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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 29, 2021 2 weeks ago

Despite pandemic slowdowns, hoteliers buy historic St. Pete inn and have no plans to slow down

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New Hotel Collection bought a historic hotel at the height of the pandemic. Now it looks to turn it into a destination for locals and tourists alike.
by: Louis Llovio Tampa Bay Editor

Tommy Del Zoppo sits on the long porch of the Cordova Inn in downtown St. Petersburg drinking a Pellegrino water and watching the street.

The weekend crowds are gone on this quiet, lazy, rainy Monday afternoon.

Del Zoppo, a former Wall Street banker just in from coaching his son’s high school tennis team, is anything but quiet. He’s not the type of guy to sit idly by watching the world go round. 

He’s talking, fast and enthusiastically, about this hotel his company bought and his vision of incorporating its past to build a destination for those coming from out of town and those who live nearby.

'If you’re living in a glass house and there’s a hurricane coming, you have to change your business plan.' Tommy Del Zoppo, Cordova Inn

“We want to bring this historically back, as close as we can, to the vibe of when it was built,” he says. “You don’t have to stay here to come and have a cup of coffee, to use the lounge or, if you want to have a drink in the afternoon, sit out here.”

Del Zoppo is chief investment officer of Largo-based New Hotel Collection, the company he founded in 2017 with travel industry veterans Alex Hodges and Ron New. They currently own three hotels in Pinellas County and one in Tennessee.

New Hotel bought the Cordova in December for $3 million and is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation that includes restoring the rooms to an approximation of how they felt in the early days while adding the modern amenities today’s travelers look for. New Hotel bought the hotel at the height of the pandemic, closing on Dec. 18 — the day a soon-to-be broken record was set for the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19.

It may seem like a gamble for a hospitality company to expand in the middle of a massive tourism downturn. Del Zoppo says it wasn’t. One reason? The company was built with flexibility in mind, he says.

People starting business spend tons of time developing a business plan before they’ve bought or developed anything, he says. That effort can sometimes lead business owners to become rigid in their thinking.  

That’s “because they’re so invested in that plan, they keep blindly following it when they’re not looking at the macro economic environment around them, right?”

“If you’re living in a glass house and there’s a hurricane coming,” he says, “you have to change your business plan.”

That doesn’t mean New Hotel was able to avoid taking a hit. One big example: revenue fell 9.8% in 2020, from $8.37 million in 2019 to $7.55 million. And bookings dropped 20%.

New Hotel was able to stay profitable by making cuts and generating revenue from its loyalty program.

The program allows members to pay a monthly fee to prepay for stays at one of the properties. It’s similar to a timeshare, a comparison that makes Del Zoppo blanch, but without the ownership or maintenance fees. And without the hard sell, he says. Membership in the loyalty club grew 60% last year.

Del Zoppo says despite the challenges in tourism, Cordova fit with the company's goals, and can showcase its work. 

Among touches the company brought to Cordova are a new look lobby with “the feel of a 1920-s era French bed & breakfast” and a lobby bar offering a local blend of coffee and cocktails. It looks and feels like a European hotel.

Along the walls hang historic photos of the city curated with the St. Petersburg Historical Society.

What they’re aiming to do, Del Zoppo says, is to be part of an experiences for travelers who want to spend a weekend walking to museums, eating at top notch restaurants and seeing the sites.  

That works hand-in-hand with the company's other properties, which accomplish the same goals by delivering a different experience.

For the family traveler who wants to be lathered in sunscreen and ride down a lazy river sipping a tropical drink, there’s the 86-unit Harbourside Resort in Indian Rocks Beach, which includes a waterpark. For the millennial traveler without kids looking for the beach, there’s the 10-unit Beachside Resort on Indian Shores. And for the traveler who wants a bit of quiet country living near the mountains, there’s the Smoky Mountains hotel, located near Pigeon Forge.

Del Zoppo says the idea is to reach all level of travelers where they want to be and provide an experience and the amenities they want. “We’re trying to give a five-star experience at a three-star price point, which we’ve been able to do successfully,” he says. “When you go away, you want to be able to feel like you’re in that big upper, mid-luxury room. And we feel like we’ve been able to deliver that because we invest every dollar that we make back into the business.”

 

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