Florida Keys Business
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Chairman of the boards
Juan de la Playa: A day at the beach is serious business

Juan DeLeon has heard all the usual quips about his job: His line of work gives new meaning to "casual Friday;" his "office" has one of the best views in town and of course, the dreaded "Life really is a beach for you, huh?"

DeLeon laughs warmly at each envious observation while placing lounge chairs beneath wide umbrellas, introducing himself and providing his customers with a brief rundown on Key West's South Beach at the south end of Duval Street.

"You've got to build a rapport with people, and when you're doing this, you've got to have your own story down to one breath," said DeLeon, who has owned Juan de la Playa beach rental business since 2009. "Because everyone asks where you're from and how you ended up in Key West."

DeLeon first arrived on the island from Oklahoma in 2001, when he visited his brother, who was stationed here with the Navy. He bounced back and forth from Midwest to Southernmost for a few years before moving to Key West full time in 2005, and taking a job as a beach and pool attendant at the Casa Marina Resort.

"That's where I learned the hospitality end of this business," he said. "And I also learned through the hotel that the idea is to keep people there and make them comfortable, because if they get too hot or bored, they'll leave."

DeLeon brought that knowledge with him when he started handling beach concessions at South Beach, first on a part-time business and then officially under contract in 2009.

"We offer complimentary frozen towels, fruit smoothies and frozen fruit to our beach guests," DeLeon said. "And we distribute something at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.," he said. "If people are getting hot or tired or bored, they'll look at their watch and know that something cool and refreshing -- and free -- is coming in less than an hour."

When DeLeon started the business five years ago, there were 30 chairs and one umbrella.

Juan de la Playa now has 140 chairs, several umbrellas and a supply of stand-up paddleboards available for hourly rentals. DeLeon also gives paddleboard lessons from South Beach, offering the first lesson for free.

Part of DeLeon's job -- and that of his employees -- is explaining to beachgoers that South Beach is in fact a public, city beach. Locals and visitors are welcome to bring their own beach towels or sand chairs to the end of Duval Street and enjoy their surroundings. Hotel guests of the Southernmost Hotel Collection and Santa Maria Suites receive complimentary chairs and umbrellas from DeLeon's company. The hotels then receive a monthly bill from Juan de la Playa for their guests' beach chairs,

But you need not be staying at one of the area hotels to enjoy South Beach, its amenities and attached restaurant.

"We've really built up this side of this island," DeLeon said. "People don't realize how important the beach business is for tourism. And when people arrive here at the beach, and ask why this is the best beach in town, we always tell them, 'Because you're already here, and there's a bar just steps away.'"

The sales pitch generally works, and then leads to DeLeon's welcome, introduction and offer of chairs and umbrellas.

"And I always have to explain that people can't bring their own booze to the beach," he said. "They can buy a drink at the restaurant, and carry it out to the beach, but they can't bring their own."

DeLeon and his crew, or Beach Boys as they call themselves, are experts at spotting hidden booze.

"People think they're so slick, as they look back and forth over their shoulder,' he said, imitating the covert looks of people trying to beat the system. "And meanwhile, here we are standing way over here watching them and knowing exactly what they're up to."

DeLeon is planning to grow his Juan de la Playa business in the coming months by securing additional contracts to provide beach chairs and umbrellas to other hotel and guesthouse guests.

"The beach concession business has changed the whole neighborhood and has been a good thing. I got here at the basement level. This beach was untouched by hospitality when I arrived, and now look," he said, gesturing to the beach that he also cleans every morning of trash and seaweed.

And despite his laid-back manner, quick smile and engaging personality, DeLeon and his Beach Boys work hard in the hot sun day after day.


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