|By Doreen Hemlock, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 27, 2007 - Call it a sign of how upscale Fort Lauderdale has become for tourism.
As the midpriced Courtyard by Marriott chain debuted on Broward County's best-known beach Wednesday, the remodeled hotel was aiming for standard rates topping $300 a night.
Those prices will rank among the most expensive for the Courtyard family, but they're just midrange for the oceanfront strip where luxury resorts such as the St. Regis pull down $500 and sometimes $800-plus nightly, said Michael Fatta, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott Fort Lauderdale Beach.
"We're not concerned it's too pricey," said Fatta, during a hotel tour that showed off high-end features not common at Courtyard properties, from granite tops in bathrooms to Cuisinart coffee makers. "We feel there's enough demand in the Fort Lauderdale market now."
Some veterans still shake their heads that an area once known for Spring Break and beer now lures some of the champagne set.
Developer Mark Ellert recalls when he came to Fort Lauderdale in 1980, rooms on the beach ran about $40 a night. He helped develop the Marina Marriott on 17th Street Causeway that opened in 1982, stunning some area residents with rates of about $80 a night.
Today, LXRLuxury Resorts and Hotels is investing more than $200 million to upgrade that same property as the Fort Lauderdale Grande Hotel and Yacht Club, slated to open in December. Some of its rates are likely to exceed $400 a night, he said.
"This destination is going through a very significant transformation, from midmarket to upscale," said Ellert, president of development and adviser firm IAG Florida based in Fort Lauderdale.
The new 261-room Courtyard debuts at the site of what was the Oceanfront Hotel just south of Las Olas Boulevard near the International Swimming Hall of Fame. It's across the street from the beach in a 12-story glass building built in 1975 with no balconies.
The Pyramid Hotel Group of Boston made over the hotel, after damages from Hurricane Wilma two years ago.
Guest rooms now offer high-end features: 32-inch flat-screen TVs, toiletries including quinoa shampoo and amaranth conditioner, wireless Internet access and finer linens. Hallways also are trendy, some with pomegranate-colored walls and lime accents.
Unlike some other Courtyards, there's also a full-service restaurant and room service for all meals, Fatta said.
"We have to have these amenities to compete. This is what guests are going to expect when they come to Fort Lauderdale beach," said Fatta, formerly with Pyramid's Sheraton Suites Plantation.
Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, traces the upscale trend to 1985, when some 20 hoteliers announced they'd had it with 385,000 college students coming for Spring Break and too often getting disorderly.
"We can't survive this. We'll do what's necessary. You find us an alternative market," she remembers hoteliers telling tourism marketers.
Grossman said the county reached out to international travelers and in 1990, added a convention center. Conventions and meetings now account for about 25 percent of Broward's tourism -- often upscale groups.
The moves attracted luxury resorts beyond expectations.
"No one in that room 22 years ago said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we had a five-star hotel on the beach?'" Grossman said. "We weren't thinking that high-end."
Of course, the upscale trend means losing some clients, such as families seeking cheap vacations.
"There's no more $49-a-night rooms in Broward County," among roughly 32,000 hotel rooms in the area, Grossman said.
With Fort Lauderdale beach among the priciest areas, tourism executives are optimistic for the new Courtyard by Marriott. The hotel has a brand with strong client loyalty and a good location. It can tap both leisure and business visitors.
The Courtyard also debuts just in time for the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which runs through Monday and features nearly $2 billion worth of yachts, boats and accessories. Grossman said the show is expected to fill hotels along the beach.
Doreen Hemlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5009.
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