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The Winding Road


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 3:24 p.m. April 13, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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REVIEW SUMMARY
Business. Bentley's Resort Hotel, Osprey
Industry. Hotel
Key. Owners spent at least $6.5 million on a massive renovation project.

Paul Martin grew up in government-run public housing in Farnham, England, a rough knuckles kind of town southwest of London. He dropped out of school when he was 13.

But Martin turned his life around. He learned a trade and became an electrician by the time he was 17. He ultimately ran a 300-employee business that rebuilt, refurbished and maintained office buildings and large residences. At one point, his firm ran facilities management at Windsor Castle, home of the Queen of England.

So Martin isn't easily rattled. Yet he faced raw fear while on vacation in summer 2009. That's when Martin made the entrepreneurial decision of a lifetime — a choice made while he sipped coffee at an outdoor cafe on a Spanish island in the Mediterranean.

The decision: Martin, his wife, Carolyn, and Rod Thomas, his business partner, bought a dilapidated and dinky hotel on U.S. 41 in Sarasota County for $2.4 million. A onetime Ramada franchise, the property is in Osprey, a small town north of Venice.

The carefree location where the decision was made, however, belied the group's nerves. The Martins had never rebuilt, much less owned, a hotel. The couple had been to the States numerous times, but that was to ski out West. They had never lived full-time in the United States.

“It was big-time out of our comfort zone,” Martin says. “It was the biggest risk we've ever taken.”

That risk, which has since surpassed $6.5 million, is now being rewarded. The property, renamed Bentley's Resort Hotel, is posting record bookings in 2012.
Martin says there's been three or four 100% occupancy nights every week since February. “We never envisioned we'd be able to do that,” Martin says. “It's been good.”

The hotel's transformation from big-time blight to European chic has also earned praise from local tourism officials who recall the recent decrepit past. “We are really pleased with it,” says Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau President Virginia Haley. “It's just great to have such creative entrepreneurs behind it.”

Delicate balance
Nonetheless, by the rules of what traditionally works in the hotel business, Martin should have failed. For starters, the hotel isn't on the beach. It's not near an airport. And it's not just off Interstate 75. Those are the three locations that attract the most people.

In fact, Bentleys' Resort Hotel is on one of the few blocks of Tamiami Trail in south Sarasota County that's not filled with strip malls, furniture stores or Publix-anchored centers. The closest retail is a Walmart Supercenter a few miles away.

Another key factor against Martin, at least in terms of the textbook way to run hotels: It doesn't carry the flag of a global hotel brand.

Haley says there are two sides to the independent model. On one side, independents don't have the marketing power chains have, and that makes bookings more challenging. An independent hotel also can't rely on wide-ranging customer loyalty programs to lure travel, adds Haley.

An independent, though, can be just that. The owners don't have to bend to the corporate parent's will, and change the color of the lobby, or get a certain kind of pillowcase for every pillow.

It's a delicate cost-risk balance. For an independent property to achieve long-term success, says Haley, the owners have to create a unique identity. Haley says the Longboat Key Club & Resort is a rare example of a successful local independent.

To get to that level, Martin and his team executed an extreme makeover that falls just short of a total demolition and rebuild. Martin says anything less comprehensive, and the project would have failed.

“It was dire. It was so bad Ramada pulled the flag,” says Martin. “But I looked at it and I thought this place has so much potential.”

Martin and a crew from Sarasota-based Southern Cross Contracting tore through the 140-room hotel in 2009 and 2010. They replaced all the plumbing and electrical work. They moved back walls, built interior corridors and raised the entry to the pool. They rebuilt the hotel restaurant, and added a coffee shop that turns into a wine bar at night. A nightclub, the Underground Nightclub and Jaguar Lounge, was the last piece.

The actual construction work cost around $1 million, says Martin, while work around the pool, landscaping and other tasks were $550,000. New fixtures, bedding, electronics and artwork for the guestrooms cost another $850,000.

“It's not a refurbishment,” Martin says. “It's a brand new hotel.”

The tube
That new hotel has minimalist features, not the pack-it-all-in mentality found in most American chain properties. “I wanted to bring a European feel here,” says Martin. “I wanted it to be different.”

For example, the bathrooms in all the guestrooms have next to no counter space. Some bathrooms even have bidets, a French washroom accessory. Furniture in the guestrooms is sleek and compact. Every room has a 37-inch flat screen TV.

The European feel, moreover, spreads all the way to the nameplates on the doors to the guestrooms. “We like our rooms with words in England,” says Martin, “not just numbers.”

That's why Martin named each room after a London Underground subway stop. Names include Bond Street, Baker Street and Chancery Lane.

The name of the hotel itself, furthermore, is absolute Britain: Bentley is named for the iconic English car manufacturer. Martin uses the English auto connection for other rooms, reasoning that Americans associate British cars with sophistication. The restaurant was named Morgan's, after another auto manufacturer, and the ballrooms, which can be put together, are named Rolls and Royce.

While the hotel has had a good run during the recent busy season, Martin says he continues to face some challenges. One big one, finding and retaining good employees, is an American business standby. “It's much easier to find good people in the U.K. than it is here,” Martin says. “The turnover here is enormous compared to the U.K.”

Martin says he's also learning, quickly, that customer service isn't like it was in the U.K. He says most customers in the U.S. are “less tolerant” of minor issues than Europeans. That's helped him learn to focus on details.

The other cultural and structural differences add to the learning curve, everything from taxes and workers' compensation insurance to using the right suppliers and vendors.

Martin, though, says other challenges pale in comparison to businesses he ran in England. He and his wife moved to the Gulf Coast in 2009, after they drove around both coasts of Florida in a search of a place to live. “I had no idea what I was going to do for a business,” says Martin. “I thought I would do something seasonal.”

Martin actually stayed at the property back when it was a Ramada, when he visited the area. It scared him, but not enough to back away from the project. Now he hopes he's in it for the long haul.

“We didn't come here to only make money, sell it and walk away,” Martin says. “We want to provide an experience.”

BIG SPENDER
An independent boutique hotel in south Sarasota County, near a Walmart Supercenter and not far from a biker bar, isn't the traditional site for a lap of luxury.

But that didn't stop Paul Martin. When he renovated a former Ramada Inn on Tamiami Trail in south Sarasota County, he added a high-end touch: a two-story suite fit for rock stars. The suite, at Martin's Bentley's Resort Hotel, is called the Crystal Palace, after a historic building in Hyde Park, London. Martin is a U.K. native.

The Crystal Palace room fits the hotel's chic European design. There are multiple big-screen TVs, large couches and remote-control blinds. There's an even a foosball table. “Any quality hotel should have a flagship room,” says Martin. “The quality here is far and beyond anything in the area.”

Quality, of course, comes at a price. Crystal Palace usually runs $599 a night in season, and $399 a night in non-season.

 

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