Cruising down the Veterans Expressway north of Tampa International Airport, you might mistake Mainsail Hotel Suites and Conference Center for another sprawling apartment development.
The 360-suite complex targets the extended-stay market: business travelers in the area for two or three weeks at a time. But guests also include professionals attending conferences, wedding parties and golf foursomes from colder climes.
Mainsail recently bought a boutique hotel on Anna Maria Island and a South Tampa apartment complex that had failed as a condo conversion. Those units now rent mostly to military personnel assigned to nearby MacDill Air Force Base.
The latest project: a luxury resort built on a private island in the Caribbean. Mainsail president Joe Collier talked with the Times recently about how the Tampa company has evolved:
How did Mainsail get started?
I was working as the revenue guy for the airport Marriott, the West Shore Marriott and the Courtyard. PricewaterhouseCoopers was running their own (lodging) out of 200 or 300 apartments (for) people coming in for a 10-week training class. Information technology consulting training, very high-level, corporate-type stuff.
Marriott really didn't have a product they needed. I found some bank to loan the money, got Pricewaterhouse to sign a (10-year) lease and found some equity partners. It cost about $30 million for the hotel and $20 million for the four-story training center.
Why was the deal so attractive to them?
These units are built like luxury apartments with two bedrooms and two baths. The cost was extremely good, about $60 a night. So, their net cost was $30 a person. Two years into the deal, IBM bought Pricewaterhouse's consulting practice. They had their own training center and didn't want this one. We negotiated a buyout. They're still paying us until 2010.
Where did that leave your business?
We started rounding up mini-contracts. Waste Management brings in 30 guys for a week (to learn truck driving), then another batch of guys comes in. We did some airline contract business, like Southwest stewardesses and pilots. We've also got franchises for Marriott Execustay. It's the corporate apartment business. Say Deloitte & Touche needs 20 corporate apartments for an audit. They put two professionals in a corporate apartment instead of two $200-a-night hotel rooms.
How about regular tourists?
We also sell rooms like any other hotel on Priceline and Hotels.com. We get a ton of golfers from mid November through late May, maybe 30 or 40 foursomes a week.
How did you come to build Scrub Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands?
We'd chartered a boat on vacation and stopped for dinner on this island with a little restaurant and house. The only people living there were a widow and her two sons on this 250-acre island. I flew them to Tampa, and we've been partners since 2003.
The project started at $40 million to $50 million and now is $120 million. We put in a desalination plant, sewage treatment plant, built roads. Every brick had to come from somewhere else. Every nail and screw. It's extremely high-end: $800 to $900 per night.
Is it a condo hotel? For business meetings?
There's conference space. Otherwise, it's for fishing and diving enthusiasts. A good percentage of the buyers are from San Juan. They'll use them for three or four weeks and put them in the hotel (rental) program. Sixty-five units, from $1.2 million to $4.5 million. First arrivals are Feb. 11.
Why did you just open a $10 million conference center at the Tampa complex during probably the worst slump ever for business meetings?
Without it, we would not be able to play ball. It put us out of some (larger) conference business. Now, we're competing for the same business as the Hyatt on the (Courtney Campbell) Parkway. We've already got 20 weddings on the books.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.