Jeff Lehman arrived in South Beach just as South Beach was starting to arrive.
He was merely driving through town on the way to take a cruise back in 1993 when he fell in love with the still-sleepy area.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, this is heaven,’ ” he said.
Lehman, who has been working in hospitality since he was 17, started his local career at the Miami Beach Ocean Resort (now The Palms Hotel) and has managed several properties on the beach over the past two decades, including the National Hotel. Since 2010, he has been general manager of The Betsy-South Beach, an upscale boutique property on Ocean Drive, and he also manages the Miami flower company roots & roots with his partner of 13 years, Pedro Cruz. This year, he’s wrapping up his two-year term as volunteer chair of the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority.
Lehman first became involved with the seven-member advisory group, which awards grants funded by bed-tax collections to events that drive tourism, in 1999. The authority has a $2.6 million budget this fiscal year and has awarded more than $1.4 million so far during the year to promote tourism. Last fiscal year, the group wrote grants that amounted to $1.6 million.
Over the years, he said he has worked to make the authority’s grants more meaningful by rewriting requirements and funding events that will draw the maximum number of visitors. More recently, the group brought on public relations firm Hill & Knowlton to magnify coverage of the Miami Beach brand and has been working on an interactive database exchange listing Miami Beach places, events and other facts.
The deep roots he has formed in Miami Beach would have surprised Lehman, who has lived in his native California, Seattle, Tahiti, Japan and Hawaii earlier in his life.
“I just figured I would always keep moving — until I found Miami Beach,” he said. “For a hotel guy, especially in the ’90s, there was nothing like it.”
Q. You got to the beach in 1993. What was it like when you got here?
It was packed with potential. Even then, there were still remnants, a sense and a vision, of what it used to be. But it had obviously been through a really rough time. And it seemed to me that as beautiful as the bones were — whether you’re talking about the beaches, the buildings or the bridges — that it couldn’t stay in that shape for very long — because it was just destined to explode onto the scene.
Q. What do you think was the catalyst for the explosion?
It was kind of a perfect storm. There were a number of visionaries that were passionate about this area for their own reasons: the Tony Goldmans of the world, what [hotelier ] Ian Schrager saw, what a lot of the early entrepreneurial people saw here. … You had this wonderful palette that was ready, you had a lot of very, very brilliant visionaries coming in, you had a burgeoning gay and lesbian market, which is notorious for transforming downtrodden communities. That was kind of floating around. There was an undercurrent here even back then, even 20 years ago, of arts and artists and creativity and culture. The destination had been frozen in time, but the people obviously had not. You could see that the destination was really very special.
Q. What are the missing pieces still for Miami Beach?