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The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota Celebrates 10 years

In the decade since its November 2001 premier, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota has largely redefined luxury along the Gulf Coast, helped spur the development of hundreds of condominiums and brought hundreds of thousands of tourists to a region always hungry for new visitors.

All that has come against a raft of problems and obstacles that plagued the resort during its short history.

In its first decade — to be celebrated this week — the regional landmark has blossomed from a 266-room hotel with 50 condos above into a full-fledged resort, with a private, beachfront club; an exclusive golf course and clubhouse; a state-of-the-art spa; and more than 200 companion residences.

From a tourism standpoint, the 17-story hotel — along with its 1.5 million guests — also has introduced many to Sarasota and beyond. It has brought in millions of dollars in tourism and other taxes, and altered outside travelers' perspective about this region.

Most broadly, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota has boosted existing local home values, recast luxury hotel development on a global scale and helped spark new condo towers in downtown Sarasota by achieving unprecedented per-square-foot prices prior to construction in 1999, with Ritz-Carlton-affiliated condos generating sales of more than $500 million.

"It was a game changer on many different levels," said Michael Saunders, chief executive of the residential real estate firm that handled sales for a trio of Ritz-Carlton-affiliated condos in Sarasota.

"Go back 10 years," Saunders said. "There was no new residential building in downtown Sarasota, there were not the plethora of restaurants we have now, and Sarasota was not the destination the place is today."

Saunders and others say that the Ritz-Carlton sparked, or at least contributed to, the development of downtown condo towers that include 1350 Main, Rivo on Ringling and Plaza at Five Points. It also spurred plans for new lodging properties and the renovation of others — the Longboat Key Club and the Hyatt Regency among them.

"From the time the Ritz entered the market, we saw investment in the Hyatt and Lido Beach, and plans sprung up for several new hotels," said Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Add the name Ritz-Carlton and you get noticed worldwide."

Even as it spurred others, the hotel has captured virtually every accolade a five-diamond resort can: awards from Travel + Leisure Magazine, Zagat, Forbes, Conde Nast Traveler and AAA. In 2008, it landed the Governor's Sterling Award, the only Ritz-Carlton in Florida ever to be selected.

The Ritz's arrival "brought with it a recognition of Sarasota as a quality destination," said Michael Welly, general manager of the Longboat Key Club.

The hotel itself also has excelled. During March, it filled 94 percent of its rooms, a high percentage even during high tourist season. Revenue is up 13 percent from a year ago.

The bad old days

But the Ritz-Carlton's beginning was less than auspicious.

There was a squabble over the John Ringling Towers, a hotel that had been converted to apartments before falling derelict. Local preservationists tried to save the building before it was razed in 1998, calling SLAB LLC, the Kansas-based Ritz-Carlton developer, "carpetbaggers."

"People were afraid of changing the local culture," said Kevin Daves, who co-developed and owned the hotel beginning in 1996.

Complicating matters, SLAB planned to sell the 50 residences above the hotel, complete with hotel amenities and concierge service, for $695,000 to $4.3 million — prices that would nearly double the going rate per square foot. To the amazement of some, more than 150 buyers stepped up to buy.

Just as surprising was the unorthodox site of the hotel, and its amenities. Unlike many Ritz-Carltons, the Sarasota hotel was not on a beach. An affiliated beach club is on Lido Key. The resort's 325-acre golf course is even further away, near Lakewood Ranch, often taking an hour to reach during winter tourism months.

Even Ritz-Carlton, now a subsidiary of Marriott International, had to be sold on the plan at first.

"We saw that all the factors were lining up for Sarasota to really take off," said Jim Veil, who was a Ritz-Carlton regional vice president when the hotel was being considered.

"But I was not as bullish on the property as some of my peers were, because there was no direct beach access and it was not in a retail area," said Veil, now general manager and regional director of operations for the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C. "So from that standpoint, Sarasota was a bit of a gamble."

Another gamble involved linking the hotel to residences. Though common now, 15 years ago the idea was largely untried. Daves and the Bufords met considerable resistance.

"It became the model for other developers who had incredible pieces of property in the Caribbean, Mexico, and other places," Saunders said. "Selling the condominiums made financing the hotel feasible. And for us as a community, hundreds of people came, stayed at the hotel, fell in love, and bought a home here."

Perhaps no one benefited more than Ritz-Carlton.

"Sarasota was the start of 14, maybe 16, Ritz-Carlton residence projects," Veil said. "We learned a lot from Sarasota we didn't know about the importance of the brand."

Early challenges

Even after its arrival, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota had to endure a raft of setbacks and missteps.

The first came just two months after the hotel debuted, when the nation was rocked by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which crippled air travel. "For a while there, we didn't think anyone was ever going to travel again," Daves said.

The attacks also pushed the nation into recession — and shredded the carefully crafted financial projections that Ritz-Carlton and SLAB had counted on.

"The first couple of years were very, very tough," Veil said. "Because we were trying to establish a foothold, with a new product in a new market, and it was just a tough, tough economic time to do that."

Eventually, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota would ride a wave of prosperity brought on by low-interest rates and economic euphoria to flush times. In time, average daily room rates for many rooms topped $450 per night, though those rates have since cooled.

Meanwhile, a planned $75 million expansion that would have added 119 rooms in a 10-story tower by the end of 2010, has fizzled. Resort owner SLAB LLC — brothers Robert and Daniel Buford and their children — also pulled the plug in late 2007 on adding acreage and holes to an existing 18-hole golf course.

Tony condos adjacent to the $30 million Beach Club had construction problems, despite being priced at $1 million and more. Those woes were compounded when developer Taylor Woodrow PLC was accused of pressuring buyers to close to boost quarterly sales figures.

The club itself is often largely empty these days, and the golf course remains significantly underused, despite the addition of a 12,000-square-foot clubhouse and restaurant.

Then there was the very public, very bloody fight between SLAB and Daves, which resulted in a five-week trial in Sarasota County Circuit Court and one of the largest jury verdicts nationwide in 2006.

When the smoke cleared, Daves walked away with $44.2 million in damages. In September 2007, the Bufords consolidated their ownership by buying Daves' 20 percent stake in SLAB and settling the case.

The two men have not had a conversation since — even when they have been together. In May, the pair sat next to each other on the same AirTran Airways flight bound for Sarasota from Atlanta. After a curt hello, they spent the flight in silence.

Bob Buford did not return several calls for comment and declined to discuss the resort's 10th anniversary.

An uncertain future

While the Ritz-Carlton can bask in its array of achievements, the resort's future is less than certain. Most pressing are questions of management and ownership.

Longtime General Manager Jim McManemon, 52, has departed after more than eight years, reassigned to the Ritz-Carlton's 444-room Amelia Island resort.

His replacement is a Ritz-Carlton veteran named Brad Jencks, now general manager of the chain's Rancho Mirage, Calif., resort. Jencks begins work Nov. 28.

At the same time, the Buford brothers are growing older — Bob is 78, and Daniel 74 — and will likely relinquish control to their children within the next few years, a change that could dramatically alter the resort.

Meanwhile, local management is planning physical alterations to the hotel, and less tangible shifts aimed at luring more customers.

Sometime next year, for example, the hotel's lobby is slated to be transformed, with a new bar and restaurant.

Hotel managers are also making changes aimed at capturing price-conscious travelers. For the first time, the Ritz-Carlton is opening its spa to the public, and reducing the entry fees associated with its Members Club.

More than three years ago, the hotel slashed its room rates amid a drop-off in business brought on by the Great Recession, and while average rates have picked up somewhat, they remain well below what they were five years ago.

Continuing that trend, in late 2009, the hotel debuted a hamburger restaurant with less expensive fare.

For the anniversary, Ritz-Carlton managers are planning a number of 10-related deals, including $10 executive lunches; $10 meals all day Nov. 16 at the Ca'd Zan restaurant; and 10 percent off all spa treatments in November.

That trend toward cost-consciousness runs counter to a luxury resort's need to continually re-invest in upgrades, personnel and the like.

In 2013, a major renovation is planned, following a $5 million upgrade to rooms undertaken two years ago. Then there are more typical expenses, like an electric bill that tops $65,000 per month at the hotel.

A luxury resort also cannot cut staff too much when outstanding customer service is part of the marketing platform. The Ritz-Carlton has roughly 500 employees today. A decade ago, before the spa, beach club or golf course opened, there were 359.

A 'wonderful environment'

Some Ritz-Carlton Sarasota fans discount the challenges that lie ahead. For them, the resort has elevated the region to new heights.

"This is such a wonderful environment," said Eileen Curd, a retired investment banker who has lived at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota from the beginning. "I'm not disappointed in any way."

Though some residents complain that linens are wrapped in plastic instead of tissue as they once were, or that the beach club is not open enough — most say the Ritz-Carlton condos are among their best investments.

"I often say to myself, 'What have we done to deserve this life?'" said Mira Inalsingh, who has lived at the Ritz-Carlton with her husband, Amar, since the opening. Since moving from Bradenton, she has not once had to go to the post office, do her own laundry or take clothes to be dry cleaned.

From a more macro standpoint, the hotel's boosters say the resort has forever changed Sarasota — for the better.

"We all use it now to describe this community to outsiders — Ritz-Carlton, Saks 5th Avenue, the Ringling Museum — the names say it all," said Saunders, the Michael Saunders & Co. CEO.

Sarasota County tourism officials say having the hotel has made all the difference in marketing an area beset by hurricanes and the BP oil spill.

"They've allowed us to continue to have a positive story about this destination," said Haley of the visitors bureau. "With Ritz-Carlton, we still have something that propels the area, despite all the tough times we've had in recent years."