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Hotels Increasingly Offering a New Amenity - Access to a Luxury Car

By Hannah Sampson, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 11, 2011--Mouthwash. Comfy robe. Sewing kit. BMW?

Hotels increasingly are offering a new amenity: access to luxury cars.

The Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne has a fleet of new BMWs available for guests to test-drive for up to three hours through early June. Fairmont Turnberry Isle in Aventura shuttles VIPs in a Jaguar XJL. Miami's Epic Hotel has hosted special events showcasing exotic roadsters including Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

"When we put a Jaguar out front, it's subliminal advertising to a degree, because it's sitting right there for all our members and all our guests to see every day," said David Feder, managing director of Fairmont Turnberry Isle.

The shiny speed machines look good parked in front of the lobby, sure, but they're alsoa sales pitch from auto dealers and manufacturers to well-heeled (but hopefully not lead-footed) guests.

"It's product placement both ways," said Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing and brand management at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. "Car companies want to get in front of these people because they have money to spend. The hotel is also trying to place its product in front of the car."

The Ritz-Carlton BMW Driving Tour is an annual rollout of new vehicles at a handful of Ritz-Carlton properties. This year, it started in Key Biscayne just as Joe Elyas, a New York City art gallery owner, was wrapping up his honeymoon. Elyas, 40, was more than happy to be placed in front of the product.

Make that products, plural: BMW is letting guests test drive eight cars for now, including the MINI Cooper, the Z4 sports car, convertibles, sedans and a sports activity coupe. Another car, part of BMW's redesigned 6 series, is expected to join the group before the Key Biscayne run ends on June 4.

"The Cooper is the most fun car," said Elyas, who quickly formed a two-test-drives-a-day habit. "I'd like to take out the Z4 again. That car is ridiculous."

Elyas said he was not in the market for a new car before the trip. But he thinks he might be now, and has been researching the various cars online since he started the test drives.

"These guys picked the right clientele," he said.

Stacy Morris, marketing communications manager for BMW of North America, calls the six-year partnership between Ritz-Carlton and BMW a "perfect brand fit." The tour arrived in Key Biscayne last year.

BMW assumes all liability and has staffers on hand to gas the cars up, keep them in good shape and show drivers how to use their features. Test drivers must have a valid license, be at least 21 and be a guest of the hotel.

Hotel general manager Derek Flint said there were no mishaps last year aside from a couple of speeding stops and one man who ran out of gas. While the promotion likely doesn't drive many people to book rooms at the hotel, he said, the benefit comes from enhanced guest satisfaction.

"The feedback is great," he said. "And we're connected to that."

Morris wouldn't release figures of sales connected to the marketing initiative, but said Ritz guests do sometimes end up as BMW owners.

Boston resident Nicole Richer, who stayed at the Key Biscayne Ritz-Carlton last year, was interested in trading up from her Jeep Liberty when she and her husband took the BMW X6 out for a run, and then a few spinsmore.

By the end of their stay, they were experts on installing their daughter's car seat, programming the GPS and using the entertainment system.

"It was pretty much sold," said Nicole Richer, who works in construction management. She bought the luxury sports activity coupe in August.

Most car-hotel relationships don't allow such unlimited access. People who stay at One Bal Harbour can request a ride in the house Mercedes-Benz, and the W South Beach provides a driver and Acura MDX. The Jaguar at Fairmont Turnberry Isle, mostly used for guests on the VIP list, also comes with a driver. All are complimentary.

The Fairmont appraoched the Warren Henry Automotive Group about an arrangement and got the Jag early this year. Under the contract, the dealer provided the car for no charge and the hotel pays for insurance, maintenance, gas and a driver.

Feder said the hotel uses the car for special packages, for VIPs and to drive corporate clients when they scope out the site for group meetings.

When people ask if they can drive the car themselves, Feder said, "We send them over to Jaguar."

In car-crazed Miami and its environs, the relationship between cars and hotels stretches back decades.

During David Kurland's tenure running the old Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the hotel accepted a Porsche 911 to keep out front.At the St. Regis Bahia Beach in Puerto Rico, where he works now as general manager, a Bentley Mulsanne (base price: $285,000) graces the entrance.

"People associate what sits out front with what goes on inside," Kurland said.

He added: "When you go to hotels like the Shore Club, the Delano, you're always going to see parked out front -- and it's not by chance -- the Ferraris, the Lamborghinis, the Porsches," he said.

For Elyas, the frequent test driver in Key Biscayne, driving in Miami has been eye-opening. He has a Porsche Cayman and Lexus for his commutes to New York City from New Jersey, but said he's "never seen fancier cars in my life than I have here. I counted five Maseratis, each one nicer than the last."

Said Elyas: "My rental car made me feel inadequate."


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