June Business Briefs

The Biltmore’s Comeback

One sector badly hit by the pandemic was hospitality, from restaurants to hotels. The iconic Biltmore was among those forced to close down – and had a tougher time recovering than most hotels because so many of its guests typically arrive by air. 

Now business is back. Though weekdays are still lagging, weekends are more than 80 percent booked, some at full capacity. Also roaring back are bookings for group events, like weddings and conferences. The only problem, says Biltmore executive Tom Prescott, is staffing. The hotel employee count is now past 300, but pre-pandemic employment was more than 500. 

Prescott attributes the short fall to the fact that some former employees moved on to new jobs. But the other factor is one that looms large for the entire industry: Workers who are receiving unemployment benefits don’t see a reason to return until those benefits expire. Prescott says the hotel had to increase wages by 25 to 50 percent to attract employees. 

“While the stimulus bill was passed for the right reasons, state and federal relief has driven the incentive out of work,” says Prescott. “We can’t get the people.” Those back on staff are working harder than ever – many pulling overtime – to provide the service customers expect, says Prescott. Nonetheless, he adds, “The morale is good because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Next year should be a blowout.” 

The Biltmore Hotel - June Business Briefs
The Biltmore Hotel

Coming Up to Speed

When the pandemic hit, small businesses – especially retailers – had to pivot to the internet for sales. But not all were adept at selling online. A survey taken by the city’s Economic Development Department last summer revealed that 63 percent of small businesses felt unprepared for online commerce. 

“For us, that was eye-opening,” says Belkys Perez, the city’s assistant director of economic development. “We decided to give them the skills they needed.” Perez hosted what has become a series of seven tutorials, two on digital marketing, two on creating e-commerce sites, and three on innovative technologies. Bringing in experts to put viewers through “virtual bootcamps,” Perez’s programs addressed such things as how to set up a secure consumer website and how to optimize that site for search engines. 

“The city is now a Google partner, which means we have access to webinars that Google puts out,” says Perez. “So, we are setting up four new webinars to start at the end of June, and then continue in July, August and September.” The city is also donating 19 licenses to small businesses for CommentSold, a program that allows businesses that use social media to convert potential customers. To watch the city seminars, go to coralgables.com/businessworkshops. 

June Business Briefs - Belkys Perez, assistant director of Economic Development
Belkys Perez, assistant director of Economic Development

Book That in Bitcoin

The THēsis Hotel on U.S. 1 has become the first hotel in Florida to accept cryptocurrency for payments. Brent Reynolds, CEO of CRI, the parent company of THēsis, said the hotel had accepted bitcoin from a guest for room nights. While it was tempting to ride the fluctuations of that digital currency (which fluctuates like a stock), “we converted the bitcoin into cash,” he says. The world may be going virtual, but greenbacks still rule for now. 

Moving to Town

Some big companies are relocating to the Gables – notably ACI and PNC to the Plaza Ponce office tower, and Titan Home Improvement to the downtown. But business titans themselves are coming here as well, part of the diaspora of New Yorkers and Californians to Greater Miami. We note that a trust of Ingram Micro CEO Alain Monié recently bought a waterfront mansion in Gables Estates for $14.5 million, while former investment banker William McKinley Osborne spent a record $29 million for an estate in Tahiti Beach. 

Bittersweet Farewell

After 44 years in business, Swensen’s Grill & Ice Cream Parlor on South Dixie Highway has closed forever, apparently unable to pay its property taxes. The classic and popular milkshake and burgers hangout was a franchise of the chain that began in San Francisco in 1948, and one of the last three in the U.S. (the others are in San Francisco and Midland, Texas). But fans, fear not. The corporation, now based in Canada, lives on with 300 locations worldwide, including in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Shanghai, China. Closer to home there is one in Ontario.