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Historic Biltmore Hotel adapts itself to 21st-century realities
Gables Magazine / December 2004

By Larry Luxner

Business is gradually recovering at the Biltmore Hotel arguably the most historic building in Coral Gables and one of the best-known luxury hotel properties in the United States.

Eli G. White Jr. is vice-president of sales and marketing for the Seaway Group, which has a 99-year lease from the City of Coral Gables to operate the hotel. He says the Biltmore, which first opened for business in 1926, is currently at 70% occupancy, down from around 75% prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The airlines took a hit with the fear factor in the early days after 9/11. Even before that, the economy was starting to slow down, including the economies of Latin America," he said. "Prior to 9/11, Latin America generated 30% of our market. Today, it's only around 15-20%, and they come primarily from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico."

The Biltmore's largest market is still the Northeastern corridor that includes Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. That accounts for most of the domestic market, which is 60% of the total. Florida accounts for most of the remainder.

White declined to give revenue figures but said that despite Florida's four hurricanes and an economic slowdown, Biltmore would be profitable this year. Rooms at the hotel there are 20 to 25 different configurations are currently going for an average $190; that's expected to rise to $210 this time next year.

"Business is recovering slowly, and occupancy will come back," he said. "You have to look at the market. In the last five years, there's been a 20% or more increase in the inventory of new guest rooms. That's about 8,000 rooms, and they're not Holiday Inns or Hamptons. There's a Mandarin, a Four Seasons, a Fairmont, three Ritz-Carltons, a J.W. Marriott, a Conrad, the 700-room Loews on the Beach, and a new Crowne Plaza."

He added: "These are all formidable competitors in a market that's been overbuilt. There was a real need for quality first-class hotel rooms, but we didn't need for them to all come on the market at the same time."

The Biltmore, which opened in 1926, has a long and storied history which comes alive in vivid color, in a 207-page coffee-table book by Samuel D. LaRoue Jr. and Ellen J. Uguccioni. "The Biltmore Hotel: An Enduring Legacy" was published in August 2002 in honor of the hotel's 75th anniversary.

On Sept. 17, 1926, only nine months after the Biltmore's grand opening, South Florida was devastated by a Category 5 hurricane that killed 75 people, destroyed thousands of buildings and shattered Miami's real-estate boom. In the storm's wake, the barely damaged Biltmore sheltered over 2,000 homeless people a precursor to 1992, when the hotel would house emergency workers in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.

In 1942, the Biltmore was taken over by the federal government for $895,000 and turned into a Veterans Administration hospital. That status continued until 1968, after which it was vacated and eventually taken over by the City of Coral Gables, which decided to return the 125-acre property to use as a luxury hotel.

In 1985, an investors' group spent $55 million to renovate the Biltmore. It operated for five years until that group went bankrupt in 1990. Two years later, the Seaway Group was contacted.

"At the time, we were operating the Sheraton Sand Key in Clearwater, and Barnett Bank asked to see if we wanted to take a look at it," recalled White. "After four or five months, we were given permission to take over the 99-year lease, so we began the process of determining what needed to be done, both structurally and cosmetically."

For an entire month, White stayed in the hotel alone, living in Suite 115 as he and his colleagues completed their due diligence. "The hotel was padlocked except for the back security entrance," he said. "There was no hot water, so we had a few cool showers during that time."

The Seaway Group owned by partners Gene Prescott and Robert Kay planned to reopen the Biltmore in October 1992. But the property opened two months early due to Hurricane Andrew. Because the Biltmore is a designated emergency shelter for the City of Coral Gables, the reincarnated hotel ended up housing 1,000 police officers, firefighters, city officials and insurance adjusters as its first real guests.

"We really took off in 1994, when we hosted the Summit of the Americas," said White. "That historic event brought together the heads of state of 34 Latin American and Caribbean nations including President Clinton, who stayed in the $2,700-a-night Everglades Suite on the 13th floor.

That three-day summit led eventually to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which envisions one giant trading bloc stretching from Alaska in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. Miami hopes to be the permanent headquarters of the FTAA, but for now, the FTAA's temporary office is housed at the Biltmore's Conference Center of the Americas.

These days, the Biltmore has 280 guest rooms (down from the original 499), as well as 76,000 square feet of function space 36,000 square feet inside the main building, and 40,000 square feet at the adjacent Conference Center of the Americas.

According to White, 94% of the Biltmore's guests arrive by air. They're generally in the 35-65 age range and enjoy median household incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 or more.

White, a Tampa resident, flies down to Miami every Tuesday and returns home for the weekend on Fridays a grueling routine he's kept for the past 12 years.

During that time, says White, the Seaway Group has spent $45 million on renovations at the Biltmore, including $13 million alone on the Conference Center of the Americas. "We've also done a complete rehab on all the guest rooms, several times over," he said. That includes Israeli tile in two-thirds of the rooms. We're also spending a lot of money on technology."

The Seaway Group, with annual revenues of $85 million, manages more than just the Biltmore. Also in its portfolio is the David William Hotel, a 50-unit condo hotel just eight blocks away in Coral Gables; the all-suite Alexander Hotel in Miami Beach, and the four-star Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater.

And in New York, it also has the three-star Staten Island Hotel, a typical suburban lodge that caters to honeymooners.

White calls the Biltmore a "fully amenitized resort," with its 18-hole golf course, 10 lighted tennis courts, 13,000-square-foot health club and the spa, which is now being renovated and enlarged from 2,000 square feet to 11,000 square feet at a cost of $2 million.

"The spa will be completed by the first week of December," he said. "People will come here for the sole purpose of having a spa experience not just to sit in a hammock and swing. Health has become a major issue, and people are looking not just to get a massage but for stress relief. We'll offer signature treatments you wouldn't find elsewhere. To be considered a full-service resort, you not only need a very nice golf course and a pool; you've got to have that spa component."

The Biltmore is also working hard to attract business guests. For the last five years, it has been the official headquarters of the Miami Herald's annual summit on Latin America. It is also home to the Conference Center of the Americas (CCA), a venture among the hotel, the City of Coral Gables and the University of Florida.

Since its opening in August 2000, the 40,000-square-foot CCA has earned the distinction of being South Florida's only active member of the International Association of Conference Centers. It also benefits from a partnership with IBM Corp., which has created an "e-business executive briefing center" that provides senior business and IT executives from Latin America with information and guidance on how to take e-business from a concept to a working reality.

The CCA seamlessly unites the old-world ambiance of the original hotel and country club with the 21st century.

According to Rob Reed, executive director of the CCA, "the intention of the City of Coral Gables and the hotel's owners has been to transform this historic building into a world-class, competitive center that bridges the Americas and serves as a forum for historic meetings and conferences. That vision has come to life."

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