The Luxe Life

Delano hotel general manager Mark Tamis
Jonathan Postal

The Sanctuary hotel has a customized Bentley to whisk its guests around South Beach in style. The Ritz-Carlton offers a hunky poolside "tanning butler" to help schmeer sunscreen onto those hard-to-reach body parts. And, should musical inspiration strike in the wee hours, the $1000-a-night Setai features a Lenny Kravitz-designed recording studio. So just how does the Delano hotel propose to deal with this growing competition for its decade-long position as the Beach's premiere destination for the chic set?

"We have a genie," Delano general manager Mark Tamis offhandedly remarks in the midst of detailing his hotel's services.

Hold on. Did you just say you have a genie on staff?

"Yes, a genie," Tamis repeats matter-of-factly, speaking in the tone of voice one might use to tout, say, a deluxe salad bar. "He grants wishes."

Kulchur is momentarily speechless. Still, as the Great Hotel War of 2006 heats up, it only seems appropriate that if supernatural powers are to be wielded, they be deployed on behalf of the Delano. After all, its lobby already invokes Alice in Wonderland, complete with gauzy white curtains billowing from its cavernous ceiling, a velvet chair large enough to make Shaquille O'Neal look like an infant, and a long hallway leading past a life-size chess board to a "vanishing edge" pool with furniture welded to its floor.

"The genie doesn't wear pointy shoes," Tamis chuckles as Kulchur stares back at him incredulously, "and there's no brass lamp involved." Instead, this wish-granting wizard casually ambles around the Delano's pool area administering foot massages and, once the proper level of relaxed intimacy has been achieved, inquiring as to guests' secret desires. This being South Beach, Tamis declines to elaborate on the more outré requests. "Some of them are sexual in nature," he admits with a knowing smile. But as long as it's legal, he's game. And he's proud to claim his genie has saved at least one marriage.

None of this was in Tamis's business textbooks back at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, where he graduated in 1988. But then few would have predicted South Beach's evolution from an Eighties crime-ridden slum into the so-called American Riviera. Even as late as June 1995, when the Delano opened, this city was far from an obvious candidate for a tony resort setting.

"It was hard to visualize; nothing like this rehab had happened before here," recalls Miami Beach Commissioner Simon Cruz. Then the senior vice president of Ocean Bank, Cruz convinced his fellow executives to back Ian Schrager — Studio 54 nightlife impresario turned hotelier — and his 1993 $3.6 million purchase of a down-on-its-heels Collins Avenue retirement home. Ocean Bank staked half of Schrager's $24 million remodeling costs and then held its breath as Schrager turned the traditional notions of a luxury hotel inside out, enlisting designer Philippe Starck to mix the wacky with the minimalist.

The duo clothed their entire staff in medicinal white from head to toe and then decorated the Delano's rooms in the exact same fashion: A green apple on a wall sconce is the only splash of color inside sparse accommodations that more than a few travel writers have described as "sanitarium-like." Even Donald Trump, hardly a paragon of refined aesthetics, scoffed at the lack of luxe. Schrager's response? "I don't sell sleep," he quipped to the New York Times. "I sell magic."

Indeed, from its opening day, if guests were looking for a dose of excitement, Schrager didn't want them traveling any farther than back down the Delano's elevator. Come nightfall, the lobby was transformed into a central stop on the Beach's nightlife circuit, with a DJ spinning beats alongside a restaurant co-owned by Madonna (back when that concept still accelerated pulses).

Cruz, who grew up in New York City and managed to breach Studio 54's fabled velvet rope a few times, says he never doubted Schrager's plan: "I saw firsthand what he could create." Some of his banking colleagues were less sure: Would moneyed visitors really shell out $125 for rooms in a trash-strewn neighborhood still filled with drug dens and besieged alter cockers?

"I don't think that $125 rate even lasted past the first weekend," Cruz laughs. "The place just took off from day one. [Schrager] gave it that sizzle, and they've been able to retain it." However you want to describe that appeal, the mid-Nineties social whirl was quick to adopt the Delano as a second home. Hollywood stars from Richard Gere to Sharon Stone, as well as supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, all served as chum in the water for the international flock of travelers desiring to lay out alongside them.

Moreover, a decade later, the term high-end customer no longer automatically connotes the use of pharmaceuticals on that stretch of Collins Avenue. This weekend a king-size bed with an ocean view at the Delano will run you $430 — and nearly double that sum once the winter months and the New York crowd arrive. Even that price may soon be a bargain, though. Peter Loftin has just reopened his Casa Casuarina, formerly Gianni Versace's Ocean Drive mansion, as a private club where the $36,000 initiation fee allows you a crack at one of its ten suites — available at upwards of $4000 a night. One can only imagine the room service charges.

But don't forget about Andre Balazs's Raleigh and his new Standard on the Venetian Islands, or the Pomeranc clan's similarly upscale Sagamore. And those are just the hotels ready to duke it out this season. The looming transformation of the once-dowdy Holiday Inn into a W, as well as the midpriced Roney Plaza's imminent rebirth as a Gansevoort, are more than symbolic upgrades. They're the leading edge of a phenomenon that mirrors the Beach's residential real estate boom — boutique hotels are now less a niche than the city's norm. Which raises a troubling question: Are there enough wealthy travelers to fill all of those high-priced rooms? Or is there an impending bubble of luxury hotels?

For now at least, the hotel numbers mirror those of South Florida's condos. "Miami was one of the top two performers in the nation, with a room rate increase of 11.6 percent over last year," notes Jan Freitag, vice president of Smith Travel Research, which tracks the national lodging industry.

According to Freitag, Miami Beach's luxury hotels had an even higher occupancy rate than New York City's for the period of January to August 2005 — 81.8 percent — with an average daily rate (ADR) of $293. In March, the peak of the season, that ADR soared to $399 — if you could find a room, that is. In fact, with the hotel trade's returns expected to outpace inflation, Freitag sees even more corporate players purchasing buildings in Miami Beach in the coming months and hoping to attract "upper tier" guests. You don't have to take his word for it, though. Simply look to a recent Ocean Drive boutique entrant — the restored Hotel Victor: The Victor may be owned by Hyatt, but you won't see that staid chain's name anywhere on its premises.

"There's a lot of money out there chasing deals," Freitag concludes, "but it's hard to build now because there's very little steel, very little concrete, and apparently very little wood available." With China's growth sucking up all the steel, and "both timber and labor all going to New Orleans, it's easier, cheaper, and faster to buy and convert than to build [from scratch]."

However, not everyone is convinced. "This is a fickle market," warns David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel & Restaurant Business Association. And although he agrees with Freitag that even more money is set to pour into town, Kelsey believes an economic downturn could winnow out the glut of operators now concentrating exclusively on the swanky "carriage trade." Moreover, what Wall Street's free-spending hedge-fund managers giveth, they can just as easily taketh away: "The younger ones with money, the ones that are here because this is a trendy place to party hard — they're going to be happy until the trend moves somewhere else."

Case in point: Saint Barts, the Caribbean isle that was the subject of reams of glossy profiles only a few years ago, now, with fashionistas and celebs having decamped to the latest hot spot, teeters on the edge of the B list. "It's a little bit of a precarious situation to depend on those people," Kelsey adds.

Back at the Delano, Mark Tamis brushes aside such fears. He's already prepared for the shifting winds of hipsterdom. Back in 2003, the Delano owners assumed management of the nearby Shore Club and repositioned it as a destination for a younger crowd fixated on seeing-and-being-seen alongside Jay-Z and Jessica Simpson inside that hotel's glitzy Skybar.

Not that Tamis is prepared to abandon the boldface regulars who have garnered his hotel so much buzz over the years — Jennifer Lopez seems to log more time in the Delano's penthouse than in her own North Bay Road manse. "But we have a different vibe," he explains, one aimed at ensuring that "more experienced travelers" (code for those who own instead of rent summer Hamptons spreads) maintain the Delano on their winter itinerary. Besides, Tamis has a more immediate concern: finding another 200 fresh Granny Smith apples to stock the Delano's rooms.

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