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The W is Going Where No Fort Lauderdale Hotel has Gone Before;
Targeting Affluent Hipsters, the 517 room W All about
Being a Playground on the Beach

By Douglas Hanks, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 1, 2009 - Look up at the five large hoops suspended over the W Fort Lauderdale's driveway and you'll get a hint at the bold ambitions on display at the new hotel.

"The entire property has been done in feng shui and biophilia," sales director Chris Tompkins explained, rattling off new-age concepts of spiritual design. "The rings above bring out your negative energy and empty it into the air."

Luxury hotels may have arrived on Fort Lauderdale beach four years ago with the Atlantic, and a Ritz-Carlton that sits five blocks from the W's five-acre site at 400 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. But the 517-room W opened Thursday as the first hotel to squarely target an elusive market for Fort Lauderdale: affluent hipsters.

"When you look at something like the Ritz, that's more of a very elegant feel. I think the W adds a whole other dimension, which is eclectic chic," said Ina Lee, publisher of the Travelhost guide to Fort Lauderdale. "It will appeal to a market we're probably not getting right now."

Wielding a brand created to compete with chic boutique hotels like South Beach's Delano, the W hopes to carve out a new niche in Fort Lauderdale with a mix of edgy design and playful naughtiness.

In the W chain, spare toilet paper rolls sit in bags labeled "Backup plan." The third floor of the W Fort Lauderdale boasts a glass-walled wading pool, giving a clear view of any flesh below the waterline.

Spa treatments come with a brownie buffet. Hundreds of golden pipes cascade from the ceiling of the hotel's Whiskey Blue bar, created by Rande Gerber, husband of model Cindy Crawford.

'PLAYGROUND'

"We are definitely all about being a playground on the beach," said W Fort Lauderdale's marketing manager Monica Burgos.

But while packed lobby bars and poolside parties dominate South Beach's hotel scene, W's rivals on Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard focus on refined getaways.

The Atlantic, considered the first luxury hotel on the popular spring-break strip when it opened in 2005, advertises its mission as the "pursuit of elegance," while the nearby Ritz-Carlton boasts of Bulgari bath amenities and marble bathtubs.

But W, a Starwood Hotels brand, tries hard to distance itself from mainstream luxury. Housekeepers are called room stylists; workers dress in wardrobes, not uniforms, and the lobby is listed as a living room.

In picking Fort Lauderdale for its 23rd U.S. hotel, W is gambling it can transfer its sly approach to lodging from the city to the beach. This will be the first W in the United States to open in a resort area rather than an urban market. The second W to open on an American beach is to be the W South Beach, scheduled to open June 2.

CONDO-HOTELS

Both were launched as condo-hotels during South Florida's housing boom, part of a wave of luxury properties based on a red-hot real estate market. The condo crash puts more pressure on the hotels themselves, and the Ws hope to charge top rates.

But both debut in declining hotel markets, with rates down 14 percent from a year ago. Luxury brands like W are getting hit hardest by the global economic retreat. That's a particularly troubling trend in Fort Lauderdale, which began attracting luxury hotels this decade after years of catering to more modest vacation budgets.

"There's a lot of high-end product that opened over the last five years," said Francis Nardozza, a hotel broker and consultant in Fort Lauderdale. "The timing is not great."

"The W does have a bit of panache. It's a product people do want to try," he continued. "But no matter how many people want to try it, there's an expectation for deep discounts."

Rooms at the W Fort Lauderdale for the second weekend in June start at $160 -- about 40 percent less than the cheapest Ritz-Carlton room ($219 a night). But it's about half of the $332 starting rate at the W South Beach for the same weekend.

CHALLENGE

The divide between the two Ws reflects the challenge facing the Fort Lauderdale W. While South Beach draws the highest prices in one of the most expensive hotel markets in the country, Fort Lauderdale is better known for affordable rates.

But Tompkins, the sales director, sees W conquering new territory in Fort Lauderdale. Along with siphoning off affluent travelers to Fort Lauderdale's popular gay bed-and-breakfast inns, he expects the W to redefine the resort city's appeal.

"Look at the Hard Rock. It created a destination spot, respectfully, off of [State Road] 84," said Tompkins, who used to run marketing for the Broward hotel and casino. "Who would have thought?"

Dressed in black from his turtleneck collar to his shoes, he leads an animated tour of the hotel's valet area ("Wheels" in W-speak) -- explaining the back story behind the driveway fountains and greenery growing on the outside walls.

"The water is designed to wash your tension and stress away," he said.

'The 'living walls' are designed to bring you back to earth."

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To see more of The Miami Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Miami Herald

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