Carlos J. Rodriguez has been working in the hotel business in Miami-Dade for 17 years, so he’s seen several boom-and-bust cycles.
He formed Cardel Hotels in Miami in 1996, a company that merged with North Palm Beach-based Driftwood Hospitality Management 10 years ago. As executive vice president and partner at Driftwood Hospitality Management, Rodriguez is now overseeing a new booming period.
Driftwood, a North Palm Beach business with an office in Coral Gables, designs, develops, staffs and manages hotels around the country and in Costa Rica. The company has plans to enter the Canadian market with a joint venture as well.
While the portfolio of nearly 40 hotels only includes one currently open in Miami-Dade, the Courtyard Miami West/FL Turnpike, and one in Broward, those numbers don’t reflect Driftwood’s history in Miami-Dade, which includes renovations of the Hotel Indigo Miami-Dadeland, the Hotel Urbano at Brickell and the former Radisson hotel at Omni, now a Hilton.
“We are more known as a company for fixing hotels in trouble,” Rodriguez said. “We’re basically the doctors that come in and fix them. And usually once we fix them, we sell them and move on to the next hotel.”
But Driftwood is also working on a Cambria Suites opening in the Blue Lagoon area near Miami International Airport later this year with a group of Venezuelan investors, another hotel in Kendall with the same group and a group developing a Homewood Suites at Dolphin Mall — as well as other possible projects elsewhere in the area.
Q. What have been the biggest changes in the Miami market since Driftwood opened an office here?
Miami is very hot right now. The hotel industry is very strong right now. So I feel very good about the market in general in Miami. And we’re looking to invest more. Right now we have, in addition to the projects that I’ve mentioned... I’m looking at a deal to assist a group in South Beach, I’m looking at a deal in Midtown with one of the hedge funds. We’re looking at another group, another friend of mine that wants to do a hotel by the airport.
When you add them all up, in potential deals in the pipeline just in Dade County alone, we’re talking around 1,000 rooms. Then I have another gentleman that has an issue with his hotel and his current management company and he wants to switch to us, so we’re discreetly working with him to help him out and hopefully they’ll be also coming online soon.
Q. What are the most important parts of a hotel turnaround?
So many things. There’s no single silver bullet to a hotel turnaround. In some cases, is it a bad flag or a flag that is not the appropriate flag for that particular market? In some cases, it’s a financial issue. In some cases, it’s top-heavy....Really, in some cases, the person doesn’t know anything about hotels and they don’t know how to market it properly. ...A lot of people don’t know how to work Internet marketing properly. They don’t know how to maximize the search engines. Those are key words that everybody says, but not everybody knows how to do.
Q: How does today’s hot Miami market compare to when Driftwood started expanding into Miami?
I’ve been in Miami for 17 years, so I’ve seen a few cycles. But obviously Miami got hurt bad during the great recession and you could buy a lot of things on the cheap and a lot of people made a lot of money being brave and investing during the downturn. Because the market has tuned around so quickly — I think much, much more quickly than people envisioned or ever thought possible — right now I see it as an amazing market that has reached pretty much the numbers that we were at the last peak. ...And I see only a brighter future. Except for if there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of rooms added, obviously that will hurt.
Q: Where are the best growth opportunities in South Florida right now for companies that are looking to expand in the hotel business?
Downtown, Midtown. Honestly, the issue is finding the right piece of land. Land has gone through the roof now. ...Because of [the market] being so strong, you’re competing against office builders, you’re competing against apartment builders and obviously a hotel cannot afford to pay those prices. So I think the issues is not so much as to where I would build, it’s more as to where can I find good land.
Q. Is Miami really where it’s at or is there some action in Broward as well?
Oh, there’s definitely action in Broward, but I would say to you that right now the strongest market is Miami. But yes, there’s definitely strong pockets and good action in Broward. I am currently underwriting and looking at hotels in Broward for sure. ...We are touring Broward and I think Broward is very strong, don’t get me wrong, but I guess I’m biased towards Miami.
Q. You talked a little bit about the expansion plans that you have now. Why is now a good time to be expanding from a Driftwood perspective?
On the existing hotels, you’re still able to buy hotels at deep discounts. ...There’s still opportunities nationwide where you can come in and acquire properties that got affected by the crisis, that are still in possession of receivers and that you can buy at a good discount to replacement value, where there’s still enough of an upside when you turn them around, where we can give very high returns to our investors.
On the new development side, we’re really only doing new development in places with high barriers to entry, where there are not many hotels being sold at deep discounts and where we can borrow money at a cheap cost. Miami fits that criteria. The barriers to entry in Miami are very high. Land cost is very high. So if you’re able to find a good piece of dirt at the good price and you can borrow money at the good rate, then once you do the underwriting, you will see that the rate of return is pretty good.
Q. What are the biggest challenges for hotels to be successful here in Miami?
It is a hospitality business, it’s all about the people, training the people properly. That would probably be one of the challenges I would list is making sure we train the staff to give the proper service and hire the proper staff that has the hospitality orientation in their DNA.
Q. On the flip side, what are the strengths that are particular to Miami as a market?
As a market, frankly speaking, Miami is the capital of Latin America in many ways. Everybody from Latin America comes here shopping, comes here for medical reasons, comes here to do their banking. That is a huge, huge plus for Miami. And it’s the playground of Europe, and it’s the winter home for the snowbirds from New England and Canada. ...Miami draws from a lot of places. It doesn’t depend on one single market. So sometimes Europe is hurting, but Latin America isn’t. Other times, Latin America is hurting, but Europe isn’t. ...A lot of other places would love to trade places with Miami.
Q. What do you think that the destination has done well to improve its image or to make itself the playground of all of these different places?
All the sports venues and events that take place here like Art Basel, having the golf program here, the Doral golf tournament, having had several Super Bowls, having the Sony Open, having all those events just puts Miami in a top-of-mind situation, reminding people throughout the year that Miami’s a cool place to go to. So the more events that you have, whether it’s cultural, sports or of any nature, I think that just gives presence of mind to Miami.
Q. Is there anything that is still in need of improvement that you think can help Miami even more if they were addressed and taken care of?
Being more friendly to visitors. One of the biggest complaints that I hear all the time is the long hours to get through immigration. That is a huge turnoff. If anything, our leaders should focus on how they get. ...whoever is in charge of immigration to expedite and add more manpower so that people don’t have to get frustrated and stand in line for hours and hours and hours.
Q. When you have visitors come to town, is there a place that you always put them up?
Obviously my Courtyard. ...Soon I’ll be putting them up at the Cambria Suites and then I’ll be putting them up at the Homewood Suites, once we build it.