All Booked Up

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2005

Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota general manager James McManemon used to spend his free time traveling, running, playing tennis, serving meals in a soup kitchen and volunteering as a mentor for children.

That's when he had free time. McManemon hasn't been able to do much, other than work, in the 14 months he's lived in Sarasota.

"It's been a whirlwind," he says.

Since transferring to the 266-room luxury downtown Sarasota hotel from the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta in December 2003, McManemon, 44, has overseen several projects, including the completion of the hotel's opulent beach club on Lido Key, where guests are served icy drinks by a butler wearing tuxedo shorts and white gloves, and the groundbreaking for a Tom Fazio-designed 18-hole golf course off University Parkway east of I-75, which is scheduled for completion in late 2005.

In addition, since the Ritz-Carlton opened some three years ago, it has added a full-service day spa and salon as well as a second luxury condominium tower, The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton.

"The property continues to expand," McManemon says. "Each year, there's something more being added to it."

McManemon's job is unique in the worldwide chain of 59 Ritz-Carlton hotels. Besides the hotel, residences and spa, McManemon manages the beach club and the golf course, which are both off-property. The $30-million beach club on Lido Key, which includes a restaurant, bar, beachfront swimming pool, private beach and soon-to-reopen beachfront tiki bar, is three miles from the hotel, requiring guests to take a shuttle.

Guests will also take a shuttle to the 325-acre golf course, which is being developed on Lorraine Road near Lakewood Ranch, some 20 minutes from the hotel. A pro shop, locker rooms and restaurant are part of the mix there.

With the addition of the golf course plus 88 condominiums under construction at the beach club, the Ritz-Carlton will complete its transformation from a hotel to an official Ritz-Carlton resort, offering everything from vacation homes and luxurious spa treatments to golf, sand and surf. According to McManemon, the transformation had been planned all along. The golf course and the beach condominiums "mark the completion," he says.

Last fall, the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota became the first in the hotel chain to offer nonequity memberships to people who want to access all these amenities. Memberships in this exclusive Ritz-Carlton Members Club range from $75,000 to $125,000, plus annual dues.

"He [McManemon] must be busier than any other GM in this area," says Charles Githler, managing general partner for the Hyatt Sarasota.

McManemon came to Sarasota from the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta, where he had been the general manager since 2000. Before that, for two years he was vice president of room operations at the company's corporate headquarters, which at the time were located in Atlanta.

Since joining the Ritz-Carlton in 1990, McManemon traveled for the company extensively, helping to open 21 Ritz-Carlton hotels and resorts around the world. Previously, he held management positions with South Seas Resorts, which operates resorts on Captiva, Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach.

Born in St. Petersburg, McManemon still has family on Florida's east coast. When he came to Sarasota from Atlanta, he says he felt a bit like he was "coming home." To McManemon, Sarasota offers all the comforts of a big city, plus it's clean, beautiful and culturally wealthy to boot. "Sarasota is clearly energizing, dynamic, growing," he says. "There is opportunity here, but it's still friendly and has a small-town atmosphere."

And people in Sarasota apparently like McManemon, who was voted a finalist for "best newcomer" by SARASOTA magazine readers in last spring's Best of the Best issue. Virginia Haley, executive director of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau (SCVB), says McManemon "has brought an energy into the hospitality community that has been fantastic for Sarasota and the hotel industry."

While McManemon declines to disclose how many Ritz-Carlton Members Club memberships have been sold so far, he says 1,200 people have expressed interest in purchasing them since the company unveiled the program in October. The cap is 800 memberships (just 300 of which include unlimited access to the golf club) and are being awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

"We're blazing new trails here," McManemon says, adding that if the membership program is successful in Sarasota, the Ritz-Carlton could duplicate it in other locations.

According to spokeswoman Liza Adler Kubik, market research shows that the Sarasota and Manatee area, with its thriving arts and cultural attractions, beaches and fine restaurants, would support a members club.

In addition, the hotel's rising occupancy rate-in the high 70-percent range, according to McManemon-has been a pleasant surprise. In December, occupancy was up nearly 30 percent over December 2003, he says. "All segments are up: rooms, banquets, restaurants."

McManemon credits the hotel's transformation into a resort as well as a stronger national economy and a spike in repeat guests. "We had hoped for a year-over-year growth," McManemon says. "We got three times as much as we had anticipated."

(Other Sarasota resorts are experiencing similar high occupancy rates. At the Longboat Key Club and Resort, the occupancy rate in December was in the mid to high 70s, about 12 percent higher than in 2003, says Mary Kay Ryan, director of sales. Ryan attributes the increase to the climb in travel since Sept. 11, as well as to an extensive renovation of the resort's rooms in late 2003.)

Ritz-Carlton guests are split nearly 50-50 between business and leisure travelers, the latter comprising the bulk of the weekend occupants, McManemon says. They come from other countries, states and other cities in Florida, as well as from colder climates in the Northeast and Midwest. They even come from as close as Tampa, McManemon says.

In peak season, room and suite rates range from $409 to $659. In the summer, the range drops to $299 to $559. The premier "Ritz-Carlton Suite" costs $2,500 per night year-round.

As a comparison, the average daily room rate for Sarasota County hotels and motels in 2003 was $112, according to the SCVB, which at press time had not yet compiled the 2004 average rate.

McManemon says his secrets of success are rather simple. He focuses on growing the hotel business and taking care of residents and guests. But he also works hard to keep his employees happy and to develop their talents so that they stick around.

"More than 70 percent of our employees stay," he says, citing a figure that holds true for Ritz-Carlton hotels and resorts in general. "And the industry typically has a 70-percent turnover rate."

McManemon believes in the "Ritz effect," the way a new Ritz-Carlton tends to spur upscale development and increase prosperity in a community. Since the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota opened its doors, multiple luxury condo developments have sprung up downtown, and many more are in the works. Other area businesses, such as restaurants and golf courses, have benefited from referrals by the hotel. According to McManemon, Ritz employees often tell hotel guests seeking a unique dining experience to try Marina Jack's dinner cruise, for example.

And the hotel has brought new jobs to Sarasota, including 177 full- and part-time jobs in 2004 alone, due in large part to the addition of the beach club and the spa and salon, McManemon says.

In addition to his role with the Ritz-Carlton, McManemon has become a player in a move to bring a conference center to downtown Sarasota. He and others in Sarasota's hospitality industry have banded together in this quest, arguing that a conference center would provide hundreds of jobs, and increase business to hotels, restaurants and shops.

"Jim has done a lot to advance the quality of tourism as well as a conference center for the period of time he's been here," says the Hyatt's Githler.

"His leadership has been in organizing the hotels to speak with the same voice," adds Haley.

McManemon declines to say what he thinks would be an ideal location or square footage for such a center. He also says it is premature to discuss how he believes such a center should be funded.

"But whenever you have more people coming into a city, they're spending dollars," he says. "They're paying taxes. That lowers the burden on residents."

Recently, McManemon has begun running regularly again. That doesn't mean, however, that things have quieted down at work.

"The first year you're in a new location, and particularly in a location like this, work really takes your focus," he says. "But it's a labor of love, I'll tell you that."

Good Times for Luxury Hotels

Most luxury hotels in the Sarasota market are doing better than in 2003, says Rick McGee, a commercial real estate appraiser with Chief Appraisal Services in Orlando. "The bulk of the luxury hotels are probably operating in the high 70s occupancy rate."

McGee says the increase is partly due to a recovery in the tourism industry since Sept. 11, as well as to a boost in the number of meetings and conventions held at the hotels.

But also, Sarasota is emerging as a "luxury destination," a place that's attractive to leisure travelers who want to experience luxury in hotels, spas, restaurants and golf courses, McGee says.

"And the Ritz furthered that image," he says.

According to McGee, the year-to-date occupancy rate for Sarasota County hotels in July (the most recent month for which figures are available) was 75.8 percent, compared with 66.9 percent during the same time in 2003.

"It's a big increase," he says.


The Ritz's expanded amenities.

The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota

A 266-room luxury hotel in downtown Sarasota, opened 2001. Includes a spa, open to guests and members only, and a salon, which is open to the public.

The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton

The Ritz-Carlton manages luxury residences, including the 80 condominiums in the tower next door to the hotel. The Ritz offers residents 24-hour concierge service, room service, housekeeping, valet parking and a 24-hour staffed security desk. The Ritz also manages the 50 condominiums above the eight floors of the hotel.

The Members Beach Club

A $30-million restaurant, bar, pool and private beach for hotel guests and members. A beach tiki bar will be open to the public.

The Beach Residences

88 condominiums under construction at the Beach Club.

The Members Golf Club

A 325-acre Tom Fazio-designed 18-hole golf course.

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