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Bob and Ramola Motwani: From spring break motels to luxury resorts

Ramola Motwani

Bob and Ramola Motwani hit Fort Lauderdale at exactly the wrong time. It was 1986, and the couple from Missouri had heard that Fort Lauderdale beach was booming with spring breakers. It seemed like a place where the couple could make a living and Bob could get relief from his scleroderma, a rare disease that brings hardening of the skin.

So the Motwanis — originally from India — bought the little Merrimac Hotel on the beach, packed up sons Dev, 6, and Nitin, 7, and headed for the sunshine.

They could not have anticipated what they found.

After a record spring break in 1985, with crowds of 350,000 college students, the city tried to stifle the revelry by erecting a wall to separate pedestrians and drivers along the strip during March and April. It also banned drinking outdoors.

Spring breakers dropped to about 200,000 the year after the Motwanis arrived, as word spread across college campuses that Fort Lauderdale didn’t want students.

The estimated $150 million spring break business was vanishing, and so were Bob and Ramola’s dreams.

Ramola Motwani recalls the moment like this: “The day we came to Fort Lauderdale, spring break collapsed on us.”

Today, Fort Lauderdale has emerged as a world-class, upscale resort destination, helped through no small effort by the Motwani.

Bob envisioned the blighted beach as a place that could sparkle, attracting developers, major hotels chains, and international visitors. Ramola forged ahead with Bob’s ideas after his death at age 47. And the two little boys grew into successful developers in South Florida.

Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, calls the Motwanis the “poster family” for the potential success of the area’s small hotels.

“When Spring Break dried up, everyone started walking away from the beach,” Ramola said. “There was no other plan to replace the business lost, but we knew we had to keep going.”

They really had no choice. Although they still had an import-export business in Missouri to lean on, they were desperate to find customers to fill their motel and financially support their family

Bob set to work courting business from Europe, Canada, Scandinavia and even Latin America to fill the gaping hole left by spring break’s demise.

By 1992, 80 percent of Motwani’s guests were Europeans and Canadians.

Bob also got involved with the beach committees that worked for infrastructure and other improvements along the strip. Those who knew him back then attest to his determination.

“Bob really dug his heels in and was doing whatever he could to bring new visitors to the destination,” said Ina Lee, owner-publisher of TravelHost Magazine of Greater Fort Lauderdale, who worked with him on efforts to revitalize the area. “Rather than be a victim, he got to work.”

Eventually, the Motwanis bought other properties along Fort Lauderdale beach, including the Gold Coast and Tropic Cay hotels, as part of a long-range plan to assemble a block they could sell for development.

“He was a visionary and believed in this market more than others,” Dev, 34, said of his father.

The Tropic Cay was the last property his parents bought together before Bob’s death in 1994.

“He died 47 years young, but lived more than most,” said Nitin, 36. “He inspired us to want to do great things.”

Bob’s death, however, left Ramola alone to raise their sons and manage the motels.

In spite of the tragedy, she persevered.

“I thought, ‘This is a future for my children, and if I walk away it doesn’t go anywhere,'” she said.

“Lenders counted her out,” Nitin said, noting that his mother had to knock on the doors of 26 banks to get the properties refinanced.

For Ramola — despite her law degree from Mumbai — that was a learning experience. “When I believe in something and am determined to do something, I go after it. I make it happen. That process made me stronger, and I learned a lot.”

The family’s business model began to change in later years, focusing less on managing hotels as they realized the real value was in land and redevelopment, Dev said.

In 2000, Ramola received approval from the city for a 320-room luxury hotel on the Merrimac-Gold Coast block the family had acquired, now the site of Ocean Resort Residences at Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach.

“That was a major accomplishment, and I got that plan approved unanimously. I had never developed anything, but I’m a learner,” Ramola said.

In 2008, she also got the city’s nod on the 323-room Ocean Wave Beach Resort, which she’d planned to develop with her sons on the 1.8-acre site of their Tropic Cay and Avalon Waterfront Inns properties. That land is now earmarked for the Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences, Fort Lauderdale.

“They were quite a team,” Grossman said of Bob and Ramola, who worked with others in the industry to generate ideas for hoteliers to get through the tough times.

“Ramola was not only the woman behind the men but worked tirelessly to upgrade the beach area of Fort Lauderdale,” Grossman said. “We all owe her a huge salute and a big hug for never wavering, no matter what.”

Today, Dev and Nitin spearhead the family’s redevelopment projects and others they’re pursuing on their own.

They weren’t always interested. After seeing how hard their parents had worked, the brothers had no desire to return to Fort Lauderdale after going away to college. But both got undergraduate degrees from Duke University and master’s degrees in real estate development from Columbia University and later worked in the financial world of Wall Street before eventually finding their way back to South Florida.

Nitin returned in 2004 and Dev followed in 2006.

“I gave them their space,” said Ramola, now CEO of the family’s Merrimac Ventures real estate management, investment, and development company in Fort Lauderdale. “It was very important to me that if they were back, they were fully back,” because they wanted to be here.

Dev is Merrimac’s president. He is working with Fort Partners of Miami at the Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences, Fort Lauderdale, which will be built on 1.8 acres his family previously owned at 521 to 529 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. Merrimac has a minority stake in the project.

In 2010, Dev founded real estate investment fund Ramesh Properties, which oversees nearly $750 million of development projects including the Las Olas Riverfront retail, dining, and entertainment complex in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

He’s also a partner in the $120 million Gale Boutique Hotel & Residences project being developed on the site of the former Escape Hotel in Fort Lauderdale and an adjoining lot.

Meanwhile, Nitin is a managing director of Encore Capital Management, a private equity fund with about $1 billion in assets under development in Florida, California, Texas, and Arizona.

The older sibling — by 18 months — also is involved in the development of Paramount Fort Lauderdale Beach, a 95-unit luxury condo that’s rising up on the site of a former Howard Johnson’s at 701 N. Atlantic Blvd.

As managing principal of Miami Worldcenter Associates, Nitin also is a partner on the $2 billion Miami Worldcenter mixed-use real estate development slated for downtown Miami. It will include a 1,800-room Marriott Marquis hotel, expo center, residential towers and a retail mall.

As for Broward County, “Fort Lauderdale now is really on the map,” Dev said, “We’ve got great hotel activity on the beach … and then you’ve got a handful of really high-end residential product coming to market.

“For us, it’s a 30-year journey that’s all come together.”

Ramola is elated that her sons are carrying on the tradition she and her husband began when they ventured to Fort Lauderdale from Missouri.

“There’s nothing more fulfilling, nothing more rewarding that as a parent, you are able to see your legacy continue in your own lifetime,” Ramola said of her sons’ achievements.”It’s beyond your own dream come true.”

asatchell@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4209 or Twitter@TheSatchreport

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