beddoes, 29, worked selling timeshare deals, Ms Penny, 23, was a "greeter" showing potential timeshare clients around the town.

But the two jobs paid less than enough to live on. The couple begged for free accommodation on a campsite, and said they could not afford treatment for their baby, Charlie, who was born with a harelip. Last week they fled back to Britain, leaving their baby behind.

The Club Praia de Oura, where Mr Beddoes worked before he was sacked in December for being rude to a client, is one of best established in town, though the company is reluctant to explain the secret of its success. "I can't give you prices or leaflets or tell you how we recruit people to our club because it could help our competitors," says Max Lindfors, who greets me at the sales reception desk.

He dislikes the outmoded expression "timeshare": visitors are invited instead to "join the holiday club". Those who introduce members are employed on a strict commission basis. "There are no hours, no salaries: commission depends on how many clients want to join. If you talk to 20 or 30 and no one is interested you end up with nothing. Of course." Doesn't this encourage a technique of hard-sell? " Not at all, we are always polite. Rude people don't survive."

Potential salespeople must have enough money to survive the first fortnight, plus a return ticket home. "You have to keep a door open," says Mr Lindfors. If they make the grade they are offered a month's accommodation, the rent later deducted from commission. Winter is quiet for sales, most visitors enjoying holidays they've already bought. "Salespeople shift around a lot – in winter they move to Tenerife and Madeira."

During our conversation, a bright young woman brings in an elderly couple. They have won a prize on a scratchcard handed to them by the club. "Congratulations! Well done!" she beams, and fills in a welcome form. This is kept from my view but questions can include "Are you working?" and "Do you have a credit card?" All applicants win a prize – a holiday or wine or spirits, which critics say amounts to a sprat to catch a mackerel.

Touting for custom on the street is illegal, and the club says clients are referred by local car hire companies, bars, restaurants and leisure spots. But in the summer the main road of Albufeira's Montechoro district is thronged with brashly cheerful youngsters who home in on couples. They introduce themselves as information guides, offering to show them a swimming-pool, an antiques market, a beach club.

At the cutting edge are Outside Public Contacts (OPCs) who encourage couples – known as "ups" – to visit the timeshare site. "You have to be pretty ruthless and determined," says Jill Johnson, who sold timeshare in the Algarve for several weeks, but could stand it no longer. "I hated telling people all sorts of stories, anything to get them to visit."

At the timeshare resort, the "ups" are greeted by salespeople who subject them to a pitch that can last hours, showing them round and stressing the benefits of membership. "They use psychological tricks, like asking eight questions that elicit the answer 'yes', before asking you to join," says Jill. "If you're reluctant they pass you to another salesperson – 'the takeover' – who will work to nail the deal."

Timeshare contracts must have a get-out clause. But, says Mark Davis, a local tour operator, "that clause has no standing in Portugal – only in England. And if you get cold feet, you're leaned on to stay."

Mr Davis, like many Algarve business people, says that holidaymakers are constantly pestered. "OPCs put their head in your car with their scratchcards saying you've won a prize and must collect it at the timeshare complex. They promise it won't take long, then the client's there for hours. They leave flats without paying, and are banned from loads of bars. They give the Algarve a bad name. Mind you, loads of people who've bought say they love it."

Problems arise when timeshare owners want to sell but cannot find a buyer. Near Montechoro sprawl the abandoned ruins of Vale Navio, 82 acres of landscaped gardens and low white apartments. The timeshare company failed in the late 1990s, passed from hand to hand and is bogged down in a legal quagmire. Thousands of mainly British owners face scant prospect of getting their money back.

Wendy Swinton-Eagle, who runs an embroidery shop in Montechoro, shows me round and points to her old shop which she quit last April. It faces a vast flyblown courtyard but once, she says, "it was packed and lively. It was really lovely here."

The thriving Club Praia de Oura faces no such fate, but I evidently don't cut it as a potential salesperson. "Don't come back," are Mr Lindfors's parting words.

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