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?
One of the most important things it needs … we need to revitalize our convention center. That will open up our destination to a whole new market. And the convention center that we are developing is going to just be ‘Oh and now there’s a convention center, too.’ It needs to be as world-class, unique, special, powerful as everything else in this town. That’s something that’s going to completely change the face that we need.
Another thing that we really really need is that now that the mainland is in its own process, we have to link to the mainland. … There needs to be a better way to get from one side to the other, other than what we’ve all talked about — the causeways, the bridges. That’s been OK, but that’s been the same technology we had closing in on 100 years ago. … We need a raised rail somewhere. Somehow, somewhere. I’m not supporting any one particular plan or anything like that, I just know that it will exist one way or another sooner or later.
Q. Is the conversation that’s happening now about upgrading [Sun Life] Stadium, is that an important thing for hoteliers in Miami Beach?
Let me think about that: no. Sports are important to our destination. Super Bowls are important to destinations because of the focus they put on that destination … but that’s not where Miami and Miami Beach are. We have no lack of notoriety, good or bad, so from a PR perspective, I don’t think that it’s that important. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be good to have Super Bowls here. It would be. But to use taxpayer dollars … I treat our visitors’ taxpayer dollars with as much respect as I treat my own property taxes because I value the people who come here and visit and make our lives so much better.
Q. Explain why those important hotel tax dollars should be used by the VCA.
We only have a very, very, very small portion of the resort tax. … The exact structure of [the VCA] allows us to have a balanced set of priorities for what’s going to be best for the community and to be sure that it is able to support itself and will continue to enhance the destination. Which is really, if you want to cook it down, that’s what we’re doing. We’re spending a portion of that money to ensure that the destination is known and visited and loved and respected.
Q. What are some of the events that have been persuaded or encouraged to come here because of he help of a VCA grant?
Art Basel. South Beach Wine and Food … the VMAs [MTV Video Music Awards] on a couple of occasions. I can’t even tell you how many sports things, the [ING] marathon. …We also only pay on performance, which is crucial because you say you’re going to do this, we say we will fund typically marketing of your event because we’re a marketing organization. You have to present us with receipts of what you did that match what you said you were going to do in the grant and then we pay you.
Q. Outside of The Betsy, what’s your favorite place to have a power lunch?
I love Rosinella on Lincoln Road, I like The Dutch. I love the Sunday brunch at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.
Q. What’s your favorite spot in Miami Beach?
My bed. Home. I love my home.
Q. Outside of home?
I have a million of them. My favorite spot for what?
Q. Just to go and chill?
It’s the beach. … You can’t go from my office of The Betsy in the middle of the storm … spend 30 breaths, and walk back to your office and be the same person. You are a better person when you come back.