Florida Keys Business
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Southernmost staying power
Southernmost Hotel celebrates 65 years of hospitality

In 1948, when the world was mourning the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and President Harry Truman was ending segregation in the military, a Key Wester named John Pinder opened a small lodging establishment on United Street.

Eight small cottages lined the 500 block of United Street, comprising the Ocean View Hotel and Motor Court.

Now, 65 years later, the original eight cottages still stand somewhere beneath decades of upgrades and expansions that transformed Pinder's small hotel into a sprawling, upscale resort known worldwide as the Southernmost Hotel.

The property now encompasses more than an entire city block, and includes Pinder's original hotel, along with one that sat behind Pinder's resort, which was the original Southernmost Hotel.

Through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, the hotel changed names and hands and was even a Travelodge for a decade from 1964-1974, said Megan Coccitto, marketing manager for the Southernmost Hotel Collection.

The 261-room collection now includes the historic Southernmost Hotel, along with its newer neighbor across South Street, Southernmost on the Beach and two adjacent guesthouses, La Mer and Dewey House.

A quartet of Michigan businessmen -- Dale Rands, Stu Kaufman, Mort Harris and Bill Berman -- bought the original Southernmost Hotel, which sprawls along United Street between Duval and Simonton, in 1985.

The same foursome still owns it today, although longtime managers Matt and Carrie Babich also have an ownership interest in it as well, said Carrie Babich, director of sales and marketing.

The hotel remains a private entity, foresaking national, name brand flags such as Hyatt, Marriott or Hilton for the past 65 years, which is rare in this day and age, Carrie Babich said.

"What it is today was beyond our wildest imagination when we came here 25 years ago," she said. "Matt and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary with the Southernmost in August. We were hired as a team in 1988 from Colorado to run the hotel."

She credits the owners, the staff and monthly customer service seminars for the resort's ongoing success and return clientele.

"More than 20 percent of our guests are returns or referrals," Carrie Babich said. "That's huge for a property this size, and it's really all about customer service. Plus, the owners are very, hands on."

One or more of the owners live in Key West through the winter months, staying in a three-bedroom condominium that is part of the property, Babich said.

"It's not unusual for a guest to have a chat at the pool with one of the owners," she said. "And every year, we have guests come back and specifically seek out a particular manager or employee who made their stay the last year."

The emphasis on customer service is summed with the concept that is printed on customer service brochures for employees: At the Southernmost Hotel Collection we strive to make sure every guest has the time of their lives.

In addition to the people, the location can't be beat, Coccitto said.

The hotel collection sits on the quiet end of Duval Street, within easy walking distance to every major attraction on the island.

Crews just finished a multi-million dollar renovation to the section of rooms that face United Street.

"We just finished in January, and redid all the bathrooms, replaced all the floors, furniture, bedding, everything," Coccitto said.

The navy blue and beige decor of many of the rooms is a far cry from the brown and green plaids that once bedecked the love seats and bedspreads in the hotel circa 1950.

Some of those nostalgic photos were published in a commemorative calendar this year.

Guests were asked to submit photos of past vacations at the Southernmost, Babich said.

"We got pictures of people's honeymoons, weddings, family reunions, you name it," she said.

The best of the photos were published in the calendar, which also marks an entire year of anniversary events.

"Since we were never able to pinpoint the exact date that the hotel first opened in 1948, we're having an event every month," Coccitto said,

This month features a Harry Truman package with the Little White House, in acknowledgement of Truman's presidency in 1948. In April, anyone who can prove that they too are turning 65 in 2013 will receive a complimentary birthday bag of gifts, and in May, the hotel will celebrate the 65th birthday of Key West's signature cocktail -- the margarita.

"The margarita was first introduced as a cocktail in 1948, and drink specials will be offered throughout the month on the "frozen concoction" made famous by Jimmy Buffett.

July will feature a vintage "bathing beauty" pool party and classic car show, with special events continuing throughout the year.

"Even though we've brought the rooms up to high standards and are an upscale property, we're really still known for our customer service, and nine out of 10 of our guests comment on how nice the staff is," Babich said. "They come back year after year because of the people we have here."

And customer service is always key, because without it, Pinder's little eight-room cottage would never have grown into the collection that it is today.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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