|By Hannah Sampson, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 15, 2011--Drive through the main streets of South Beach and it's obvious: Miami Beach's iconic Art Deco hotel district is getting a facelift.
The improvements are wrapping up as Art Deco Weekend, created by the Miami Design Preservation League to raise awareness of the district, celebrates its 34th edition through Sunday.
With their postcard-famous facades intact but interiors brand new, a host of historic boutique hotels are reopening this season after millions of dollars in renovations.
As the post-recession appetite for travel returns, new hotels are banking on their spruced-up appeal and added amenities to draw visitors -- a revival that is essential to keeping interest high, tourism officials say.
"Disney has to have a new attraction every one to two years to keep it relevant," said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president for marketing at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This is the same thing."
The latest batch of renovations started in November with the Lords South Beach on Collins Avenue, a hotel aimed at gay tourists. Fashionhaus, a tucked-away Washington Avenue hotel with room doors and walls covered by giant photos of models, photographers and other international fashion icons, followed in December.
The 108-room Dream South Beach on Collins Avenue, originally scheduled for a 2009 opening, has its latest sights set on late February. With rooms bathed in blue and a Moroccan-Indian design influence, the hotel was recently named one to watch in 2011 by The New York Times. It is hotelier Vikram Chatwal's first foray into Miami after opening Dream hotels in New York, Thailand and India.
And the historic Hotel Breakwater on Ocean Drive, once attached to Nicky Hilton in the socialite's failed attempt to move into the hotel business, plans to kick the oceanfront strip's glamour factor up with its March 1 soft opening. The $85 million upgrade combines the old Edison and Breakwater for a 100-room hotel that will feature a 250-foot-long suspended pool, rooftop lounges, a gym and 14 penthouses. Rates for standard rooms are set at $399.
The owner of the Breakwater, Jordache Miami Hotels, is also turning an Art Deco apartment building on Espanola Way into the 22-room Hotel Barcelona, set to open by July with a Mercadito restaurant downstairs.
Several other well-known hotels are getting improvements, including the 200-room Shelborne at 1801 Collins Ave., which is adding a new entrance, restaurants, an infinity-edge pool and sun deck and more meeting space.
Menin Hotels also recently bought the Bentley Hotel on Ocean Drive, which is getting a paint job and other upgrades.
Tradewinds Apartment Hotel, once a seven-building apartment complex at 2365 Pinetree Dr., opened with 62 suites last month after renovations. With one-bedroom apartments priced at $1,899 a month, the place is fully booked; a one-week stay in a studio in early February costs $830 with tax. All 160 rooms should be open by mid-March, a spokeswoman said.
The Marlin Hotel, 1200 Collins Ave., should complete renovations and open by mid-year. Manager Marcelo Carvalho said the rooms are becoming automated so everything can be controlled with an iPad; the lobby will become more of a lounge and the roof deck is being remodeled.
Last year's high-profile Soho Beach House in Miami Beach and the JW Marriott Marquis in downtown Miami are likely to be the last new major hotel openings for awhile.
Renovation projects like those in South Beach will be the norm as the region continues to dig out from the recession.
"We will not be seeing any large-scale hotel development in South Florida over the course of the next couple of years," said Scott Berman, Miami-based industry leader for hospitality and leisure at PwC, an accounting and consulting firm. "What we will see is some repositionings, some name changes and hopefully some investment of capital into existing inventory that has been left behind over this downturn."
Berman said the industry hit bottom in May 2009, but demand has rebounded significantly since then.
According to data from Smith Travel Research, Miami-Dade hotel occupancy increased by 8.6 percent in November 2010 compared to the previous year, and average daily rates were up just over 5 percent. During the same period, supply increased by 1.4 percent.
Industry watchers say that even with demand returning, prices are still relatively low -- and new options mean even more deals for tourists, who can expect discounts as long as they don't mind staying at a new property while early kinks are being worked out.
Wisconsin tourists Jared Sime, Christa Klute and their 3-year-old daughter Katie stayed at Fashionhaus one recent weeknight after finding a room online for $99.
"I love this, and I was really pleasantly surprised to find a nice hotel that was funky South Beach and still affordable," Klute said.
Managers at Fashionhaus, formerly the Henry Hotel, 536 Washington Ave., say they are willing to offer bargain prices -- weekend rates stand at $139-$169 -- to get customers in the door.
Boutiques are typically small and unattached to major chains, which can make marketing a challenge. Miami-Dade's tourism office has dedicated a position to help drive traffic to the area's nearly 100 boutique hotels for the last 10 years, Aedo said. The bureau spends at least $400,000 a year on those efforts.
This year, the bureau is updating its boutique hotel brochure and revamping its specialty website, miamiboutiquehotels.com. Tourism boosters will also push boutiques during a promotional tour at arts-driven events including the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest in Austin.
Said Aedo, "At the end of the day, the boutique hotels are the heart and soul of the Art Deco district."
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