Timeshare Tycoon Revs up Company, Restarts 90,000-square-foot Orlando Residence

Timeshare Tycoon Revs up Company, Restarts 90,000-square-foot Orlando Residence

» Featured Columnists | By Scott Kauffman | August 31, 2012 8:30 AM ET

Time-share tycoon David Siegel and wife, Jacqueline, are back in the news. And this time they seem to be enjoying the bright lights.

At least Siegel's wife, Jackie, seems to be relishing the limelight as the documentary movie about their luxurious Orlando lifestyle, "The Queen of Versailles," recently debuted in their hometown of Orlando. At the same time, the Siegels are all smiles as construction begins anew on their 90,000 square-foot dream residence called Versailles.

Believed to be the largest residence under construction in America, Versailles was put on hold in the aftermath of the Great Recession that dramatically cut into Siegel's Westgate Resorts timeshare empire. Versailles was the focal point of the movie, showing how even high-net worth individuals were affected to some degree by the global downturn.

After the movie came out, however, David Siegel, whose family initially cooperated with the filmmaker, was angered by the film, which depicted a not-so-flattering portrayal of Siegel's personal and business affairs. Consequently, Siegel sued the filmmaker for making "false and defamatory statements" and demanded an epilogue be added to the film to communicate that his financial empire is firmly intact.

Once the Great Recession set in, freezing worldwide capital markets and forcing Siegel to drastically cut back on his billion-dollar timeshare empire, Siegel put on hold the construction of his Versailles palace.

Oh how times have changed in one short year. Central Florida Investments Inc., Westgate Resorts' parent company, is now a leaner, stronger organization, sales are roaring back inside the timeshare gates, and the mood of the company is as positive as it's been since Westgate was generating $1 billion in annual revenue five years ago.

"We're feeling extremely good," said David Siegel, founder/president and CEO of one of the largest privately owned timeshare companies in the world. "At the first of this year, we gave pay raises to our employees for the first time in awhile and we're enhancing our employee benefit programs. This is a great time to be at Westgate because we have a great future.

"We have a very supercharged and energized sales team. They're very excited because they are seeing a lot of new and upgraded amenities at many of our resorts. When you see that kind of activity going on and you're making more money. ... It really puts a lift in the step of our team. Morale right now is at an all-time high within Westgate."

Indeed, Westgate Resorts, which Siegel started 32 years ago when he launched Westgate Vacation Villas one mile from Walt Disney World in Orlando, truly couldn't be a more exciting place to be around these days.

A year ago, timeshare juggernaut Westgate Resorts was not feeling all that mighty. The company was still reeling from the effects of the recession, the credit markets remained frozen and Siegel's company revenue was half of what it was in the peak year of '07.

According to Siegel, Westgate was forced to cut its sales in half to approximately $500 million - mostly due to the tightened credit markets - and lay off nearly half of its 12,000 employees. Appearing at a "Meet the Leaders" panel at Interval International's annual "Shared Ownership Investment Conference," last October in Orlando, Siegel said it was the first time in 31 years that his company didn't have any new timeshare project under construction.

Perhaps the biggest symbol of Siegel's turn of events was his future Orlando residence. The $100-million estate sat half-finished and was reportedly up for sale at one time. Then the highly publicized film came.

Today, the timeshare icon, couldn't be happier. In fact, during a recent interview with company COO Mark Waltrip, Siegel's longtime right-hand man, Waltrip was interrupted by a phone call from an Orlando official.

"That was a about a permit being issued," Waltrip says with a smile. "David is restarting his house."

Indeed, Westgate Resorts and Siegel both have their respective 'houses in order' these days.

At last year's "Shared Ownership Investment Conference," Siegel told the panel audience he's been through "every calamity including the RTC/S&L (crisis), the depression/recession, the oil crisis, 9/11, wars, etc., and yet we grew an average of 20 percent a year."

He wasn't so fortunate this time around. Not long after opening PH Towers Westgate in Las Vegas, Siegel's newest timeshare development connected to the Planet Hollywood Resort, Siegel had to sell his glitzy tower last November.

So, taking into consideration his age, some might be wondering if Siegel, 76, is ready to retire from the vacation ownership industry and hand over the Westgate reins. To the contrary, Waltrip says with a laugh.

"You know he's getting older but you could fool even me on that one," Waltrip adds. "I've known him for over 30 years and he still runs us all into the ground. In fact sometimes we catch ourselves talking about someone we know who is getting old and we have to catch ourselves and say, 'David we're not talking about you' because he has so much energy."

Besides his indefatigable energy, one quality about Siegel that remains as infectious as ever is his passion for an industry he helped build from scratch into the hugely accepted mainstream product it is today - replete with renowned brands such as Marriott, Starwood, Wyndham, Hilton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn and Disney.

"Our customer is the Walmart customer," Siegel proudly said at last year's high-profile Shared Ownership Investment Conference panel. "They pay their credit card on time. It's the truck driver from Iowa who is treated like a king. We make Middle America feel like a Rockefeller."

Even if they don't have their own 90,000-square-foot Versailles palace to one day call home.

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