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TradeWinds, Sirata end their affair

The TradeWinds Island and Sirata Beach Resorts are getting a divorce, ending the three-year union that created the largest single resort in the Tampa Bay area.

Hotel executives blamed the split on the lingering effects that a weak economy and the war on terrorism have inflicted on Florida tourism and the travel industry.

The near-neighbors on Gulf Boulevard were joined in 2000 through a management and marketing deal. The addition of the 380-room Sirata to the three TradeWinds hotels created a single resort spread over 35 acres of beachfront. With 1,124 rooms, the combination moved well ahead of the Westin Innisbrook in Tarpon Springs and the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel. But on Tuesday the Nicklaus family that has owned the Sirata for 41 years said it will take back control Sept. 1.

"The strategy worked for the first year," said Gregg Nicklaus, president of Nicklaus of Florida Inc. "But since 9/11 we have not been able to generate the demand. Business has gradually been getting better. But after the weakness of the first four months of this year, we knew the rest of this year was going to be rough."

Pinellas County beach hotels get their highest rates during the winter. Without a strong start, even a decent summer can be insufficient to salvage their full-year results.

The Sirata is the latest fallout from a weakened travel industry. The owners of the Don CeSar Beach Resort recently switched management, hoping the marketing firepower of the Loews Hotel chain can perk up the landmark hotel's performance. Increasingly, small beach hotels are being bulldozed for luxury condominium projects that offer their owners a quicker payoff on their pricey land. The latest to go will be a Holiday Inn in Madeira Beach.

Officials with Fortune Hotels Inc., which owns the TradeWinds, could not be reached. But they have said that finding new sources of revenue and tapping into a bigger stream of guests to fill all of their properties has tested their management mettle. In the past year the TradeWinds considered buying the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club in nearby Gulfport, proposed building water slides on the beach and toyed with turning more of its suites into time-sharing units.

The hotel marriage took effect in 2000. The impetus began in 1999, when the Nicklaus family was confronted with some big cost overruns in a $15-million remodeling and expansion project. The family hoped to increase revenues by upgrading its properties and branching what had been mostly a leisure hotel into the meetings business. The nearby TradeWinds, which gets most of its business from corporate meetings, was seen as a natural.

The Nicklaus family hoped to spread risk by filling 35 percent of their rooms with business meeting attendees, up from 15 percent in the past.

"We attained the goal until business travel spending dropped," said Nicklaus. "We still book as many meetings, but they would be for two or three days instead of four or five. Instead of 100 people, attendance would be 50. The three catered meals a day became a continental breakfast _ lunch and dinner on your own."

Nicklaus said he hopes the meetings business will continue to come back as the economy improves. But he also plans to rekindle the Sirata's reliance on European package travelers and domestic vacationers. With the value of the dollar dropping and confidence in travel slowly coming back, tourist industry leaders say vacationers from the United Kingdom and Germany have been on the rise.

The Nicklaus family also plans to rehire all 130 employees who now operate the Sirata for the TradeWinds. In fact, Nicklaus said he will probably add another 50 to 60 to the payroll as the Sirata rebuild staffs for tis human resources, accounting, marketing and sales departments.

_ Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.