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Omni Hotels Developing Long-term Plans for the Amelia Island Plantation Resort;
Intends to Pay the $67.1 million Winning Bid with Cash on Hand
 with No Borrowings

By Mark Basch, The Florida Times-Union, JacksonvilleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

August 27, 2010 --It's been just days since the owner of the Omni Hotels & Resorts chain won a bidding war in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to buy the Amelia Island Plantation resort. But already, the new owners are looking far off into the future.

"This isn't a short-term plan. It's a long-term plan. We look at it for the next 20 years," said Omni Hotels president Mike Deitemeyer in an interview Thursday.

"We see great value in Amelia Island," he said. "It appeals to us in a lot of different ways."

Omni is already planning to add 125 additional guest rooms to the Plantation's 249-room oceanfront hotel and a 16,000-square-foot ballroom for additional meeting space. Deitemeyer is hoping that expansion can be done by 2012 or 2013, and he said the company will look at more ways to expand the facilities and entice more people to the resort.

"We're selling experiences, and what better place for it than Amelia Island," he said.

Omni's owner, TRT Holdings Inc., submitted the winning bid of $67.1 million at a court hearing Monday to buy the Plantation. The sale of the hotel is the centerpiece of a Chapter 11 reorganization plan for the Amelia Island Co. that was confirmed Thursday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Jacksonville.

TRT is run by Texas billionaire Robert Rowling, who bought the Omni chain in 1996. Rowling generally keeps a low profile. He was described in a Dallas Morning News profile two years ago (in which he declined to be interviewed) as "the billionaire Dallas doesn't know." But according to Forbes magazine, he is the 189th-richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $4.4 billion. So his company has the resources to invest in and expand the Amelia Island Plantation.

At Thursday's hearing, Paul Jorge, vice president and general counsel for TRT, said the company intends to pay the $67.1 million with "cash on hand" and no borrowings.

Besides Omni Hotels, Rowling's other investment holdings included Gold's Gym International and oil and gas properties, as well as stakes in other diverse businesses.

At the time Rowling bought the company, Omni was mainly operating hotels in major cities, including a hotel in downtown Jacksonville.

"As a real estate investor, our initial focus [after buying Omni] was to solidify the brand in the primary urban market," said Deitemeyer.

But in recent years, the company has been expanding more into the resort market. That includes the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate that opened in 2004.

There are 45 hotels and resorts in the Omni chain across North America. Deitemeyer said they all have a distinct flavor.

"You'll not go from one Omni Hotel to another and see the same decor," he said.

Amelia Island Co. president Jack Healan said the Plantation will be a good fit for Omni.

"Our cultures are very closely matched," he said, adding that reaction among employees and homeowners has been "very positive" to the sale.

Deitemeyer said Omni Hotels officials will soon be meeting with managers at the Plantation, and they also intend to meet with homeowners at the resort in the coming weeks as the company develops its long term plan for the property.

"We want to make sure this is mutually beneficial for everyone," he said.

"It's exciting and we're looking forward to it."

mark.basch@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4308

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Copyright (c) 2010, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

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