Business Monday

‘Downtown Miami has come a long way,’ says InterContinental GM Robert Hill

InterContinental Miami general manager, Robert Hill, who was behind the hotel's transformation in 2012, is photographed inside the hotel lobby on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
InterContinental Miami general manager, Robert Hill, who was behind the hotel's transformation in 2012, is photographed inside the hotel lobby on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.

Robert Hill was about 13 when he started designing hotels at his family home just outside Limerick, Ireland. It wasn’t his first choice for a future profession — Formula 1 race car driver or race car designer would have been cooler — but it satisfied an appetite for the hospitality industry that he had started to develop.

It also helped that at the time, Hill was watching a mid-1980s TV show called “Hotel” about the fictitious St. Gregory Hotel in San Francisco. The St. Gregory was more traditional, but Hill liked modern.

“The one that I recall most was designing this kind of four-tower hotel building and having the central complex for the elevators,” Hill recalled. “Each of the towers standing out from that central bank, I was able to maximize the views.”

He didn’t quite make it as a hotel designer, but he did pursue managerial positions in the hospitality industry, which led him to become the general manager at the InterContinental Miami in downtown in 2009.

Last week, he spoke to the Miami Herald from his office at the InterContinental. Outside, PortMiami and a Disney Cruise Line ship. Consider the views maximized.

When Hill took over at the InterContinental, it was in the midst of the economic downturn of 2009. Now the hotel is navigating another bleak period for the local hotel industry. For the past six months, local hotel taxes have been on the longest downward streak since the Great Recession. Zika took a bite from hotel performance last year and the short-term rental industry has grown exponentially, threatening the hotel industry.

But it has turned around before, Hill said, and it likely will again.

Back around the recession, it was the 2010 Super Bowl between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts at what is now Hard Rock Stadium (then Joe Robbie Stadium), that turned it around.

The InterContinental hosted the Saints, who came from behind to win 31-17.

“The hotel was pretty much bought out for the team,” Hill said. “We had an after-party from midnight until about 5 a.m. for 2,000 New Orleans Saints fans, the players, their friends and families. That’s the largest party that we’ve hosted at the hotel.”

Things started looking up after that and the grim projections for Miami’s hotel industry turnaround brightened. In 2012, the hotel, built in the 1980s, completed a $30 million renovation that gave Miami the “skyline dancers,” silhouettes of dancers displayed on a large digital canvas covering the side of the hotel.

Hill sat down with the Herald to discuss the current state of the industry, how it has navigated tough times and staying competitive in a busier downtown.

Q. You took a chance with the major renovation the hotel completed in 2012 that gave Miami the “skyline dancers.” Looking back on that now, how do you think that helped catapult the hotel to where it is now and to downtown as a whole?

A. Our business at the InterContinental Miami was stable leading up to our $30 million renovation, but we understood the importance of staying fresh and aligning our property with the “New Miami” and our changing downtown, which was fast becoming a lifestyle destination. That meant investing in new technology, incorporating visual arts into our common areas and our exterior façade, and adding a signature restaurant, Toro Toro, led by celebrity chef Richard Sandoval.

Since the renovation, we’ve enjoyed our five best-performing years in the hotel’s 33-year history. Our occupancy rates are well above the market average, Toro Toro has become a go-to gathering spot for locals, we’re drawing top-tier events and conferences throughout the year, and the local dancers appearing on our 200-foot tall digital canvas have become a viral sensation on YouTube and social media.

Q. The InterContinental has been operating since the mid-1980s, and yet Miami is a much different travel market today. How has your customer base changed over the years?

A. As Miami emerged as a top-tier commercial destination over the past 15 years, we saw a dramatic uptick in the number of business travelers staying with us. When I returned to the InterContinental Miami in 2009, business travel accounted for about 80 percent of our clientele and leisure travelers made up the remaining 20 percent. With downtown’s brand becoming synonymous with arts, culture and entertainment through venues like PAMM and the new Frost Museum, we’re seeing a noticeable rise in the number of leisure travelers.

We’ve kept the corporate clientele intact, which is critical to our business, but the demographics have shifted, and today leisure travel accounts for upwards of 40 percent of our year-round occupancy. Weekends now bring a rush of families and pleasure-seekers who are visiting downtown for sightseeing, “staycations” or a cruise. Come Monday, you begin to see the shift back toward business guests.

Q. What changes does downtown Miami still need to make to keep up with the rate of growth and tap into its full potential? How long before that is a reality?

A. Downtown has come a long way since I moved back to Miami in 2009. I remember when the streets around the hotel were empty once the clock struck 5 p.m., but now there is activity at all hours of the day. The residential growth of the past decade has had a positive effect on our neighborhood because tourists are naturally drawn to areas where locals spend their time.

Today, downtown is a destination for business and lifestyle, and it’s up to us to manage that growth. We’re making strides through improvements along Flagler Street and innovative projects like Biscayne Green, but challenges still exist as we look for new ways to improve access and mobility.

Traffic is problematic, major events cause massive road closures, and we need to upgrade our public transit systems. I’d like to see more focus on short-term solutions like rapid bus transit and, longer-term, a direct rail link to Miami Beach.

Q. What was it like behind the scenes as Miami dealt with the Zika crisis last year? What lessons are you taking with you for the future in case this becomes an issue again?

A. Last year, our operations team was in constant communication with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association and Miami-Dade County to ensure we were taking every possible precaution to keep our property mosquito-free and our guests informed about prevention.

In the end, we experienced only a nominal impact at the InterContinental Miami. Two corporate events were postponed by risk-adverse groups, but our leisure travel business remained intact throughout the summer and 2016 was another strong year for us.

Since then, we’ve been working year-round with the authorities and our hotel peers to create and implement a 10-point plan that will make sure we’re ready to mitigate any mosquito-borne threat that South Florida faces in the future.

Q. Short-term rentals are coming under fire in Miami, and at the same time, the platform continues to grow in popularity. A lot of the appeal, apart from price, is that travelers can “live like a local,” but some of the regulations the hotel industry has suggested would be difficult for homeowners to enact and could cut into the primary mission of companies like Airbnb. Do you support regulation and to what extent?

A. It’s unrealistic to think that a major tourism destination like Miami can ban short-term rentals, as some have suggested, but regulation and taxation are essential. First, we need to protect our visitors by ensuring short-term rental properties are safe and suitable for occupancy. Next, we must preserve the tourist tax revenues that conventional hotels have been collecting for years. These funds support critical services at the municipal level.

Miami-Dade County’s taxation agreement is a step in the right direction, but it’s only half the battle. We need to put sensible regulation in place, with the goal of leveling the hospitality playing field, protecting travelers, and preserving quality of life in neighborhoods and residential buildings that could be negatively affected by short-term rentals.

Q. Airbnb has also reported having significant economic impact in the city of Miami. Is there a middle ground where the hotels and short-term rental platforms can coexist?

A. Miami-Dade County is reportedly one of Airbnb’s top-five markets in the country, and that’s no surprise given our rise as a global destination. The reality is that we’re already co-existing. The difference is that ICM appeals to business and leisure travelers seeking the comforts of a luxury hotel — from daily housekeeping and a top-notch restaurant and bar downstairs, to a pool deck overlooking Biscayne Bay and a luxurious spa. Short-term rentals may cater to a specific niche in the market, but there’s no substitute for the exceptional hospitality that a full-service hotel can deliver.

Q. As downtown becomes more populated by hotels, how do you keep the InterContinental fresh? Do you have any more dancing lady-esque tricks up your sleeve?

A. There have been new hotels opening their doors around downtown Miami over the past year, so we’re always looking for new ways to keep our competitive edge. Earlier this year, we remodeled and relaunched Toro Toro, complete with a new menu, an expanded lounge, and a new private dining room, El Matador Room.

We’re also introducing new technologies. One of my favorites is an app called Zingle that allows guests to request any service — from the morning paper to milk and cookies — from their smartphone.

We even host a local competition each year to choose new skyline dancers for our digital canvas (we take nothing for granted!)

The InterContinental Miami has been operating for almost 35 years, and many of our team members have been with us for more than half that time. I like to think that longevity and consistency defines who we are and sets us apart in an increasingly competitive field.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

Robert Hill

Job title: General Manager, InterContinental Miami and Chair of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association Downtown/Brickell Committee

Experience: Twenty-five years of service with InterContinental Hotels. Hill joined at the Churchill London in 1992, held subsequent roles at InterContinental properties in Maui, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Miami, where he was an assistant director of food and beverage in the mid-1990s. Hill took on his first general manager role in Austin before returning to Miami in 2009.

Personal: Resides in Miami Beach with his wife Breda and two children, ages 9 and 5.

Best advice you ever got on hotel management: “Ask yourself every morning, ‘How am I going to improve our hotel today?’ Each day brings something different — new guests, new groups and meetings in house, new team members — so I’ve always got to be focused on the big picture. I try to raise our game in every facet of the business, from employee relations and guest services, to operations, sales and community outreach. There is nothing more rewarding than a “thank you” from a guest or colleague when they see me engaged.

About InterContinental Miami: Built in 1982, the InterContinental Miami caters to business and leisure travelers and has hosted heads-of-state, royalty, rock-stars and celebrities. The 34-story hotel features views Atlantic Ocean, Biscayne Bay and PortMiami. It has 641 guest rooms, including 34 suites and 33 meeting rooms with more than 100,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space.