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Mullins: A trio of unique boutique hotels

Tampa will have at least three sparkling new boutique hotels open by the time the Fourth of July fireworks fly downtown this summer.

None will be giants as measured by size, but all will be quite nice. Perhaps the best way I’ve found to describe them is with a question: Would you rather stay at a foodie-themed hotel with a gourmet cooking school, or nest in your room at a luxury hotel with upscale room service, or hang out at a hip hotel full of 25- to 45-year-old social-media entrepreneurs that’s basically a nonstop cocktail party?

Those are the options Tampa will soon have — all downtown — and all opening within 12 months of each other: The already-open Epicurean (foodie), the soon-to-open Le Meridien (luxury) and the soon-to-open Aloft (cocktails).

I have now been educated that “Aloft” is pronounced with a soft “a,” as in going vertical, not like “a loft in NYC.”

The last time I walked through the Aloft building at Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive , it was like a zombie apocalypse came through and ate up all the people. It was abandoned and empty. One room had a left-behind architectural model of a condo tower once planned for the site. Very spooky.

Now, that former Mercantile Bank building has so many workers on site that they’re elbowing around each other into freight elevators and around ladders.

Nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are carpenters assembling sleek black room furniture, masons laying exotic Italian tile in bathrooms and electricians installing massive LED lights on the outside that will make the building exterior glow like some kind of Google hub/UFO/data center at night.

When I visited last week, the parking deck had thousands of boxes of room furniture kits, with more than 20 trucks arriving in the next few weeks with more kits. It’s the mother of all Ikea projects.

Standing in the middle of the frenzy is Punit Shah, the man who’s basically paying for all of this, after spending $3.325 million for the former bank building. A steal, given the location.

“Our ideal guest is that 25- to 45-year-old digitally savvy traveler who wants a social experience in the hotel, and who wants to explore the city,” Shah said. “This isn’t for the person who just wants to dump their bags in their room and hide.”

Take the whole check-in process. There will still be a front desk. But this Aloft will be the first in the entire Starwood fleet of hotels to offer an all-digital/mobile check-in process. The hotel’s wireless system will detect a Starwood Preferred guest arriving on site and send a text message with his or her room number. Then, after the guest takes the elevator up and waves the phone at the door lock, a wireless connection opens the room. Did you notice how there was no need to “check in” at a “front desk”?

The whole first floor is essentially a cocktail lounge. Picture, if you will, sleek lounge music, clinking martini glasses and walls of TVs showing a roulette of news. I suggested to Punit that one screen show a rotating series of Instagram #Tampa photos, so I call dibs on that idea if it happens. There will be a two-sided peekaboo gas fireplace and plush couches where you can kick off your flip-flops and check your Facebook/Vine/Twitter feed.

And then there’s the pool. Shah spent “heavily,” he said, to convert the riverfront terrace into a cocktail lounge/pool deck by cutting into the thick cement floor, then driving massive structural pillars down through two levels of parking below to support the pool. Of course, it will have an infinity edge that glimmers from the glow of architectural accent LEDs above. Perhaps it’s not the jaw-dropping Singapore Marina Bay Sands, but for Tampa, this is quite nice.

To warm up after a swim, there’s cocktail service on the patio, but also a large circular fire pit, because the whole patio overlooking the river will be called the Backyard.

Rather than a formal restaurant (or room service) there will be a Marketplace with an espresso bar (a $15,000 espresso machine, Shah notes) and racks of sandwiches and munchies.

Originally, the building was an IBM mainframe data center in the 1960s and 70s, and then more recently an office and bank building, so this kind of retrofit wasn’t simple. There are 16 different floor plans for the 130 rooms, partly so each room has a different kind of view of the river or downtown, but also because the architects called for curved hallways. Imagine the challenge of designing that in a building constructed like a massive concrete grid of right angles. The largest guest suites at the top floor each have outdoor terraces, and the largest one stretches to more than 1,800 square feet.

Aloft room rates will average between $169 and $299, Shah said, depending on the room size and time of year, meaning they’ll easily compete on price with other hotels downtown.

The Epicurean opened last November and December with rooms at $149 to $299 and suites from $299 to $449 a night. I’ve seen numbers for the Le Meridien that suggest $120 to $170 out of season and $170 to $220 in season. Of course, that all varies by room size, demand, capacity and whatever deal Travelocity or Hotwire can find you.

All three hotels won’t dramatically expand Tampa’s hotel scene if you only measure them by size. All three would easily fit inside the 719-room Marriott Waterside. But each brings something the area desperately needs: variety. Not everyone picks a hotel by price alone. And if Tampa wants to attract more visitors, opening up three very different boutique hotels is a great move.

Meanwhile, here’s some other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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Though I haven’t seen it yet, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest checking out a new place called RareHues in Carrollwood. It’s a design store/market fusion of modern and antique that formally opens May 31. The site is billed as Tampa Bay’s “largest modern vintage market that fuses contemporary design with nostalgic charm.” It spans 10,000 square feet at 10005 N. Dale Mabry Highway, just north of Linebaugh Avenue. The site will sell items from a series of retailers and designers, including Pat Pankow Interiors, Blue Moon Trading Company and Treehouse Gallery, plus lots more: Chez Orleans, Julie’s Cottage at Provence, Joe and Sons Olive Oils, Relic Home Décor and others. There’s also a full coffee and tea shop, design service and live music.

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A bit of a warning here for individuals and small businesses. Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation is warning that someone is going around impersonating its employees by calling businesses and asking for detailed information. That’s not how the department works. “DBPR has confirmed that the phone calls are in no way connected with the department or its regulatory authority,” the state says. So, if you get a call from someone purporting to be from the state, just take their number and call back the real number for the department, which is (850) 487-1395. If it’s legit, you can go from there. But please, it’s never a good idea to give anyone personal information if they call on the phone.

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Back in February, I wrote about the hugely popular trend of “mMoonshine cCulture,” wherein even urbane types who don’t know the difference between a four-wheeler and a fifth-wheel voyeuristically watch shows like “Swamp People,” “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” (my favorite) and “Moonshiners,” which all generally follow the oft-bumbling exploits of backwoodsmen with more courage than teeth. Now Outback Steakhouse is jumping on the moonshine trend. Beginning May 21, there will be a limited-time menu with Moonshine BBQ Ribs, Moonshine chicken wings and something called “Moonshine BBQ Chopped Salad,” because salads help you stay healthy when you’re sucking down that white lightning. Un-aged whiskey straight from the still is pretty good stuff for numbing the pain when you lose a tooth fighting an alligator or have a stiff knee from getting up from the couch watching “Moonshiners.”

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