South Florida’s coast is lined with the Motwani family’s glimmering development successes: Miami Worldcenter, Conrad Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach, Paramount Fort Lauderdale Beach. Few of the well-heeled visitors and residents who stay in them know their significance as a testament to vision, perseverance, and the hard-won success of the family’s matriarch.
“You can’t help but recognize the uniqueness of the family starting with matriarch Ramola Motwani,” said Broward College president Gregory Haile. “You recognize immediately her passion for the community and her family living through her two sons Nitin and Dev, who are incredible ambassadors of our community.”
In the 1980s, Ramola Motwani first visited Fort Lauderdale with her husband, Bob, and their two young sons, on vacation from their home in St. Charles, Missouri, where the family — originally from India — ran a wholesale souvenir business and managed apartment rentals.
Both business hounds by nature, Ramola said she and Bob discussed the hospitality market with owners of Fort Lauderdale beach motels during their holiday. All said the same thing: Business was booming. Many said they worked just four months of the year and made enough profit to close their doors for the other eight months, Ramola said.
Enticed by the warm weather and the promise of high returns, the Motwanis decided in 1986 to purchase the 45-room 1950s Merrimac and Shorecrest motels — between Terramar and Windamar streets — for around $2 million. The family moved into a room connected to the lobby and prepared for their first Spring Break as motel owners.
But the crowds never came.
“There was no Spring Break,” said Ramola, now 72. “We got ready. We had rooms ready because we went by what we heard from everyone and we were excited like a new business. But, you know, that was a disaster.”
By 1986, Fort Lauderdale was cracking down on the Spring Break debauchery for which it had become known. Residents, and even some in the hospitality business, were fed up. Police began strictly enforcing bar and hotel capacity limits, banned open alcohol containers and arrested more than 2,500 people for a range of violations during the high season, according to a report from the Miami Herald. Beach-side motels saw record cancellations and a dip in occupancy. By 1987, the Merrimac was just 50% full on a good winter weekend in what the Orlando Sentinel called a “washout.”
Another hit to Fort Lauderdale Beach came from local officials itself, when Broward County chose the Port Everglades site for a convention center over the beach, leaving motel owners with little hope of a Spring Break alternative. Spring Break was dead, and there was nothing to replace it.
“Normally when you kick out your golden goose, which was Spring Break, you have a business plan for the future. The city didn’t have that,” said Dev.
In 1987, Bob Motwani formed a group of business owners to petition the city for extensions on tax payments.
“We have paid our taxes all our lives,” he told the Miami Herald in 1987. “We need some kind of relief from the city. If the city has confidence that things will turn around, they should be willing to do that.”
The city denied the request, and some beach motel owners began to slip into bankruptcy.
The Motwanis had a decision to make: pack up and go back to Missouri, or hunker down and find a way forward.
They chose the latter.
“We believed in our dream. We believed in the destination. We believed in the beach,” Ramola said. “And we chose to be part of the community, and see how we can work with the city and bring that transformation.”
TIME TO DIG IN
Bob enveloped himself in the community, organizing meetings with tour operators and city officials to chart the best way forward. At the onset of the 1990s, the work started to pay off. Projects like the iconic wave wall along the waterfront materialized thanks to a $45 million bond voters approved in 1986.
Using income from their business in Missouri, the Motwanis secured funding to acquire the Gold Coast motel property on the beach in 1991. After the deal was inked, Ramola remembers Bob telling her how incredible it would be if one day they could turn the motels into a Hilton hotel as the two stood on the block.
They didn’t stop there. The Motwanis secured funding to acquire the Tropic Cay motel at 529 N Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. in October 1994.
Just as the family was doubling down on their Fort Lauderdale Beach investments, Bob died suddenly in November 1994. The future was uncertain.
Up until that point, Ramola said she had been in charge of the motel operations and taking care of the kids, while Bob was in charge of working with the city and the banks. Now she was on her own.
Relatives urged Ramola to sell the motels and get out of the business. The economy was reeling from the savings-and-loan crisis. But she still believed in the couple’s dream. Instead of packing up, she rolled up her sleeves — again — and got to work understanding the financial side of the business.
The bank holding the 1986 loan on the Merrimac suddenly told Ramola she had 90 days to pay back the debt, she said.
“All of a sudden I had to absorb all that,” she said. “I knew I don’t have time to just sit and cry and say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I need to do something now.”
Armed with a law degree from India, Ramola knew how to negotiate. After much back and forth, she said the bank agreed to give her six months to figure out a solution. She set out to refinance the loan. Twenty-five banks denied her, she said.
“Because I was a woman, had something happened to me and Bob was going to the bank, he wouldn’t have got that kind of a pushback,” Ramola said. “To some extent, I understand because I have two young children … and it could be a concern. But my concern was, what do I do? Where do I go?”
The 26th bank agreed. “They believed in me,” she said.
LEARNING ON THE GO
To continue with their development dream, Ramola first needed city approval to tear down the old motels and build new high-rise hotels. Leaning on Bob’s relationships with the city manager and building department offices, she created a proposal that met city requirements — without the help of a lawyer, she said.
“I was learning as I was talking, but I was brave and bold and I kept the face like I knew everything, but I was really truly learning,” she said.
In 2005, the project won unanimous approval from the city commission. In 2008, she got the go-ahead on a second hotel project in the Tropic Cay block.
Both sites took more than a decade to develop, respectively, and the Tropic Cay remained open as a motel until October 2015. Now, a Conrad Hilton hotel stands where the Merrimac once did, and a Four Seasons is set to open in 2021 on the Tropic Cay site.
Andrew Dickey, vice president of real estate advisor firm JLL, said the emergence of brands like Conrad Hilton, Auberge, and Four Seasons since 2010 marks the true seismic shift in the Fort Lauderdale beach market.
“It speaks to the story of Fort Lauderdale,” Dickey said. “This has gone from a spring break destination and become an institutional market. The Four Seasons solidifies that.”
Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Motwanis deserve much of the credit for the transformation.
“The transformation of Fort Lauderdale Beach from the former spring break party destination with budget beachfront hotels to the family-friendly, more luxurious destination it is today is largely a testament to the vision, foresight, and commitment of the Motwani family,” said Ritter via email.
It’s a vision that harks to Ramola’s married days — and transcends it. Bob envisioned the Hilton brand on the Merrimac site, but he never imagined the Conrad Hilton brand, she said.
“Conrad Hilton brand is their luxury brand,” Ramola said. “The dream was to have a Hilton. And then by the time it opened, the destination was such that it had gone to beyond our expectations so that it could support Conrad.”
After growing up in the motels their parents ran, Dev and Nitin have returned to South Florida after college to carry on the family business.
Nitin is leading the charge on Miami Worldcenter, the largest development in downtown Miami’s modern history and one of the largest in the country. After 15 years in development, the project completed its first phase last year with the opening of Caoba, a 43-story, 444-unit apartment building at 698 NE First Ave., and Paramount Miami Worldcenter, a 60-story, 569-unit condo building at 851 NE First Avenue. More than 80% of the apartment units are leased at rents ranging from $1,500-$2,000. About 90% of the condos have been sold at prices ranging from $750,000 to $10 million.
Dev is spearheading the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences project at 525 North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, a 22-story tower with 148 hotel rooms and 83 condo units, 60% of which have been sold. He’s also in charge of development of The Gale Boutique Hotel and Residences, a 96-room hotel and 128-unit condo building, a historic preservation renovation at 2900 Riomar Street near the Intracoastal between Las Olas and Sunrise boulevards, and The Wharf restaurant and bar near the New River, which opened last year.
Ramola serves as chairwoman of Merrimac Ventures, where she oversees the company’s business strategy and advises new projects through the development process. Merrimac Ventures’ portfolio includes 18 hospitality, residential and retail projects owned, under construction or completed across four states.
The most important lesson Nitin and Dev learned from their mom, they said, is to never be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.
“In a time when folks feel the need to be the loudest voice in the room, she took a different approach,” Nitin said. “She structured some great deals because she wasn’t afraid to ask questions that others may have been insecure or embarrassed about.”
“A lot of times in business, people want to help,” said Dev — within city administration, a neighbor, or a colleague. “If you need something, it never hurts to ask, but it means you have to be willing to help others.”
Now, after three decades transforming the beach from Spring Breaker hot spot to family-friendly luxury vacation site, the Motwanis are investing in the Broward College hospitality program to help train the next generation of the tourism workforce.
“Hospitality, I would like to redefine it,” Ramola said. “I hear this very often — hospitality is a low-paying job. And I disagree. Every business, a small business, a big business, does have that small component: Someone opens the door, someone is at the reception. But what goes after that? That’s what we need to measure.”
For the 25th anniversary of Bob’s death, the family decided to partner with Broward College last year to launch a new Academy for Hospitality and Tourism Management. The Motwanis hope to leverage their connections throughout the South Florida hospitality industry to put eager local students on a similar paths to success. The family raised $300,000 for the program at a launch event at the Conrad Hilton in November.
“I think what the program does is, it gives the students that baseline in hospitality and understanding the business because a lot of times, it’s hard to move up because when you start out at the entry level, you don’t understand necessarily what are the layers above you,” Dev said. “So this gives them the education to understand that, so that not only can the entry point be higher because they have the degree, but also it gives them the knowledge and the tools to accelerate the move up faster.”
By Taylor Dolven – Miami Herald
February 3rd , 2020, 7:00 AM EDT