|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 9, 2009 --Can the Playboy Bunnies keep the Sagamore out of foreclosure?
That's the question hanging over one of South Beach's most fashionable hotels as it pursues a licensing deal to open the only Playboy Club outside of Las Vegas.
Plans call for waitresses dressed in the famously skimpy bunny uniforms to serve drinks in the Sagamore's cocktail lounge and on the beach behind the 93-room hotel. Guests willing to pay top dollar could sleep in a redesigned Hugh Hefner suite.
But the administrator of the Sagamore's tardy $32 million mortgage hasn't endorsed the deal between the racy brand and a hotel best known for its prized collection of contemporary art, owner Marty Taplin said.
He sees the Playboy venture as the key to returning profits to the Sagamore, which missed its last three mortgage payments thanks to a brutal travel market and the loss of a high-profile restaurant operator two years ago.
"It's an icon," Taplin said of the Playboy bunny logo. "I thought it was a great opportunity."
Should Playboy check into the Sagamore, the venture would test both brands.
The Sagamore, 1671 Collins Ave., markets itself as "The Art Hotel," its walls boasting contemporary works assembled by Taplin's wife, Cricket, a significant collector in Miami's art scene. The Sagamore's website calls the hotel an alternative "for those seeking a more enlightened stay on South Beach."
Taplin said the Sagamore's art would remain if Playboy came to the hotel, with the possibility of Hefner contributing some works of art, too.
For its part, Playboy wants to move away from the nude centerfolds in its money-losing magazine and become a lifestyle brand, with plans for a string of casinos, clubs and restaurants at hotels around the world.
The Sagamore would be Playboy's only venue without gambling, competing in a place known for pricey hotel rooms and a chic party scene.
"We're very enthusiastic about South Beach," Playboy spokeswoman Martha Lindeman said Tuesday. "It just has a vibe, for lack of a better word, that we think would be great for our brand."
Playboy once operated a string of hotels and nightclubs around the world, including the Playboy Plaza hotel in Miami Beach where the Castle Beach condo complex now stands, and a lounge on Biscayne Boulevard near 79th Street. But the last Playboy club closed in the 1980s, leaving the company to rely on content for most of its revenue.
That changed in 2006, when it struck a licensing deal with the Palms Casino in Vegas, where bunnies now serve drinks and deal cards. It plans a similar casino venture in Cancun. In a conference call with analysts last month, Playboy executives touted South Beach as its next market.
The Sagamore lost a key revenue source in early 2008 with the loss of its Social restaurant, which became a popular spot on the hotel party circuit thanks to an affiliation with celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein.
The drop in restaurant dollars combined with a tough travel market pushed the Sagamore into monthly losses. The Sagamore's ownership group subsidized the losses until recently, saying in a statement it stopped making loan payments as a condition for reworking its securitized debt.
Taplin would not discuss financial details, but said he expected the Playboy Club and a separate deal with a high-profile chef to bring "substantial profits" to the hotel.
The Sagamore is no stranger to flesh. In 2007, it commissioned artist Spencer Tunikto photograph hundreds naked people posed throughout the hotel's balconies and pool deck. Playboy's bunny uniform seems tame by comparison: a dark one-piece bathing suit, with a plunging neckline and the famed bunny ears worn as a headband.
Taplin would not say why LNR, the loan administrator with headquarters a few blocks from the Sagamore, hadn't approved the Playboy deal.
But Playboy's reputation clearly is a point of contention.
Both Taplin and an investment banker involved in the Sagamore talks with Playboy were quick to distance the Playboy brand from photographs of naked women.
"It's a much more mainstream brand than it used to be," said Thomas Morgan, senior director for Tremont Realty Capital, the banking firm involved in the Sagamore talks.
He pointed to the popular Girls Next Door reality series on the E! cable channel that documents the lives of Playboy models living at Hefner's Los Angeles mansion.
"It's not just a male brand anymore," Morgan said. "It's about lifestyle. It's about sex appeal."
Added Taplin: "The knee-jerk reaction is to think of the old image."
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