Florida Is Getting Its Own Baha Mar-Style Mega-Resort in Boca Raton
(Bloomberg) -- On a Wednesday morning in late July, Daniel Hostettler looks out his second-floor office window to watch the demolition of the Boca Raton Resort and Club’s iconic porte cochere, an oval asphalt entryway with an Italianite fountain and soaring palm trees. Besides the Breakers a few miles north in Palm Beach, the currently closed building is the closest thing South Florida has to a grand dame, although these days it’s adorned with dump trucks and bricklayers rather than Aston Martins and Maseratis.
Hostettler is new on the scene; when we speak it’s his 90th day in sunny Boca Raton. But his job as the hotel’s president is to transform the 356-acre architectural gem, previously a Waldorf Astoria, into something resembling a South Florida Baha Mar, a $4 billion mega-resort in the Bahamas. He has the chops to do so: He hails from the Ocean House Management Collection, where he previously managed a handful of properties, including one of four Forbes Triple Five Star hotels in the U.S., the Ocean House in Rhode Island.
He has capital, too: For an undisclosed sum in mid-2019, the Boca Raton Resort and Club was sold from an affiliate of Blackstone Inc to billionaire technology magnate Michael Dell, whose real estate company MSD Holdings LLC has been quietly investing in high-end resorts around the U.S. since 2004. For the first phase of the renovation, which will debut for the upcoming winter holiday season, the company is spending some $175 million.
“We’re not your grandparents’ resort anymore,” says Hostettler. “We’re reimagining the entire experience, going away from what was a very nice Hilton[-owned] convention hotel by the water, and more back to the hotel’s historic roots as a bucket list destination unto itself.”
What used to be two disparate lodges straddling opposite sides of Lake Boca—a 1920s “cloister” building designed by society architect Addison Mizner and a more modern beach club—is now being redeveloped as a single sprawling complex with five discreet hotels, a championship-level golf course, and a 50,000-square-foot spa. Replacing the old convention center will be the Harborside Pool Club, a four-acre water complex with three-story-tall water slides, a lazy river, family and adults-only sections, 48 new cabanas, and two new restaurants. Zipping between the inland and beach sides of the resort will be a new fleet of millennial-pink boats, a nod to the resort’s façade, whose color has famously resembled strawberry buttercream since the 1960s.
Adding to it all will be four restaurants from Major Food Group, known for creating so-hot-right-now concepts with theatrical, themed interiors such as the Grill in Manhattan. The first endeavor, the Flamingo Grill, has already opened as a retro-glam chophouse where banana splits get flambeed tableside by servers in pink jackets. All of their venues—and six other food and beverage spots—will be accessible only to hotel guests and members of the Boca Raton Club, for which enrollment fees are reputedly in the mid-five figures. (The hotel declined to confirm them.)
The complex also has a new name. The Boca Resort, as locals have long called it, is now just The Boca Raton.
A Destination, or Part of One
“The idea,” says Hostettler, “is to take that cruise ship approach to sea days, where in the evening you get an agenda of things you can do for the next day, and it’s all included, right where you are.” This means that The Boca Raton is less a conduit to the municipality with which it shares its name than a self-sufficient environment for guests. Tai chi, yoga, workshops at the spa, cooking classes, wine tastings, mixology lessons—the list seemingly goes on and on, in addition to 20 tennis and pickleball courts and watersports on an attended, half-mile slice of private beach.
That’s what makes The Boca Raton’s comparison to Baha Mar’s three-hotel complex so apt: When you plan a trip, you’re going to Baha Mar, not to Nassau. Indeed, the hotel may be hoping that with its new name, a visit to Boca Raton becomes synonymous with staying at The Boca Raton.
But you can’t draw people to The Boca Raton without reeducating them on Boca Raton, either. While the city is often misunderstood as a mere retirement haven, in reality it claims impressive nature reserves and Japanese gardens, plus a surprising number of genuinely cool places to eat—making it a laid-back, family-friendly alternative to party-centric Miami or far fancier Palm Beach.
“Our club membership was historically an older crowd, people who retired and moved down,” says Hostettler. “But every membership we’ve sold in the last 40 days has been young fortysomethings with kids up to people in their 60s—it’s a young exodus from New York City that has discovered that Boca is a great place to be.”
Five Hotels, One Resort
All of the five hotels The Boca Raton comprises are currently undergoing renovations in at least some parts of their buildings, but the Beach Club, whose lobby was completed earlier this summer, is open, with rooms in the $550-per-night range.
“Booking activity in the region has seen a slight slowdown,” Hostettler says with regard to the swell of coronavirus cases currently plaguing South Florida. He adds that the hotel’s two-bedroom Bungalows with private kitchens have been a popular Covid-cautious choice. (Despite Florida-wide bans on mask mandates, the hotel is requiring face coverings for associates and asking any non-vaccinated staff to submit to weekly PCR tests.)
He and the rest of the staff hope that by winter, the delta variant will recede, helping to fill the resort’s 1,047 rooms. A full 800 of those are in the “harborside complex.” There, the 228-room Tower will compare to the typical Four Seasons with its butler service and starched interiors; the adults-only (and older-school) Yacht Club will have 120 balconied suites; and the historic Cloister will have 350 rooms with Spanish colonial flourishes and views of tropical courtyard gardens.
All told, guests of the previous incarnation will return to find the place completely transformed when the renovation is fully revealed this winter—the plan is to stagger the hotel openings starting in early December—not least because that pretty pink exterior is reverting to its original 1920s color, a pearly shade of white.
The $175 Million Gamble
Coburn Packard, partner at MSD, says acquiring the Boca Resort was a no-brainer. “We’re always looking to buy things that are too expensive to replicate,” he explains. “A historic hotel sitting on 300-plus acres of South Florida real estate? It took only a quick glance to realize it was irreplaceable,” he says.
The Boca Raton is the first hotel MSD will operate without the help of a major brand; its other projects include the Four Seasons locations in Hawaii’s Maui and Hualalai and Santa Monica, Calif..
“Given the complexity in terms of number of hotels and the club business—which is one of the largest club operations in the country—a brand wouldn’t do justice to all those aspects,” explains Packard. MSD is currently investing in similarly unique projects in Dallas and elsewhere in Florida.
As for The Boca Raton, Packard is already calling it a success. “We’ve been extremely fortunate to benefit from the tailwinds post-Covid. All of South Florida is benefiting from it, and Boca certainly is, and our membership club certainly will,” he explains. “We’d like to think we’re creating something that hasn’t existed—one of the very few all-encompassing, truly resort-like settings in South Florida. Or really, anywhere in the continental U.S.”
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