|By Drew Dixon, The Florida Times-Union,
JacksonvilleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 03, 2013--In the past two years, about $165 million has been pumped into major renovations at the two largest resorts on Amelia Island, the Omni Plantation and Ritz-Carlton.
The new Omni Amelia Island Plantation spent $100 million of that and is set to open its revamped 404-unit hotel and meeting complex on Tuesday. But rather than going head-to-head with the other major hotel in Nassau County, management and tourism experts see the mission as working jointly with the Ritz-Carlton to enhance Amelia Island as a tourist site and compete with the rest of the state and beyond.
"The objective was to add value to the island," said Plantation general manager Paul Eckert. "This island's a great island and location. The objective is to make Amelia Island a more competitive destination."
The Plantation hotel renovation alone cost $85 million to add 155 rooms to the original 249. That also included a massive upgrade to the conference meeting area that is now 80,000 square feet, an expansion of 30,000 additional square feet.
There were 72 different contractors hired for the renovation with 600 laborers brought in to finish the project for the opening. In the past week, those workers have been pumping water into a series of pools and hot tubs that cascade from one level descending to another in layers that resemble a wedding cake. The multiple pool and hot tub area covers about 43,500 square feet that stretches across the east vista of the Plantation complex overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition, there were upgrades to the three golf courses, golf shop and facilities on the compound that cost another $3.8 million. New restaurants were added and there were renovations to existing eateries such as the Verandah restaurant.
ONCE MIRED IN BANKRUPTCY
It's a stunning evolution for the property that only three years ago was mired in bankruptcy court. But TRT Holdings Inc., owner of Omni Hotels & Resorts, won a bidding battle and for $67.1 million bought the 1,350 acres that stretch along 3.5 miles of Atlantic Ocean beachfront. The renovation started in November 2011.
As the renovations neared completion late last month, Eckert was visibly excited as he sat in the newly finished Marsh View Bar & Grill overlooking the Oak Marsh golf course. He also was quick to avoid comparisons with the Ritz-Carlton just to the north. Eckert referred to that 26-acre complex as "a great facility."
Instead, Eckert said the elite Amelia Island neighbors are going right for the heart of tourism in Central Florida and South Florida, along with Atlanta and the Carolinas.
"The ocean here and our seasonality is very different. When Miami is extremely hot, we are very desirable. When Central Florida is very humid, we have the oceanic breezes blowing through," Eckert said. "Having the Ritz-Carlton is great. Having us do this investment makes the island that more appealing to a broader spectrum of folks."
Eckert said the Plantation expects to make about $100 million in annual revenues by 2015 and that will only come from attracting tourists that might otherwise choose traditional destinations. The Plantation had about $45 million in annual revenues in 2011. The Ritz-Carlton declined to release any past annual revenue figures or projections.
The assessed property value and tax revenue generated from both resorts is huge for Nassau County. The county tax collector's office figures state the Ritz-Carlton properties had a combined assessed property value of $96.8 million in 2012 and paid $1.48 million in property taxes. The Omni had property value assessed at $58.98 million and paid $1.15 million in property taxes.
The Ritz-Carlton also recently wrapped up a major renovation. It spent about $65 million on an overhaul of that 446-room hotel complex that was finished about a year ago.
General Manager James McManemon agreed the competition isn't coming from other hotels on the island. Rather, the effort is focusing on exposing the assets for the complete island, not just a particular hotel.
"We're one of those 'best kept secrets,' which is nice to say but not good for tourism," McManemon said.
The more visitors, the bigger the economic impact. The renovations to both resorts already are leading to more workers: There will be about 1,700 regular employees between the two resorts when all renovations are complete.
Prior to the renovation, the Omni had 600 to 800 employees, depending on seasonal conditions, and the Ritz-Carlton has about 700 workers.
With nearly 1,000 hotel rooms alone, in addition to about 330 units in vacation villas rented by the Omni, the impact will kick in more bed taxes to the Nassau County Tourist Development Council. That organization already pulls in about $3 million in tax revenue each year from all hotels in the county. The money is used mostly to market the hospitality industry.
Beyond renovations to just the hotels, the upgrades to golf courses and restaurants racked up a total estimate of about $235 million in private money spent on the two resorts by the ownership in the past three years, including the purchase price of the Plantation, said Gil Langley, president and chief executive officer of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"That's a great indicator of what the private sector thinks of the future of tourism is in Nassau County," Langley said.
The economic impacts go well beyond Nassau County, too. Part of the marketing for both resorts is the proximity to Jacksonville International Airport, a 35-minute drive away. Employees already are commuting from South Georgia and Jacksonville, Langley said.
Ultimately, the Ritz and Omni Plantation have been working to become a well-known destination instead of some kind of secret, Langley said.
"Even before these massive investments have been made by these two companies, they were working together pretty well to complement each other," Langley said. "We [the TDC] have already engaged in a marketing program to the meetings industry that sells both properties together."
The package deal seeks to attract corporate meetings by billing the two resorts as "an opportunity to own an island," Langley said.
The strategy has already had success: The Texas Roadhouse steakhouse chain has booked its annual managers meeting in 2014.
The cooperation between the two resorts is an attractive strategy, especially considering their location removed from traditional tourist centers, said Roberto Croes, director of tourism studies at the University of Central Florida.
Croes said the amenities associated with the resorts -- high-end restaurants, spas, golf facilities and beachfront -- will play into future demand. The proximity to JIA enhances the attraction. And ultimately, he said, tourists will not likely visit the resorts because of the hotel rooms.
"If these two resorts team up and they can convince the other stakeholders that what is important is the destination, I think they have a winning theme here," Croes said. "It is a paradigm that has been applied elsewhere. ... It is very, very important to increase that demand for the destination.
"I think it's a very clever strategy. I think they're on the right track."
Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098
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