|By Tom Stieghorst, South Florida Sun-Sentinel|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 23, 2004 - The Marriott Harbor Beach resort is celebrating its 20th year in business this weekend, just in time to welcome new competitors.
With 600 rooms and a prime spot on the sand, the resort has long been the top dog on the Fort Lauderdale lodging scene. After it opened in 1984, it was the newest hotel on the beach. It remained so until earlier this year.
That's when The Atlantic, a 124-unit condo/hotel opened as a Starwood Hotels & Resorts Luxury Collection property. Plans call for a W Hotel, a St. Regis Hotel and a Hilton to be opened beachside within the next few years as well.
All that doesn't shake J.W. Marriott Jr., the imperturbable chairman of Marriott International, which manages the Harbor Beach and 2,717 other lodging properties.
"We've got the best location on the beach," Marriott said. "This hotel is in as good a shape now as when we opened it," he continued.
"We've got the strongest brand in the business," he added. And for good measure, he said the 60,000 square foot terrace at Harbor Beach gives it the largest outdoor function space on the ocean.
Currently, Harbor Beach's stiffest competition comes from Hollywood, where the 996-room Westin Diplomat Resort opened two years ago.
Partly in anticipation, the Harbor Beach in 2001 spent $36 million on upgrades, including a 22,000-square-foot spa.
This year, the Harbor Beach renovated its ballroom, and it will be getting new linens and mattresses, and a $2.7 million renovation of the pool and beach area soon. "It's just continuously upgrading the product," Marriott said.
Festivities for the 20th anniversary included a banquet Friday night for VIPs, including four past general managers of the resort.
Ezzat Coutry, who moved from the Fort Lauderdale Marina Marriott to open the Harbor Beach, was a prime proponent of ending Spring Break, then the dominant source of revenue for many lodgings in the city.
"We had a conflict. The big hotels didn't want Spring Break and the small hotels all depended on Spring Break," said Coutry, who is now the regional vice president in the Southeast for Ritz Carlton, Marriott's luxury brand.
Among the benefits of killing Spring Break, he said, was room on flights to Fort Lauderdale at that time of year for someone besides college kids.
Marriott, 72, who spends most of January at the Harbor Beach every year, also stopped in West Palm Beach on his trip to South Florida to rededicate the 352-room hotel west of CityPlace that changed from Sheraton to Marriott affiliation last year.
He said the company was not a bidder for the five Florida hotels sold earlier this week by Boca Resorts Inc., because it isn't in the real estate business. He said the hotels are great assets, but the $1 billion price was high. "It was an awfully big number," he said.
Boca Resorts agreed to a sale to Blackstone Group for $24 a share.
Wayne Huizenga, chairman of Boca Resorts, is a part owner of the Harbor Beach.
Marriott said the future includes more condo hotels, more restaurants at Marriott resorts with links to celebrity chefs, and flat-screen TVs in every room as prices decline. He said Marriott would probably not add indoor waterparks to its cold weather hotels.
"We've looked at it two or three times," Marriott said. "They're very expensive."
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