Prepare for what its owners call the “New Golden Era” at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
Sixteen months after buying the 356-acre playground that Addison Mizner designed, MSD Partners is about to start a $150 million makeover of the property. A news release advertises the renovation as “Phase One,” to be complete in time for high season next year, but the transformation won’t stop there.
“It’s going to be phase after phase after phase as we get our arms around this,” said Ellis O’Connor, a principal with MSD’s real estate division. As the hospitality industry deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connor said the resort will evolve with the new reality. “We are prepared,” he said, “to put our investment dollars there.”
Among the improvements are:
- What O’Connor calls a “gut and redo” of the 27-story tower that will create 130 standards suites, 10 executive suites and a presidential suite. All bathrooms will be rebuilt. MSD wants to “maximize views” of the water. O’Connor said the changes will add “connectivity” and allow families to rent half of one floor when they turn off from the elevator.
- A four-acre “lakefront oasis” that will feature four pools and a 450-foot “lazy river” connecting two of those pools. O’Connor calls it “a game-changing amenity.”
- Upgrading, moving and expanding the resort’s food and beverage offerings. The resort has 13 restaurants and bars and expects to have more when Phase 1 is complete.
The community cherishes the 94-year-old resort. It’s the property that inspires descriptions of the Boca Resort as “Mizneresque.” The plans will create excitement but likely invite scrutiny. “We all understand our responsibility,” said Brent McLean of Northview Hotel Group. Affiliates of MSD Partners and Northview Hotel Group co-own the property. The ownership group, together, manages the resort and club.
MSD didn’t pay nearly $1 billion, according to news reports, just for the historic property. The company also bought the Premier Club membership. O’Connor said it numbers about 4,000, which amounts to roughly 10,000 people.
That’s a substantial market by itself. If the community expects MSD to respect the resort, the members have even higher expectations. McLean offers reassurance. “There’s a lot more coming to the story of the resort,” he said. “It’s a new world.”
And not just for the resort. The “New Golden Era” will begin during what O’Connor calls “the evolution of hospitality” during the pandemic and after. Current lower occupancy, though, does allow MSD to undertake what O’Connor calls “invasive work” that in normal times would be much more disruptive. “It’s prudent to take advantage of that.”
Some pandemic-related safety changes will remain after a vaccine is widely available. High-end travelers likely will come to expect them. The resort, O’Connor said, plans to “eliminate paper goods.” Guests may have keys before they arrive.
O’Connor and McLean stress that they are going long on the resort. O’Connor sees “no meaningful recovery” for the hotel industry “until the airlines pick up.” He doesn’t see that happening before 2022 or 2023. He expects “full recovery” in 2024. The International Air Travel Association also expects passengers levels at pre-pandemic levels by that date.
So in the near term, MSD will focus on club members and what O’Connor calls the “drive travel” market. He defines that as people between 100 and 150 miles of Boca Raton. O’Connor and McLean believes that there will be strong demand for families seeking repeated long-weekend getaways after months of confinement. Both men use the term “multi-generational travel.” They also will target young couples whom they believe have “South Beach fatigue.”
The biggest conceptual and exterior cosmetic change will be all the water. “There was only one pool,” O’Connor said, “and it was woefully undersized” for a resort of 1,047 rooms. The new design will add an adults-only pool and a “zero-entry” pool with no steps that children can enter as if they were on a beach wading into the ocean. In addition, there will be a pair of three-story slides. A pool club will replace the Great Hall meeting venue.
MSD noted the popularity of the beach club and determined, in Connor’s words, that the resort “didn’t take advantage of the water,” despite being on Lake Boca. MSD will offer new cabanas and “activate the water restaurants.” He said the change would be “a massive draw” for club members.
The resort, O’Connor said, “has room to grow.” To that end, MSD and its team are examining every venue and looking for new markets. Here again, the pandemic plays in. The resort is offering two-for-one deals for weddings —what O’Connor calls a “micro event” now that complies with COVID-19 guidelines and a traditional bash when it’s safer.
I was impressed by the detail that MSD has brought to the repurposing of space. Example: Morimoto, the Japanese restaurant. “It’s not a great environment for dinner,” O’Connor said. “It’s not a great date night.”
So MSD will move the restaurant. Doing so will “sacrifice some guest rooms” but offer guests something better. Restaurants such as Palm Court and 501 are getting similar evaluations.
O’Connor and McLean said that 60 percent of the resort’s business has been corporate meetings and events. McLean notes that even after losing the Great Hall the resort will have 100,000 square feet of air-conditioned meeting space, one of the largest in South Florida. They believe that the new amenities will more than compensate as a corporate draw.
“We are ambitious,” O’Connor said, “about a group and covention rebound.” The sense, though, is that this market will take much longer to come back. O’Connor said some groups have kept their recent dates. Others have postponed bookings for two or three years.
If the scope of the renovation is ambitious, so is the timetable. O’Connor said MSD has met with city officials and has “permits in place.” Members and guests will start to see changes to the beach club and some restaurants between December and March.
Obviously, it will take an extremely talented person to oversee this “New Golden Area.” O’Connor and McLean said the resort is close to naming a general manager after a national search. I sensed from our conversation that the choice is down to two people.
The mission for that person is simple and daunting. “We want to restore the iconic status of the resort,” McLean said. “We intend,” O’Connor said, “to make this one of the finest resorts in the world.” Just in time for the next 100 years.