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Smooth sailing

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  • | 11:00 a.m. March 3, 2017
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Joe Collier wants to make hotels fun — and important -- again.
To do that, the president of Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development is creating unique properties with enhanced restaurants and experiences — like cooking theaters for classes and exhibitions.
The company's full-service hotels — in contrast to limited-service product that offers little more than a room with a bed, hallway vending machines and cramped fitness centers — also strive to create a sense of place to which visitors and locals alike want to flock.
“We're passionate about full-service hotels. They have a lot more moving parts than most hotels, but that's who we are,” says Collier, who began working in the hotel business as a dishwasher at age 14. “It just takes more experience to run them.”
The key, as Collier sees it, is to persuade hotel guests not to leave the hotel at mealtime, or in the evenings for drinks elsewhere. To do that, Mainsail believes it first has to persuade local residents to partake.
“If you can get locals to come, then the hotel guests see that, and they get it.”
Equally important to Mainsail is to make each of its properties distinct. To achieve that goal, it has teamed with Marriott International's “Autograph Collection,” a branding avenue aimed at creating unique properties that benefit from Marriott's expansive reservation and operations systems.
At Mainsail's 137-room Epicurean Hotel on South Howard Avenue in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Tampa — across from the famed Bern's Steak House — the company has installed a cooking theater where culinary classes, corporate team building, demonstrations and other events are held regularly.
Bern's also has a wine store on the ground floor of the hotel, which opened in 2014. Two years later, Epicurean — the first Autograph hotel to be constructed from the ground up rather than be shoehorned into an existing property — was named tops for the then-100-property brand by Marriott.
“Autograph allowed us the freedom to develop unique hotels while at the same time being able to tap into the horsepower of Marriott's reservation system,” Collier says.
“We really like the idea of having our own service and design ideas. And by having a clean canvas, we're able to brainstorm and have some fun. When you do a Courtyard, they hand you a set of (architectural) drawings to work from.”
Today, Epicurean charges average room rates ranging from $239 a night to $400 a night, Collier says.
“What Mainsail, what Joe and his team do is very special,” says Julius Robinson, vice president and global lead for Marriott's Autograph Collection.
“We have four principles at Autograph: We want people with vision, passion for unique design, focus on craft, and we want to partner with people who will have an active role in their hotels,” he adds. “It would be hard to find an organization that fits that mold better than Mainsail. We love the creativity they bring. It's been a great partnership for us.”
It's been a great partnership for Mainsail, too.
Today, the company owns a trio of hotels and corporate housing apartments in four states. It also is preparing to open the first full-service lodging property on Anna Maria Island, in Manatee County, in April.
Plans also are in the works for a new hotel connected to Fort Myers' downtown event center, which Mainsail will operate; lodging adjacent to a planned sports complex in Pasco County; and the renovation of the historic Fenway Hotel, in Dunedin.
The majority of its growing portfolio is, and will be, connected to the Autograph Collection.
Since its debut in 1998, Mainsail has grown to more than 400 employees and generates roughly $65 million a year in revenue. By the end of 2018, Collier predicts its employee count will rise to 1,000.
“I feel like we're at the beginning, like we're a band of people who are doing something really great,” says Collier, who spent 15 years working for Marriott before starting Mainsail.

Choppy waters
Collier, a native of Miami, hasn't forgotten the headwinds and choppy waters Mainsail faced when it began, however.
The company started with a 360-unit corporate housing complex in Tampa, and branched into hotel development in 2005 on a 230-acre island in the British Virgin Islands.

Work on the $150 million Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina crawled, though, because all the construction materials had to be brought in by boat. By the time the property opened in 2010, the world was in the grips of the worst economic recession since the 1930s.

“It was absolutely the worst time ever to open a new resort hotel,” Collier says. “We just had to persevere. Scrub Island is profitable now, but it was a lot of work.”

In 2009, Mainsail acquired an unfinished boutique hotel and marina on Anna Maria Island. But the company didn't count on the anti-growth and anti-tourism sentiment that would permeate City Hall there and grip the Old Florida town when the state's visitor industry rebounded.

Still, Collier contends that the 37-room, Autograph Collection hotel will be a success.

“It's going to be one of the nicest hotels on the Gulf Coast,” he says. “I think people are going to be very proud of it.”

Along the way, Collier and his team have honed valuable lessons about what makes a good hotel tick, and what doesn't.

“If you're going to operate a full-service hotel you need certain elements,” Collier says. “For instance, you have to serve breakfast. And we figure if you're going to serve breakfast to guests, you might as well do it well.

“Hotels used to be places of commerce, where a lot of things happened. There would be a post office in the lobby, a shoeshine stand, maybe a barber shop, along with restaurants. That's what we want to be.”

Mainsail intends to channel many of those ideals into its next development, a 238-room hotel in downtown Fort Myers adjacent to the Harborside Event Center.

Under a 99-year lease, the company will maintain the event center and consolidate food and beverage operations under a single roof. Construction on the 12-story hotel is expected to begin later this year, and be completed in 2018.

Like Epicurean, the Fort Myers project will be part of the Autograph Collection, have a cooking theater on its ground floor and be heavily focused on culinary offerings -- including a rooftop bar.

To help the deal along, the city of Fort Myers is chipping in $11 million in renovation funds for the event center's transformation.

“You're not going to recognize this place when we're done,” Collier promised a group of commercial real estate agents last month during a gathering at Harborside.

Five years from now, Collier expects Mainsail will be operating eight hotels. But more than quantity, he's focused on maintaining quality.

“The real goal is to build a portfolio of trophy assets,” he says.

For now, thanks to a years-long uptick in travel to Florida, Mainsail is enjoying smooth sailing.

And while Collier realizes tourism eventually will face a downturn, he believes his company's properties will be able to withstand any economic headwinds in the future.

“There are always economic cycles, but there's also yield to be had if you run a hotel well,” he says. “We're very careful about how much leverage we put on each property. We learned from some mistakes of the last cycle, and we don't plan on repeating them going forward.”


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