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Miami is emerging as a more layered and varied tourism product, spurred by the development of cultural arts districts and aggressive hotel development catering to all segments.

The Hotels Innovate forum is part of a new series of discussions revolving around hospitality trends, hosted by The NSN Group in Miami, New York, London and Dubai.

Participants include hotel owners, operators, architects and various hospitality and tourism leaders.

The inaugural one-day Miami event took place in mid-March at the newly opened Miami Center for Architecture & Design in the downtown core. Nikita Sarkar, founder of The NSN Group, says the event was designed to pinpoint emerging trends in hospitality today.

“Really the idea for Hotels Innovate is to get an understanding of the thought processes of these leaders even before something becomes a trend,” says Sarkar. “It’s about what is the visionary thinking today, and how are these people creating unique and differentiated products that become competitive and successful.”

The first panel was moderated by Michael Adams, editor-in-chief of Hospitality Design.

Miami-based architect Chad Oppenheim opened the event with his views about how hotel design trends are embracing a more timeless narrative. Besides numerous local projects, the award-winning founder of Oppenheim Architecture + Design is presently working on hotel developments in Brooklyn, Wadi Rum and Doha.

“I think with so much talk about trends and innovation, there’s a shift toward the timeless, which can actually be more innovative than always trying to find the latest and greatest,” said Oppenheim. “I think in a way the tendency not to innovate, but to do things that are fundamental and pure and with great materials and great programming, is in a way something that will always succeed…. Just being very truthful to the building, to the ownership, to the sensibilities of the place.”

One of the ways hotel designers are doing that is through what Opppenheim calls “this invisibility of technology,” taking away some of the idolatry that designers and consumers often place on the latest gadgets.

“For us it’s very important, this notion of timelessness, so we’re really not focusing on the technology,” said Oppenheim. “It’s there, it’s hidden. Everything you need is there, but it’s not at the forefront. It is not a design feature because those things will become dated.”

Architect Allan Shulman, founding principle of the local Shulman + Associates firm, added, “But I think it’s important to find a balance between the classic and what’s new. Miami is a good example of that. It’s a well established hotel culture with a lot of new players.”

B. Tuckey Devlin, president of the new Hemingway Hotels & Resorts group, also discussed demand for less trend-driven, tech-pervasive hospitality experiences.

“We are walking backwards from technology,” he said. “Not from the operations of the hotel but from the touch and feel of the hotel. It’s intended to be, when you walk into the hotel, you can’t really tell what the age of the property is. It’s intended to be timeless.”

Boutique Brands

Another central theme focused on a growing trend toward hotels becoming community portals, bringing together creative artists, small neighborhood businesses and visiting guests. The hotel “salon”-style event is growing in popularity nationwide, which was something established years ago by The Betsy South Beach on Ocean Drive.

Consistently ranked among the top five Miami Beach hotels on TripAdvisor, The Betsy hosts a regular series of literary events and authors-in-residence programs.

GM Jeff Lehman helped develop The Betsy’s app and is presently consulting on another one for the city of Miami Beach. He said his focus is now on personalization and collecting data to establish a deeper connection with his guests. If, for example, records show that you ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio or asked for directions to Armani during a previous visit, the next time you visit there’ll be a bottle of Pinot Grigio or a $50 gift certificate to Armani waiting in your room.

“We’re elevating the experience through technology but it’s tricky how you use it,” said Lehman. “There’s a fine line about too much information. We talk a lot about this. In hotels, we want to send you a card saying, ‘It’s your birthday, think about coming back to The Betsy.’ We don’t want to say, ‘It’s your daughter’s birthday, think about coming back to The Betsy.’”

A lot of ears perked up when Neil H. Shah, president of Hersha Hospitality Trust, talked about the new small hotel his company is developing in Miami’s super-buzzy Design District. That area north of downtown adjacent to the Wynwood Arts District is challenging South Beach’s grip on Miami tourism.

Presently there are no hotels in the entire area making up both districts. With this project, scheduled to open in about two years, and others like The Graham in Washington, DC, Hersha is making a name for itself with its Independent Collection sub-brand. Profiled in Skift recently, the young brand develops boutique hotels in up-and-coming trendy neighborhoods.

“You can build a big hotel experience in a small hotel under 100 rooms in an interesting neighborhood with big character,” said Shah. “[The Design District] is a neighborhood we think is going to become one of the most special neighborhoods in the country.”

Virgin Hotels

One of the crowd favorites during the day’s events was Raul Leal, CEO of Virgin Hotels. The hospitality arm of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group opened an office in Miami last August.

Discussing Virgin Hotels’ brand mission, Leal said, “The most important thing is the value proposition. We might charge as high as the next guy around the block, but at the end of day it’s all about the value proposition.”

Moderator Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, managing partner of Cervera Real Estate, asked how the hotel group plans on differentiating itself in today’s booming hotel market. Is there room for another major player?

“We said, look, there’s a lot of competition in the hotel business, lots of great hotel competitors out there,” answered Leal. “Over the last 12 years you’ve seen a proliferation of lifestyle hotels and some big hotel brands like W that have done very well in that space. So when we took a look at the competition, Virgin Hotels needs to be a bridge, between lifestyle and boutique hotels and some of the legacy brands in the industry.”

Lamadrid and the audience wanted a little more than that.

“What we refer to as legacy brands are typically the Marriotts and Hilton hotels that have been around for a long time, and have done a great job establishing a great degree of consistency,” explained Leal. “But at the end of the day, they’re probably a little boring in some sense. And then with lifestyle hotels, which are very buzzy, sometimes they’re missing something on the comfort side. So our proposition of the brand is…can we do it better?

Leal said Virgin Hotels is going to be “playing in the lifestyle hotel sector with companies like W and SLS.”

For now, though, it’s all talk. The first hotel in Chicago is scheduled to open in the fall, and New York and San Francisco have yet to break ground. Virgin has said it will announce in the fall the next hotels in the development pipeline, which Leal said could include both Miami Beach and Miami.

Place Building

Also on the panel, Jessica Goldman Srebnick, CEO of Goldman Properties, is a big deal in Miami. Her father Tony Goldman was instrumental in the development of SoHo, New York and South Beach, and more recently Miami’s Wynwood District. Mr. Goldman, who died in 2012, had few peers regarding his ability to leverage arts, cultural and design communities in underserved neighborhoods to create high-profile real estate developments.

“Hospitality has been a really key component to everything when we go into places like SoHo in the 1970s and South Beach in the 1980s,” said Srebnick. “Opening these establishments shows that you’re completely invested in that neighborhood, that you are putting down your roots, that you’re committed to the neighborhood. [And] restaurants and hotels drive people to a neighborhood like nothing else.”

Goldman Properties owns The Hotel of South Beach, restaurants in Wynwood, and a lion’s share of warehouse buildings housing all of the art galleries in Wynwood. Goldman Sr. turned the area into a tourism magnet by hiring graffiti artists to paint hundreds of murals on the old warehouses originally home to Miami’s textile industry.

“In 2006, it was very much about creating a center for the Creative Class,” said Srebnick. “That was our goal. And we didn’t change the structures of the buildings. We always looked for what is the true essence, the original DNA…. In the case of Wynwood, it really wasn’t about the architecture. It was about the grittiness, it was the location, which is prime and central to everything pretty much, and it was about the street art.”

Lamadrid asked what makes it so special?

“It’s unlike any place I’ve ever seen,” said Srebnick. “It’s the largest outdoor street art museum in the world. We used the buildings as a canvas and now all kinds of incredible artists are wanting to come and participate.”

Srebnick added that SoHo real estate prices have grown from $3 to over $500 per square foot during the company’s involvement in the neighborhood. In Wynwood, prices have jumped from $6 per square foot in 2006 to $28-$32 today.

Miami Worldcenter

The Miami Worldcenter development occupying over a dozen blocks of the downtown core is adjacent to American Airlines Arena and the new waterfront Museum Park. It’s going to be anchored by the 1,800-room Marriott Worldcenter, sitting atop a 600,000-square-foot convention center, and a new Macy’s/Bloomindale’s mixed use project lining a pedestrian boulevard.

The Marriott will be attached to the new so-called “Grand Central” train station planned as the nexus of the proposed All Aboard high-speed train system linking Miami to Orlando.

“Miami is always one of the top 5-10 destinations people would like to go to have a meeting, but top 50 because of a lack of facilities, so there’s a real disconnect,” said Nitin R. Motwani, managing principal of Miami Worldcenter. “We have a blank canvas which is a unique privilege…. We think this will be a game changer not just for downtown but for the region as a whole.”

No official timetable has been announced, but last summer lead architect John Nichols was quoted in the Miami Herald saying the project could open in about four years.

Although, Motwani acknowledged Miami’s notoriously inefficient city planning, zoning and building departments.

“When you’re talking about millions of square feet, you don’t have time to continue to educate every single person about every little thing, because you need to move, you need to build, you need to open,” he said. “That right now is a challenge.”

Motwani ended the day with his overall view on the Miami hospitality landscape.

“We think about ourselves as this little sleepy city but a lot of people around the world don’t,” he asserted. “We’re ranked one of the top 10 cities for the ultra wealthy. We’re more important to them than cities like Paris or Beijing.”

Sarkar found it surprising that locals often dismiss their city as one-dimensional. For people who’ve lived in Miami since the boom in the early 1990s, there is a pervasive sense that the “Beach” is still just a cozy neighborhood.

“I was intrigued by the discussion about how in Miami, there’s this mentality that it’s a small town city,” she said. “Because not living in Miami and coming from the outside, I was like, wow, really? I was surprised that people here don’t realize how big the city is from a global standpoint.”

Greg Oates covers hotel/tourism development and travel brand media. He has toured over 1,000 hotels in 50+ countries. email / twitter

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Tags: development, miami

Photo credit: The proposed 1,800-room Marriott Worldcenter in downtown Miami will be the city's first true convention hotel. Miami Worldcenter

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