Is tampa bay ‘ritz-y’ enough for a five-star hotel p gasol stats

"I get asked that question so often, it isn’t funny,” said Lou Plasencia, CEO of Tampa’s Plasencia Group hospitality sales and consulting firm. "I do think there’s enough demand to fill a 125- or 150-room luxury hotel — the challenge is that it becomes very inefficient and very difficult to operate a hotel that small, especially at that price point.”

Tampa Bay is the only major metro area in Florida that doesn’t have a single hotel among the 14 that AAA considers worthy of its five-diamond designation. And forget about Forbes’ coveted star ratings — only six hotels and resorts, all in South Florida, are deemed sufficiently luxurious to merit five stars.

This isn’t to say that the bay area is a forsaken land of no-tell motels and cheap chain joints. The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, Tampa’s Grand Hyatt, the Loews Don CeSar and the Sandpearl on the Pinellas beaches are just four of the many hotels that have hosted celebrities, politicians and others in a high level of comfort.

"There are a lot of really, really nice hotels in that area,” said Robert Brymer, a professor at Florida State University’s Dedman School of Hospitality. "I think you probably have hotels there that would qualify and could meet the criteria that rating services are seeking in a five-star or five-diamond property.”

But for an existing hotel to go from four-diamond — which AAA defines as "refined, stylish, with upscale physical attributes (and) extensive amenities” — to five-diamond "ultimate luxury” status might not generate enough new business to justify the cost of extensive renovations and additional staff.

To get the fifth diamond, for example, hotels must meet dozens of AAA standards. Those range from satin hangars and "generous-sized” towels to "a variety of first-class shops,” 24-hour room service, ”grand architectural features” and swimming pools with "leading-edge appointments” like in-pool seating.

"Oftentimes, hotels that are great hotels with great service and great facilities will say to themselves, ‘Maybe it’s not worth our investment to put that much more capital into it for the return we’d get by being five-star or five-diamond,’ ” Brymer said. "They’ve chosen not to make that additional leap.”

"In Tampa, it would be in excess of $400,000 or $450,000 a (room) to build a Four Seasons or Ritz-type hotel,” Plasencia said, referring to two luxury brands. "The rule of thumb says you have to get a rate in excess of $400 a night to support that level of construction and there aren’t that many people willing to pay $400 a night for a luxury hotel.”

Why not? One reason is that Tampa Bay has long been considered a "great value” market, meaning it has nice hotels with rates that are downright cheap compared with those in New York or San Francisco or London. As long as corporate travelers can stay at the four-star Grand Hyatt with gorgeous bay views for $260 a night, why would they pay twice that for a five-star hotel?

If the bay area is to get a five-star or five-diamond hotel anytime soon, Plasencia agrees that a few existing ones — notably the Don CeSar, Sandpearl and Grand Hyatt — potentially could meet the rigorous standards with sufficient investment. Upgrading a current hotel could happen in as little as 12 to 18 months but that is unlikely, he said.

"If the corporate community wanted and would support a luxury brand, I think they should communicate that to someone like a Jeff Vinik or some of the property owners over in Pinellas or elsewhere in downtown Tampa or St. Pete,” Plasencia said.

The luxury brand most likely to move to Tampa Bay is probably Marriott’s Ritz-Carlton, which has done well with a Ritz in Sarasota — a city that although wealthier than the bay area is smaller in population, has fewer nonstop flights and is less of a business hub. Nor, arguably, are Sarasota’s beaches any better than those in Pinellas.

Like Marriott, the Hilton, Hyatt and Starwood companies also have bay area hotels but "are lacking at the upper end of their segment,” Plasencia said. "You do have the opportunity to bring in a high-end W by Starwood or even a Waldorf by Hilton — all those brands could very easily come into Tampa Bay.”

"As far as I’m concerned, since the people in Dubai started with six and seven stars, a lot of this star rating has really gone by the wayside," Iskat said, referring to the Middle Eastern city with some of the world’s most opulent hotels. "And in Europe, the government assigns stars. I’ve stayed in some five stars there that wouldn’t qualify as two stars here.”