ST. PETE BEACH — The old Travelodge on Gulf Boulevard was a mess. Both as a place to spend the night and as an investment.
Customers complained in TripAdvisor reviews about moldy carpets, balky air conditioners and threadbare bedcovers. One thing they did like about the beachfront motel: room rates as low as $49.
Starwood Capital Group, an investment fund that bought the property for $37 million in 2005, wanted to tear down the Travelodge. But its plans to build a fancy new hotel were thwarted by an antidevelopment movement in the city.
A few months ago, the owners changed gears and decided to give the motel a long-overdue makeover. On Oct. 22, the property officially reopens under a new brand: Postcard Inn on the Beach.
"We want to have an alternative to the cookie-cutter three-star hotel," says Stephen Hanson, president of B.R. Guests Restaurants, the hotel operator. "It will be laid-back, easygoing, relaxing fun."
Return visitors won't recognize the place. Designers replaced an '80s Florida resort style with urban chic. Workers raised the lobby's low ceiling and hung two industrial-size fans. A barn-style raised door slides open to the Wildwood BBQ & Burger restaurant.
Room decor is beach-themed or just quirky. Vintage surfboards lean in corners, with family vacation photos hanging nearby. One room's wall — painted half sky blue, half burnt orange — is inscribed with quotations from Janis Joplin, Jay Z and Lord Byron.
The Swigwam, a landmark dive watering hole, will be renamed the PBI Beach Bar but remain mostly intact. Some of the 1,000 autographed dollar bills pried off walls will hang in a box frame in the lobby.
The four-month, $5 million-plus renovation was almost entirely cosmetic. Workers didn't knock down walls. Guest room toilets and fixtures were replaced "when they needed it," said Steven Rodriguez, director of marketing and sales.
Hanson suggested the makeover to Starwood Capital. The fund is run by Barry Sternlicht, his 50-50 partner in B.R. Guest. Sternlicht founded lodging giant Starwood Hotels, owner of the Westin, Sheraton and W Hotels brands.
The local Travelodge was floundering in debt, Hanson said. A better product will generate higher room rates, from $99 off-season to as much as $240 in the spring peak.
"It's been 100 percent underwater," he said. "I think I can get it a little above water."
The political mood about development in St. Pete Beach reversed last year. Voters approved changes to the city's comprehensive plan and development regulations that allow for larger hotel projects.
Starwood officials haven't talked to the city about dusting off plans for a new hotel, said Karl Holley, community development director for St. Pete Beach.
But the renovation "in my opinion doesn't preclude further development of the site in the next five to 10 years," he said.
Hanson hadn't heard anything from Starwood Capital about further development on the site.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.