From the moment Jonathan Tisch dressed in drag to win the vote of the City of Miami Beach to build its convention hotel, he has had a hand in every decision — no matter how minute — that goes on at what is now Loews Miami Beach.
The $50 million renovation of the 790-room hotel? He signed off on it. The addition of plugs on the desks in guestrooms so guests don’t have to bend down? He OK’d it. The specific hues of gray, lavender and white in the rugs that line the renovated corridors? He picked them.
And it’s not like Tisch doesn’t have other things to occupy his time: Apart from being co-chairman of the board of Loews Corporation and chairman of its subsidiary Loews Hotels, he is also the chairman emeritus of the United States Travel Association, an author of three bestselling books, former chairman of NYC & Company, New York’s convention and visitors bureau, former chairman of New York Rising, an organization established to stimulate travel to New York after 9/11, and co-owner of the New York Giants.
$50 million Cost of renovation of the Loews Miami Beach
But Miami is special, he said, because it is the place his father, Preston Robert Tisch, and uncle, Laurence Tisch, opened the Americana hotel in Bal Harbour in 1957. The tennis courts were where the Bal Harbour shops are now on 97th Street and Collins Avenue. Eventually, the hotel became the Sheraton Bal Harbour and then the St. Regis Bal Harbour.
A young Jonathan Tisch lived in Miami for a year. Then in the early ’90s, when the city asked for proposals to build a convention hotel to go along with its then-newly renovated Miami Beach Convention Center, Tisch considered bringing his family name back to Miami. Each of the nine companies vying for ownership of the new property were given an hour to prove how they would build, finance and market their proposed hotel.
But Tisch knew he needed something to stand out.
So he drew a page from David Letterman’s book. During the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Letterman’s mother interviewed locals about what is was like to have a world-renowned event in the tiny town. Tisch wanted to do the same, sending his mother around the streets of South Beach to ask locals what it would be like to see the Tisch name return. The video of her interviews would be the final part of the hotel’s presentation.
But when it became clear that she wouldn’t be game, he decided he’d do it instead.
Blond wig. Pearls. Sally Hansen pressed-on nails.
“For the first minute and a half [of the video], nobody laughed. And I truly saw my life pass in front of me,” Tisch said. “I am saying to myself, you have totally (I won’t use the expletive that I was whispering in my own ear). But then people started to get it and there was a ripple effect. So by the time it was over, three minutes total, people were hysterical.”
Loews won the vote.
Now, the hotel is in the middle of a lightning-fast renovation, the main portion of which started in July, and is slated for completion by the first week of December. The biggest change will be in the lobby, which is more than doubling in size with a grab-and-go bar, pizza oven and outside/inside bar. The restaurant, which is already completed, got a fresh new look in shades of lavender, an open kitchen and a new name (Preston’s, after Tisch’s late father). The pool deck was overhauled in one month, the rooms are quickly transitioning over to a more crisp, airy feel, and a kids club will soon be added.
Tisch toured the property with the Herald earlier this month and talked about the Tisch legacy in Miami, the future of South Florida tourism, and how to bring a destination back from major challenges.
Q. Why did you decide now is a good time for a renovation and how do you pinpoint the areas you need to look at? Do you think about changes in traveler trends?
A. Clearly we are constantly aware of new inventory in the market, and in South Beach and South Florida there have been quite a lot of projects that have opened recently and there are more being planned. Loews Miami Beach is very important to us in terms of a singular property, but also to the 25 hotels that are in our portfolio. And so our commitment to this hotel from minute one has been that we wanted to be reflective of our organization in terms of product and also service. We felt the best way that we could stay as one of the dominant hotels in South Beach is to commit to a three-year, $50 million renovation. The scope is very much dictated by what the competition is doing. Was there design creep? Absolutely. Did the project grow in scale? It did. But all of our investment is based on a [return on investment] to Loews Hotels and Loews Corporation.
We know who has been using this hotel now for close to 18 years and we are committing capital so the hotel remains one the of the dominant properties in South Florida.
Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels
So $50 million was not the original budget. We were in a meeting maybe two years ago and Alex [Tonarelli, managing director] mentioned to me that obviously, we have the lobby, the bars, the rooms, but maybe we should look at the pool deck, and that was not an original consideration. That was really the last big piece that we added — and it’s a big piece. We literally rebuilt the pool deck and rebuilt the pool. And if you look at the business on a year-round basis, we do about 50 percent groups, 50 percent transient. The renovation also had to ensure that the needs of our clientele, whether we have visitors here as a group, or with your families, or you’re here as a small corporate meeting.
The real last piece was a new kids club. We added that about three months ago into the scope of work because we know who comes to South Beach, we know who has been using this hotel now for close to 18 years and we are committing capital so the hotel remains one the of the dominant properties in South Florida.
Q. What are some of the trends that you are trying to satisfy with this renovation?
A. We actually have made changes in a majority of our hotels in terms of how we conceptualize lobbies today. If I could use one word that might illustrate what’s changed: power. Not power as in somebody have a lot of power, power in that people need it to plug their devices in. That dictates other changes because everybody today is on some kind of device. What that has dictated is how we look at lobbies, and today they are more personal in that people don’t want to necessarily be in their rooms working, they want to see other people. [Lobbies] are brighter, they are fresher, they are larger. We take down walls so that there is enough space for anybody who wants to set up their own mini office and get done what they feel they need to.
But they are also more interactive in terms of lobby bars, in terms of grab-and-gos, in terms of a light meal. What you’ve seen as a trend in the industry and we’ve incorporated it into our hotels is that people don’t want fancy restaurants anymore.
If I could use one word that might illustrate what’s changed [in the tourism industry]: power.
Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels
Every hotel when it was built had what was called fine dining. And today, the trend is to be more casual. You can see it in how people dress, how they got to work every day, how some people don’t even go to an office — they work from home or they work from their device, and so that is all incorporated into the design here.
Q. Another big part of certainly your role here is the convention business. Do you feel as if Miami is doing enough in terms of catering to the convention business? Should we be doing more?
A. Our proximity to the Convention Center has always been something that is a positive. We actually hope that over the next couple of years, there is a Convention Center hotel. We think that it will be very positive to the marketplace. We think that more rooms will lead to different kinds of groups that will be using the Miami Beach Convention Center, and so we have been supportive of that effort. And if you break if down to corporate meetings, associations, small companies, there has always been an appeal, but South Beach is a very dominant destination in the U.S. travel market today. Clearly, by us committing $50 million to the work that is being done now, we believe that that will continue for many years to come.
Q. Where does Miami stand in terms of a destination right now? What areas does it excel in and what areas does it needs to work to develop in terms of a tourism destination?
A. Miami Beach, South Beach, South Florida, are one of the top destinations in the United States and in the world. The demand generators in terms of attractions, cultural facilities and restaurants all combine to make it such an inviting destination. And clearly the weather helps a bit. When you look at the kinds of annual events, Art Basel, the Boat Show, obviously I am very excited that the Super Bowl is back. They all lead to creating a destination that is dominant. When you look at Dade County, the local officials, the mayor, the bureau, clearly everybody understands how important travel and tourism is to this destination and the state of Florida.
As a former chair of NYC & Company, as the current chairman emeritus of the United States Travel Association, I have really focused on how important our industry is to our company’ economy and how we are still a vehicle for economic development and job creation. Very much there is that understanding in South Florida. The number of men and women who work in this industry — and these are good jobs — it’s a very large part of the economy and job creation, and that will continue.
The current challenges are clearly Zika, is something that we know is being addressed, to a Convention Center hotel because hopefully that will help the destination in terms of groups, and we are thrilled that the Dolphins were able to work out their renovation so that the destination can get back into the Super Bowl conversation and it will be coming in a couple of years.
An area that I have been focused on for many years is infrastructure improvement. I know there are discussions about rail links to other parts of Florida, clearly if you could have a rail to Orlando or maybe to Tampa or to the north part of the state, I think that would be important. And as we continue as a destination, the airports always improving, that is vital to any destination, especially one that is so international as South Florida. When you look at the number of flights that come from all over the world, it is going to be really important for this destination that the ease of travel is a big focus so that the barriers of trying to arrive in South Florida are lowered.
Q. What would you say the tourism industry here needs to do to overcome challenges like the ones we are facing right now, especially when they come all at once?
A. The most important element to continue the strength of this destination is for the travel and tourism community to work together amongst themselves and with our elected officials, and I believe that through these conversations, everybody is clear in terms of the needs, the ability to create jobs, the ability to bring additional means of development, of improvement, like is happening currently with the Convention Center.
That is what worked in New York after the tragedy of 9/11. I was then appointed by Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani the day after to head up what was called New York Rising and immediately what we did was to have conversations with all the hotels, restaurants, Broadway, retail, to say, ‘We have a challenge. We have suffered the worst tragedy that this country has ever endured, but New York City is still open for business and we have to find ways to work together, putting aside our individual concerns, and working toward the greater good, which is bringing people back into the marketplace.’ And it was effective on Sept. 12 and Sept. 13, Sept. 14 and then people started coming back to New York City. That kind of thinking is important in any destination.
Q. Recently, the tourism industry has also seen the rise of the sharing economy. Do home-sharing platforms have a place in the tourism industry and are there some steps that need to be taken in order for them to work better with the current supply?
A. Our hope as we look at the sharing economy, especially as it relates to lodging, is that we just want everybody to play by the same set of rules. So clearly what is most important thing to us in the lodging industry is the safety of our guests and the safety of our team members. So we spend a lot of money in terms of fire light safety systems, we have to live by the ordinances and the regulations of the cities where we operate our hotels and we also pay a lot of taxes and those taxes go to supporting our police, our firefighters, our emergency services, our hospitals.
Our hope as we look at the sharing economy, especially as it relates to lodging, is that we just want everybody to play by the same set of rules.
Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels
And when we see a growing sector of our inventory that doesn’t quite face the challenges that we do — that we are happy to support — but that becomes a problem for us. We also think that as you rent out your home, you should do it in a manner that is pertinent to the laws of the city that you reside in, and so we have a problem where those laws are ignored or aren’t part of the thinking. We understand that if somebody wants to rent out their house for a night or two to make a few extra bucks, we get that. But once again as an industry, we are very focused on what’s important to the community in terms of keeping everybody safe, supporting our team members, and we feel like we should all be playing by the same rules.
Q. What makes the Miami project so important to you?
A. When you look at what is Loews Corporation today, you think back now some 60 years, that Miami Beach and South Florida were integral to my father and uncle creating a corporation that still has the name Loews on the front door. So there is that history with the family, going back to when the Americana opened, the memories that I have as a child being 6, 7 years old walking through the hotel, going into the bakery, going into housekeeping, going into the restaurant, standing behind the front desk when I was 8 years old and probably couldn’t see beyond it.
Here we are half a century later in a hotel that I think represents the values of what we stand for as an organization, in terms of our respect for our guests and for our team members. This is a responsibility that we take very seriously and certainly once again, I live in New York, I get down here quite often but we have some 750 professional men and women who come to this hotel every single day who make us very proud of what Loews Miami Beach stands for and for what we are known for as a hotel company.
Title: Co-Chairman of the board and a member of the office of the president of Loews Corporation and chairman of its subsidiary, Loews Hotels. Tisch is also the chairman emeritus of the United States Travel Association, an author of three bestselling books and co-owner of the New York Giants.
Experience: Tisch is widely recognized as a leader in the travel and tourism industry. As the CEO of Loews Hotels, he engineered its expansion and emergence as a leading hotel company. He iniated the Loews Hotels Good Neighbor Policy more than 25 years ago, which as been awarded the U.S. President’s Service Award. Tisch is the author of three bestselling books: “The Power of We: Succeeding Through Partnerships”; “Chocolates on the Pillow Aren’t Enough: Reinventing the Customer Experience”; and “Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World.” He was also the host of the Emmy-nominated and Gracie Award-winning television series, Beyond the Boardroom, where he spoke with some of America’s most preeminent CEOs and business luminaries in one-on-one interviews.
Tisch also founded and served as chairman of the Travel Business Roundtable, and now serves as chairman emeritus of its successor organization, the United States Travel Association. For nearly six years he served as chairman of NYC & Company, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. After the 9/11 attacks, Tisch was chairman of New York Rising, an organization aimed at stimulating travel to New York City.
Education: Tisch studied political science at Tufts University, where he now sits on the board of trustees. He is also the naming benefactor of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.
Personal: Lives in New York City with wife Lizzie Tisch, co-founder of Suite 1521, which allows members access to top designers’ latest collections.
About Loews Hotels: Headquartered in New York City, Loews Hotels has three distinct brands: Loews Hotels & Resorts, Loews Regency and OE Collection. The company owns and/or operates 25 hotels and resorts across the U.S. and Canada. The most recent in Florida is Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando, the fifth hotel in partnership with Comcast NBC Universal, which opened in July 2016.