Miami’s new wave of experiential hotels

It’s hard to imagine that only a few years ago, Miami was at a low point. Repercussions from the drawn-out global recession were being felt in the real estate sector, with the state of Florida having one of the highest numbers of foreclosures. Large scale development projects ground to a halt, and it even reached a point where Miami was described as one of the least attractive cities for young adults between 25 and 34 to move to by the Brookings Institute (a non-profit research house).

Fast forward to 2014, and the resurgence of the city’s economic landscape uncovers a completely different story. With a shift in culture and lifestyle, Miami has transformed itself by moving from the mainstream and attracting a new generation, dubbed the “creative class”.

Cultural preservation
This Miami revival did not happen by chance, nor was it an overnight success – it has been a gradual development, achieved as a result of the hard work put in by a number of great visionaries from the past. The likes of John Collins and Carl Fisher played a key role in the early 20th century, when Miami was a sandbar and provided a perfect habitat for coconuts and mangos.

Hotels began to spring up at this time with designs that were inspired by the classical Art Deco style, which had been popularised at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. Renowned architects, such as Henry Hohauser, Murray Dixon and Morris Lapidus, developed various interpretations of the art deco style, and this continued all the way to the Miami Modernist (MiMo) era.

Then there was Barbara Capitman, one of the first to understand the rich cultural capital that Miami had accumulated since the early 1920s. Her work in the mid-1970s was instrumental in getting the Deco District on South Beach a designation as a protected architectural area. “Art Deco on Miami South Beach was created to inspire fantasy for the locals,” says Herb Sosa, chairman of the City of Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Design Review Board. “Travel at that time was only affordable for the wealthy, which is why many buildings were designed by applying nautical themes, tropical motifs and flamingos.”

Sosa, along with the board, approves all building renovation applications on Miami Beach to ensure that they conform to preserving their unique design heritage.

The resulting supply of Art Deco buildings became the ideal platform for the first boutique hotels to appear in the 1990s, like the Delano Hotel and The Astor, at a time when the hotel scene was looking at other angles to invite a different type of crowd.

“In the 1950s, bigger was better when it came to building hotels,” says Kobi Karp, president of Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design. “Air conditioning was an expensive amenity, so a large number of rooms were needed to make it financially viable. The shift to the boutique concept was a different way of thinking, using the heritage of a building to tell a different story.”

Karp is responsible for reviving numerous existing hotels and buildings back to their former glory in Miami and Florida State. His most current projects include the Commune Hotels & Resorts’ flagship, Thompson Miami, which is scheduled to open in late 2014, and The Plymouth Hotel, managed by Think Hotels Group, scheduled to open next year. Both buildings were originally designed in the 1940s and will be renovated by Karp to ensure that their architectural heritage is preserved.

A new wave of hospitality
Miami’s hospitality landscape has advanced as successfully as its architectural evolution and, as a result, become one of the top four performing destinations in the United Sates, alongside New York, San Francisco and Oahu Island (Hawaii).

According to the 2013 Visitor Industry Overview (presented by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau) average occupancy (77.9%), ADR ($175.40), and RevPar ($137.83) all saw increases compared to 2012. It also sold a record 13.7 million room nights, many of which were bought by Latin American arrivals, from countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela. A vast amount of wealth has poured into Miami’s real estate market as a result of the political instability in those countries. This, in turn, has helped to create a resurgence in hotel development, whilst also attracting a new audience called the “creative class” – a wealthy segment group in search of hotels that offer experiences, instead of a commoditised luxury product.

“The creative class are typically first generational millionaires who are creative and like to take risks, including their consumption habits. They also have a real taste for singularity and individuality,” says Serge Dive, CEO and founder of Beyond Luxury Media. “This has created a demand and opportunity in the travel industry, which it needs to respond to. Serving one type of customer on a quest for ceremonials and status is now a thing of the past.”

Miami has clearly demonstrated it has the right characteristics for Dive and Beyond Luxury Media to use the city as a platform to create and host LE Miami, the world’s first travel trade show to reflect this shift in luxury. Having just completed its second year, the buzz and the energy during the show’s five days was truly dynamic.

Not only does LE Miami act as a surging incubator of innovative ideas and trends forecasting, it has also become a central stage for hotels around the world to showcase their design, innovation, and experiential appeal to travel buyers who are looking to provide something different for their customers.

Emerging neighbourhoods
An array of hotel brands continue to gain a foothold in the hive of Miami’s success (54 projects and 8,998 rooms as of Q1 2014), which has helped to stimulate other neighbourhoods in Miami, each looking to develop its own niche appeal. While South Beach is known for catering more to the mass tourist and staging flamboyant parties, Mid Beach has positioned itself so that it attracts a more mature and urbane clientele.

With Soho Beach House taking the plunge in the midst of economic upheaval in 2010, others have now followed suite. The Miami Beach Edition, scheduled to open this autumn, will not be new territory for Marriott’s collaborator Ian Schrager. When he opened the Delano Hotel, his ethos in creating social spaces that were trendy and fun, rather than obligatory, kick-started the boutique hotel craze in Miami. This time round, Schrager is aiming take the concept of social entertainment up a few notches, in addition to combing 26 residences in the mix.

“The Miami Beach Edition will appeal to a sophisticated, creative traveller looking for an intriguing and elevated experience,” says Ben Pundole, VP of brand experience at Edition Hotels. “With a restaurant by Jean Georges, a club, bowling lanes and an ice skating rink, Schrager will provide the most exciting Miami beach experience in years.”

The product mix of hotel, five-star living residences and entertainment is on the agenda for another hotel group, Faena Life, which has a grand plan to create a neighbourhood of culture, also situated on Mid Beach. Masterminded by Argentinian-born Alan Faena, his visionary approach is certainly ambitious in a city that already offers a strong cultural program. Preferring to be called a modern day alchemist rather than hotelier, Faena’s collaborative project includes the restoration of the Saxony Hotel, new beachside residences, an arts centre with artists-in-residence, retail space and an automated car park.

“Luxury is a word of the past and I personally don’t believe in it,” says Faena. “Faena Life is more of a democracy, a neighbourhood that offers a sense of simplicity that can be accepted by the people.”

One of the penthouse residences was reportedly listed at $50 million, which feels somewhat contradictory to the distaste that Faena has expressed about using luxury as a marketing tool. Dreamy blue-sky thinking comes to mind, but with all the residences now 100% sold out, the launch of this year’s first phase is when Faena can really put his words into action.

Other areas further away from the beach are also picking up pace. Hong-Hong developer Swire Properties will be entering the US market with Brickell City Centre, a $1.05 billion mixed-use development in Miami’s Brickell downtown financial district, which will also include EAST, Miami, a hotel offering 263 rooms and 89 serviced apartments. Over 6,200 jobs will created in this project alone and Microsoft looks set to increase that number, having recently confirmed plans to open the first US-based Microsoft Innovation Center in Miami.

The hospitality, services and technology sectors seem to have collided together and formed an economic picture that many other cities across the world could only dream to have. All eyes are on Miami to see if the strong momentum can continue into the medium and long term.  But as demonstrated through its history, it will take more than a hurricane to dent the huge wave that Miami is currently riding on – at least for the time being.

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