Ah, the yachts. They streamed in for weeks, taking up residence along the Intracoastal Waterway, in the Miami Beach Convention Center, and in parking lots throughout Miami Beach for the Miami International Boat Show. They looked so majestic and peaceful there. The streets, though, from the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort to the boutique hotels at the southern end of Collins Avenue, were anything but peaceful, as traffic came to a near standstill.
It was President's Day weekend, and Miami Beach tourism was at the center of a perfect storm: long weekend, expensive boats, a cold winter in the northern US. The city was packed, from North Beach's Deauville resort, to the Fontainebleau in Mid-Beach, to the Loews South Beach, to the boutiques further south on Collins Avenue.
Anyone who tried to get around Miami Beach that February weekend knows that tourism has come roaring back since 9/11. At the 790-room Loews, where business is split nearly 50-50 between leisure and groups, "2002 was pretty much the worst year in terms of the hotel's performance financially," says managing director Charlie Hines. "And 2003 was pretty much the best year."
City-wide, the numbers are up. "Out of the five bed taxes we collect, four of them have already achieved pre-9/11 levels," says Stuart Blumberg, president and CEO of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association. "I think we will achieve those pre-9/11 numbers across the board by the end of next year. Convention bookings are already huge." And that's a good thing, because tourism remains the city's most important industry. "There are other drivers that have emerged, but tourism hasn't receded," says Miami Beach economic development director Kevin Crowder. "It's still the central component."
That doesn't mean the face of the industry hasn't changed. Back when New York hotelier Tony Goldman helped introduce the world to South Beach hip, it was mostly fashion industry types who filled the rooms of his hotels. Today, says his daughter Jessica Goldman, chief operating officer for Goldman Properties, "You have your business travelers, your gay clientele, your families. You've got black, white, European, South American." The variety of travelers is one reason the Goldman hotels have very distinct personalities. The Park Central attracts a value-oriented, down-to-earth crowd, Goldman says, with customers interested in its authentic Art Deco design. The 53-room The Hotel, decorated by fashion designer Todd Oldham, she says, "caters to a more upscale customer."
Miami Beach is even attracting a high-end market not interested in the "see and be seen" atmosphere. The 56-suite Villa Capri at 30th and Collins has a gated entryway designed with privacy in mind. "My goal is to attract celebrities and jet-setters, because the hotel offers privacy, luxury and is very elegant and romantic," says owner Victor Azria, who purchased the property in August 2003.
The tourism base in Miami Beach has also had a higher domestic count in recent years, as Americans reluctant to travel abroad come in search of a Caribbean or European feeling. That's one key reason the city has seen more black travelers. Another reason is the opening of Don Peebles' Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort, the country's first African American-owned nationally branded resort hotel. "All the publicity kind of set the tone that Miami Beach welcomes diverse clientele," says Peebles, who is also the current chairman of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Peebles' priority is growing the family market in Miami Beach, to strengthen the summer season. "I can't think of anything more important to our industry," he says. "Major occupancy declines in the summer affect not only the hotel industry, but also the other businesses that service the industry," Peebles sees no conflict between being a family destination and the hip image behind the city's renaissance over the past decade. "Hip people have children," he says. "Here, you can play with your kids during the day and then leave them with a babysitter and go out to the clubs and the adult playground at night."
Even such bastions of South Beach chic as Ian Schrager Hotels' Delano and Shore Club are leaning towards Peebles' vision. "At the Delano, we've gotten a much stronger influx of young families," says Tim Miller, vice president of brand management for the company. "Couples that may have been at the Delano in 1995 have married and had children and are using this as their family vacation."
The same phenomenon is apparent at Mid-Beach's Fontainebleau Hilton Resort. The Morris Lapidus-designed hotel, celebrating its 50th birthday in December of 2004, helped put Miami Beach on the national tourism map. A chic honeymoon spot in the 1960s and 1970s, it's now seeing couples return years later with their children. "There's something special about an older hotel with this kind of history," says Fontainebleau vice president of development Melanie Muss. "People like nostalgia." A $60 million renovation, including a lively children's playground and water park, has increased that appeal, Muss says.
The 900-plus-room Fontainebleau is adding to its inventory with an under-construction 36-story condo-hotel tower and a second, 18-story condo-hotel. When the new construction is complete. Miami Beach's largest hotel will have some 1,700 rooms on its 18-acre site, many of them offering a higher-end product than the hotel's current rooms.
"The five-star or luxury hotels have brought another level of visitor," says the hospitality association's Blumberg. Among them is the 376-room Ritz-Carlton South Beach, which opened earlier this year and is already experiencing sold-out weekends. The beach-front property's guests so far have been split between leisure travelers and those staying for group business, able to conduct corporate meetings in its 17,000 square feet of meeting space. Like the Royal Palm and the Park Plaza, it takes advantage of its historic heritage, incorporating the original Di Lido hotel's terrazzo floors, hand railings and other architectural elements. Add to that packages that include a Vespa scooter, and "when you speak to guests who have been in many Ritz Carlton hotels, they clearly tell us we are one of a kind," says general manager Franz Firschke.
Besides broadening Miami Beach's tourism appeal, the other key concern is whether the Miami Beach Convention Center will be expanded. City officials say there is already growing demand from groups that are too large for the current facility. To pay for expansion. Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami Beach recently ended a dispute over convention development funds, with the county agreeing to hand over $15 million in taxes for the convention center. The county will put another $55 million in funding on the November ballot, as part of a billion-dollar bond initiative. "The chicness and the film industry fickleness will come and go, but the convention center will always be the heart of business travel," says Bruce Singer, president and CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce.