Most travelers spend much of their trips waiting at the airport, waiting for luggage, waiting to check in at a hotel and waiting for room service, with each step handled by yet another stranger.
Tom Haines wants to take apart that whole experience and make the new Epicurean hotel in Tampa into something much more like being personally hosted in a fine home that happens to have a world-class hotel, spa and restaurant and philosophically is linked to the Bern’s Steak House across the street.
“We want to bring a level of service and quality never seen before,” said Haines, who is the general manager of the hotel, now under construction. Friday, Haines gave The Tampa Tribune an advance tour of a prototype guest room and a briefing on progress — before thousands of people descend on the neighborhood for the Bern’s WineFest on Sunday.
Instead of waiting in a series of lines, Haines asks future hotel guests to imagine pulling up to the curb and meeting a true host, “Brad, for instance.”
Brad helps unload bags from the car and offers a taste of wine. Brad walks you past the lobby and checks you into the hotel on a wireless tablet, brings your bags to the guest room and makes you reservations at the restaurant and the spa.
If you need to change that reservation time, just text message Brad. Want to find the best beach nearby? Call Brad. Need a cab or fresh towels or tickets to a show at the Straz Center? Brad, Brad, Brad. He’ll also have sommelier training and be able to recommend a nice bottle of wine to take on your flight back home. The next time you’re in Tampa and want to stay at the Epicurean, Brad’s your guy.
Haines is still tinkering with the smallest details, but the prototype is nearly finished and will give the thousands of WineFest guests an early hint at the hotel experience: “urban chic.” The entrance to the bathroom has a large sliding door of reclaimed wood like you might see in a New York loft, though he’s not decided on the wood stain color. The faucet to turn on the shower is high on the opposite wall from the shower head so guests can get the shower running without soaking themselves, but Haines has yet to decide on the bathroom tile.
A few things are settled. Instead of a hotel mini-bar, there is a drawer-style refrigerator to hold leftovers from the restaurant and bottles from the wine shop. The counter is made of butcher-block-style wood, and there’s a media hub panel of a dozen types of data connections so guests can plug their game systems or iPads right into the large HDTV.
“Room service at most hotels is frankly kind of a stepchild of the restaurant kitchen,” Haines said. Here, the guest room is instead treated as another table at the restaurant, with a menu on the level of a fine-dining restaurant. The counter in the room will have a round, insulated pocket to hold a wine ice bucket.
Even the spa will have a food theme, as guests pick from a menu, and many of the lotions and potions will have an overtly culinary aspect, almost as though the masseurs are chefs and the guests are the loaves of bread dough to be kneaded and rubbed with spices.
Bern’s owner David Laxer started the hotel project years ago, but the real estate downturn put construction on hold. Since then, Marriott International Inc. has come in as a partner and helped bring in several local investors.
Laxer is deeply involved in construction and planning. “It’s a sprint now,” he said, waving to the hordes of construction workers crawling over the site, running cement mixers and hauling around supplies.
When the hotel has a soft opening in December, the lines of responsibility will break down this way: Laxer and Bern’s officials will run the on-site bakery and the wine shop and have a consulting role on cuisine in the hotel. All the other operations will be overseen by the Epicurean, which is a unique boutique hotel brand in the Autograph Collection under the Marriott umbrella. The project is being developed and operated by the Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development company, which officially is the licensee of the Autograph brand in this case.
Autograph hotels are run as semi-independent properties, and guests won’t see the “Marriott” brand name on-site, though they’ll earn travel points in the Marriott system. Guests will only see the Bern’s brand name in the wine shop and bakery. However, Bern’s and the Epicurean will cooperate on events, guest reservations between the two properties and the overall experience.
Where the Bern’s experience is one of a classic steakhouse, the Epicurean across the street will be a much more modern experience, with a menu that changes seasonally and is far more experimental.
Prices for any of the 137 rooms in the hotel haven’t been set quite yet, Haines said, though he alluded that they’ll compete well with other boutique and high-end hotels in the region.
Haines helped run the Italian-themed Loews Portofino hotel and resort in Orlando, and he worked at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, which since then has transformed into a Hilton property.
On May 1, Epicurean officials plan a topping off ceremony. That’s traditionally when construction crews set in place the highest part of a building’s structure. Normally the ceremony involves placing a pine tree atop the building as a sign of good luck, but as the Epicurean does all things with a food flavor, Haines said he has a new idea. “I’m trying to secure a bay leaf tree.”