A year ago in a bankruptcy courtroom in Jacksonville, a bidding war emerged for the Amelia Island Plantation resort.
The battle between TRT Holdings Inc., owner of Omni Hotels & Resorts, and private equity firm Starwood Capital Group lasted more than four hours. But as the court hearing dragged on, it was clear that TRT and its chairman, Texas billionaire Robert Rowling, were willing to spend whatever it took to buy the Plantation. And when Starwood finally realized it couldn’t compete, TRT won the resort with a $67.1 million bid.
TRT’s winning bid was probably a good thing for the property, because it gave the resort now known as the Omni Amelia Island Plantation a deep-pocketed owner ready to invest and grow the facility.
“Amelia Island Plantation as a whole has a wonderful reputation out there,” said Tim Digby, who was brought in by Omni last October as managing director to run the resort.
“Now, you put the two [the Plantation and Omni] together,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to provide global resources” behind the Plantation’s business.
Omni officially took over the Plantation in September 2010. But other than some signage with the Omni name, there aren’t a lot of visible changes over the past year to the resort, which includes 249 oceanfront rooms, two golf courses, tennis courts and a shopping area.
“The property for the most part was in pretty good shape,” said Digby, who also said most of the Plantation’s employees joined Omni.
“We had a wonderful group of associates and managers that were here,” he said. The resort has about 750 full-time employees.
THE OMNI CULTURE
But there have been some subtle changes, such as putting Omni-style bedding in the rooms and painting some of them. Omni also spent $700,000 for a new roof and $20,000 on new cleaning equipment, Digby said.
“We’ve been able to provide our associates with the tools to do their jobs,” he said.
The company has also trained the existing Plantation employees in Omni’s corporate culture and instituted some Omni guest programs such as its “Sensational Kids.” That program provides children with a backpack full of activities when their families check in.
But for the most part, the 40-year-old Plantation resort is retaining its identity. Omni, which operates a total of 50 hotels in North America, wants its hotels to be distinct.
“You’ve got a unique collection of resorts. They do have their own personalities,” Digby said.
Omni’s strategy was welcomed by the employees, said Amy Lacroix, marketing manager at the Plantation who has been there for six years.
“It was nice to see that there weren’t major changes in the beginning,” she said. “They really came in and let the property speak for itself.”
Ron Flick, chairman of the Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce, said he is happy that Omni’s leadership recognized the value of the Plantation and seems intent on preserving it.
“They figured that out real quick. My hat’s off to them and I’m glad they’re here,” he said.
Flick said Omni’s investment in the Plantation sends a good signal to small businesses in the community about the area’s potential, and encourages them to invest as well.
“They’ve put themselves in a great position of leadership and they’ve done a good job in the first year,” he said.
Omni’s investment does include some changes. It is planning an expansion to add more than 150 resort rooms and about 20,000 square feet of meeting space to its current 49,000 square feet. Digby said the project is scheduled to begin in November, with completion targeted for March 2013.
TENNIS PULLS OUT
The Plantation was originally developed in the early 1970s by the Sea Pines Co. and was acquired by a group led by investor Richard Cooper in 1978.
The resort’s profile was boosted by a major women’s tennis tournament that brought some of the top players in the world to Amelia Island from 1980 through 2008.
“I think it put a wonderful halo on the resort,” said Digby.
But after title sponsor Bausch & Lomb pulled out of the tournament, it was moved to the Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach in 2009 and eventually discontinued altogether.
“We’ve been looking at the opportunity to do something like that again,” Digby said, but he added that it could be difficult to regain a spot on the tennis tour.
The loss of the tennis tournament coincided with a recession that lowered business at the Plantation, particularly from corporations that used to hold meetings at resorts. And the Amelia Island Co., still owned by Cooper’s family, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009.
A year after the resort was brought out of bankruptcy, Digby said the Plantation is seeing an uptick in “drive traffic,” vacationers who come to the resort because it’s within driving distance. But he said the resort industry is still struggling to increase corporate business.
“Generally speaking, business hasn’t come back as rapidly as anyone would like,” he said.
Digby said meeting planners have a lot of facilities to choose from, so resorts have to do a good job to attract business.
“It’s very competitive and it remains so,” he said. “We have to work hard to get it.”
Mark Basch: (904) 359-4308
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