Re-creating a legacy in south Florida

In its day some 40 to 50 years ago, The Boca Raton in south Florida was on everybody’s bucket list. It was the height of sophistication. It was chic and elegant. More recently, however, it was mostly viewed as a nondescript, big convention hotel. Now, if luxury hotelier Daniel Hostettler has anything to say about it, the great reputation of this legacy property will be revived.

After being acquired in 2019 for US$875 million by tech titan Michael Dell and his family, they turned to luxury hotelier Hostettler to help return the grand dame to its lofty positioning with a modern interpretation that will attract next-generation luxury travelers.

“I described this opportunity the other day as sort of the capstone of my career,” said Hostettler, who in March 2021 left his 12-year stint as president and group managing director of Ocean House Management Collection in New England to head south for hot and sunny Florida. “How could I say no to creating a legacy project. The opportunity just doesn’t happen very often.”

Cloister at The Boca Raton is the original storied hotel that serves as the heart of the property’s Harborside

Now, as president and CEO of The Boca Raton, working for property owner MSD Partners (Northview Hotel Group has a minority stake and asset manages), Hostettler has a phenomenal opportunity to create hospitality magic on a grand scale and beat a 2026 deadline to once again make The Boca Raton one of the top resorts in country when it celebrates its 100th birthday. He confidently says he will overdeliver and has an internal goal of returning to the pinnacle by 2024.

The project, which will be redeveloped over three phases and is just completing phase one for more than US$200 million, is now the biggest asset in the MSD Partners portfolio and therefore receiving a lot of attention. Spread over 300-waterfront-acres, The Boca Raton is being divided into five distinct accommodations – the Cloister, Yacht Club, Beach Club, Tower and Bungalows – with all guests having access to amenities that include a 50,000-square-foot, Alhambra-inspired spa with 44 treatment rooms; an 18-hole golf course; a 32-slip full-service marina; a half-mile private beach; a racquet club with 16 tennis courts and four pickleball courts; retail boutiques; seven swimming pools and various water activities; as well as fitness centers and wellness collaborations with Orangetheory and Hydrow.

But how do you reimagine such a huge project and make it feel more intimate for guests who today more likely prefer something smaller and more private? You start by knocking down the convention center, Hostettler says, and quickly move away from its most recent reputation as “a very nice Waldorf Astoria by the water.”

“It’s a whole lot less hands on. While I still try to lead from the front, because I think that’s important for anyone leading a group of people, you don’t necessarily have that luxury of time. So, I am growing into my CEO shoes. It’s a very different experience from anything that I did before, and yet it is so incredibly rewarding.” – Daniel Hostettler

Then you bring in Rockwell Group to redo the interiors, lifestyle guru Colin Cowie to work on the spa and restaurants at the beach, King & Partners for rebranding, while making sure you pay homage to the 95-year history of the space. “It isn’t that it had a bad reputation – it’s really that it had no reputation because it became a 75% convention hotel… It just sort of disappeared among the great iconic resort properties… Our entire repositioning was to drop the ‘Resort & Club’ and return it to its original name, The Boca Raton. Then, bring in world-class designers and restaurateurs to create more hip and modern spaces that cater to today’s traveler. We have reimagined everything from the arrival experience to dining, spa… It’s really about looking at every element and treating it as new and positioning it for today’s traveler. And at the same time, we are preserving some of the glamour from the 30s and 40s.”

Yes, Hostettler’s business model calls for carving up lodging into five products that suit multi-generational travelers. The Beach Club, set a mile across the property’s lake, has been designed for the younger, hipper guest with very high-end and high-touch service. The all-suite Yacht Club for adults only has 112 suites featuring private balconies with sweeping views of Lake Boca Raton and the yacht-lined promenade. Personal concierges and floor valets prepare every detail, and guests receive exclusive access to the Spa Palmera pool as well as an all-new fine dining restaurant, Flybridge, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The Tower, which will cap the first phase of the property renovation when it opens in May, is what Hostettler calls the “Four Seasons product” and more family-friendly as it adjoins the new pool club. The Cloister and its 350 rooms adjoin the conference center and spa, making it the run-of-the-house product with history. The Bungalows with 58 two-bedroom suites and full kitchens is being positioned as the long-stay product.

At the same time, Hostettler is revising operations. For starters, guests are greeted in the driveway and escorted directly to their accommodation as opposed to cuing up in one big reception area check-in. Every lodging product has its own GM, reception, amenity grouping, as well as its own vibe and interior design. “Then, we position the overall club experience,” he adds. “No matter where you stay, you have all of the amenities, the 12 restaurants and everything you want to do.”

Beach Club is the getaway for stylish and laidback crowd, set on half a mile of private beach

Speaking of F&B, Hostettler has brought in the Major Food Group (by Mario Carbone) and architecture firm Rockwell Group to refresh and create new concepts, which are all self-operated by the hotel. For example, New York’s famed Sadelle’s concept is open for breakfast and lunch and for grab ‘n go serving sliced-to-order smoked salmon, Sadelle’s famous bagels, and crispy latkes. Lakefront cocktail lounge Palm Court features Bossa Nova Jazz musicians entertaining while handcrafted cocktails are shaken and stirred with flair. Additional concepts from Major Food Group include Japanese and Italian cuisine, as well as Maison Rose, a macaron and chocolate shop.

The sales job

With the renovation rounding into shape, a rigorous marketing program is starting to ramp up with a new website and a new effort to court travel agencies. One person used to manage travel agent relations, and now it stands at five people who head to events like Virtuoso. “We are letting them know that we are here because I think we just weren’t on anyone’s radar,” Hostettler adds.

A big part of the sales effort includes the introduction of a lot of family programming, especially after listening to more than 3,000 club members asking for restaurants that are child-friendly and activities that are family focused.

To further respond to club member needs and keep up with changing traveler habits, the second phase of the renovation will include turning offices into co-working spaces. In addition, a discovery center will give guests opportunities to book both on-property and area activities. In fact, a team member calls all guests 10 days in advance of arrival to put together itineraries. “Those are things we did at the Ocean House where you have 100 rooms and not what you traditionally see in larger hotels like this,” Hostettler added. “Delivering this level of service is going to be important for us. It’s part of that curated feel of who’s your guest, why are they coming. Let’s find out whatever we can about them and pass it along so we can fulfill that experience while they are here.”

The 27-story Tower was scheduled to reopen in May following a US$45 million transformation

While early days for the revived Boca Raton, if recent results are any indication, Hostettler is off to a good start. He says the hotel had its best January, revenue wise, in its history, and February, once the Omnicron virus slowed, was showing good results, including a sellout for President’s Day weekend. Rates were averaging in the high-US$800s (the Yacht Club was at more than US$1,000 a night) and group bookings that postponed due to the pandemic were not cancelling – they were moving, as luck would have it, to May and June shoulder months.

“If we’re going to be really successful, we have to start taking all of those groups that were used to coming in the highest season and move them to lower seasons and the shoulder seasons,” Hostettler added.

In addition to supply chain issues causing FF&E delays that are being addressed with workarounds, the other big challenge, Hostettler says, to no one’s surprise, has been staffing. It delayed some F&B openings and the hotel is paying what he calls historic hourly rates with a bulk of the new team coming from outside the hotel industry. Marketing has even launched a TikTok channel to help with recruiting. “It’s not just a human resource exercise; it has become a marketing exercise to attract the next generation to the hospitality business,” Hostettler says.

Looking ahead, Hostettler says stabilization for this enormous project is expected in about three years, and that starts with aggressive budgeting for 2022 at 110% of 2019 revenues.

More personally, Hostettler says the experience has been a bit overwhelming as it is very different being a CEO for 1,800 staff spread over 300 acres. “It’s a whole lot less hands on. While I still try to lead from the front, because I think that’s important for anyone leading a group of people, you don’t necessarily have that luxury of time,” he said. “So, I am growing into my CEO shoes. It’s a very different experience from anything that I did before, and yet it is so incredibly rewarding…  To see how much the team has responded and how quickly they have all embraced this new culture of leisure traveler versus convention traveler – it’s been very heartwarming.”