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Tampa hotel expert has tips on how to make the most of stays

Lou Plasencia has experience in how hotel operations have changed in the pandemic.
Lou Plasencia is founder and CEO of The Plasencia Group, a hospitality industry consulting firm based in Tampa.
Lou Plasencia is founder and CEO of The Plasencia Group, a hospitality industry consulting firm based in Tampa. [ The Plasencia Group ]
Published Jun. 5

Plan on spending time in hotels this summer? Lou Plasencia knows better than most how hotels have changed during the pandemic. CEO of Tampa’s The Plasencia Group, he deals with all aspects of the hospitality industry, from consulting and development to investment and sales. His company recently arranged the $110 million sale of two Tampa hotels and one in Jacksonville.

Plasencia was just 5 in 1961 when his family left Cuba for Tampa, where his father and uncle were in the cigar business. He got a degree in higher education and spent time in academia until a college friend who worked for Hyatt Hotels “let it slip what he was making,” Plasencia recalls. “I was making about a third of what he was and I thought, ‘Maybe I’m in the wrong business.’” He spent several years working for Hyatt, then started the hospitality division of a commercial real estate firm before opening his own company in 1993. Today it has about 20 full-time employees and offices throughout the country. Plasencia recently spoke with Bay. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Has the hotel industry recovered from the pandemic?

I would say it’s a tale of two cities. Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City — those markets that have a heavy concentration (of unionized workers) and those that are heavily reliant on big conventions are really struggling. Then you’ve got other markets where the performance has been astonishing, the so-called leisure and resort markets. Florida is by far the most successful market not only in the country but pretty much in the whole world.

How is that affecting room rates?

(In Florida), average daily rates are in excess of 25 to 30 percent over 2019 at most hotels. The closer you book to your dates, the higher the rate and you stand a chance of not finding a room. There’s a tremendous amount of pent-up demand, people are tired of COVID, they’ve saved a lot of money and they’re looking to break out. (In still struggling areas), you will find rooms at very good rates. What you’ll also find is that a lot of restaurants and a lot of venues that were there in 2019 are still closed today and will be permanently closed.

Can you get better rates by dealing with third-party companies like Expedia?

You are much better off calling the hotel directly. Don’t hit 1 for reservations, hit 0 and ask for the front desk. The front desk clerk is going to be at the hotel and he or she is going to know that property better than a reservation agent at a call center in Omaha. They can tell you what the best rooms are, what the best rates are. If you move your dates by a day or two, you might get a better rate. Check in on Tuesday and depart on Friday.

Any other tips?

Talk to the concierge and ask for assistance in booking visits to museums or theme parks. (Full-service) hotels typically have a relationship with local amenities or attractions and they may be able to offer you a package deal that includes hotel, transportation and a daily ticket at an attraction, maybe a 20 to 30 percent discount because of the relationships a concierge has. A lot of times the hotel itself has phenomenal food and beverage service and can create a really neat experience for an anniversary or a family reunion. They can put it all together for you — get the charter boat, the picnic basket, schedule the kayaks because they know the local providers.

What changes will you see in hotels?

COVID clearly has had an impact on the way the hospitality industry operates today, and some of those changes in my opinion will be permanent. Don’t expect your room to be cleaned every day. A lot of hotels can’t find the staff. The housekeeper working at Marriott or Hilton two years ago is probably working at Amazon today. You are going to find the in-room dining service is not being offered anymore. At a lot of properties, it’s going to take longer to get a drink at poolside because there are fewer employees. You’re going to find mobile keys to be the norm. You can completely bypass front-desk check-in by using your mobile phone.

Pre-pandemic, there was a big move toward boutique-type hotels even by the big chains like Marriott. Has that continued?

It not only continued but will expand. The attraction right now is the lifestyle or boutique hotel with its own individual character. There was a time when people were looking for consistency and continuity — if I’m traveling to four different cities I’m going to stay at a Marriott or Hilton and know that the alarm clock is always going to be on the right. People now are looking for different experiences. When they go back home they want to talk about the experience they had. They’re not necessarily looking to have dinner every night at the hotel but doing the tasting menu at Rooster & the Till (in Tampa) or going to Gulfport and seeing old-style Florida in the middle of a huge urban market.

You spend a lot of time in hotels. Any favorites?

One of my all-time favorites is the Villa Magna in Madrid. It’s a grand old hotel and the staff has been there forever. In the U.S., the Pendry hotel in Baltimore is a really tremendous experience. It’s a very well-designed, warm, inviting place. (A Pendry is due to open in Tampa in 2024). And the Vinoy in downtown St. Pete. The renovation is well underway but what appeals to me is the fact it sits on the water and in five minutes you can hit wine bars, restaurants, museums.

How would describe the ultimate hotel stay?

People are looking for different experiences that appeal to all the senses — music, food, scents, artwork — so we’re trying to touch every sense as you walk into a hotel. The one sense most critical is — do you feel you it’s home? Do you feel like you never want to leave? That’s really what we’re trying to create in this industry today.

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