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Sundance finds a sweet spot in sour economy Ron Bartizek Business LOCAL

Who woulda thunk it – while almost every economic indicator points to the cellar, a business that targets leisure travelers of limited means is thriving.

“It’s the oddest thing,” said Tina Dowd, who with her husband, John, owns Wilkes-Barre Township-based Sundance Vacations. Sales are up and the company projects $80 million in revenue this year compared to $69 million in 2008. That’s impressive for a company that opened in 1991 with the modest goal of selling weeklong visits in the Poconos to vacationers.

The Dowds worked in the timeshare industry at the time and things weren’t going well.

“There were not enough customers to make a living,” Tina Dowd said, so they developed their own marketing approach. They saw potential in packaging vacations in a way that kept costs low but gave clients the same experience as a timeshare.

“I guess we were kind of good at that,” she said with a modest laugh that implied even she is a bit surprised at their success.

Just back from a three-week RV trip with their daughters, age 14, 13 and 5, Dowd explained the company’s niche.

“Our customers don’t go to hotel rooms,” she said; instead Sundance buys blocks of weeks in condominiums around the United States, some as far away as Hawaii.

Clients buy in bulk, too. “We sell vacations by the case,” Dowd said, “kind of like Costco or Sam’s Club.” Customers make a down payment and can use the weeks over whatever period of time they like, paying as they go along. A typical week’s lodging costs about $700, she said.

And who’s buying? Their core customer is a group the rest of the travel and resort industry has dismissed.

“We love families,” Dowd said, and incomes of $25,000 to $30,000 are welcome. “That’s the difference,” she said; timeshare and vacation resort sellers target those with at least twice that income level. “They’re all chasing the same group of people.”

Does the Dowds’ success mean all those doom-and-gloom headlines are wrong? Not completely; even they are seeing signs of strain in slower down payments. But there’s a silver lining as well; some of the higher income crowd has started to show up for Sundance’s presentations, “because those people are trying to save money,” Dowd said.

The supply side is benefiting, too. “It’s a great buyers’ market right now,” both for reserving properties and for snagging marketing sponsorships that previously were out of reach.

So, if the stock market takes off and people begin spending beyond their means, will Sundance try to move up the demographic ladder?

“I don’t know that we would,” Dowd surmised, because there still would be a limited number of customers available and lots of other companies trying to grab them. “I think there’s always going to be enough people in our market who need a vacation.”

It’s good to see recognition go to businesses and institutions that invest in their facilities as well as their people. The Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber’s Pride of Place awards were handed out last week, honoring both exterior and interior improvements. Sundance Vacations won the Restoration/Renovation award. Other winners were: Shazam Realty, Environmental Enhancement; Dr. Loren Grossman, Interior Design; and Insalaco Hall at Misericordia University, New Construction.

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