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The Miami Herald Talks to Robert Thrailkill, General Manager of the Conrad Miami

By Carolyn Guniss, The Miami Herald McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 4, 2008 - Conrad Miami made its U.S. debut in 2004 on Brickell Avenue in the new, Espirito Santo Plaza.

General Manager Robert Thrailkill had to come to Miami and open the first North American location for Conrad, and he had the chance to bring his family back to Miami, where his wife, Mariana, grew up.

He thought the hotel was superbly designed save for Level 25, the hotel's bar and lounge.

Then Hurricane Wilma arrived in 2005 and blew out every window of Level 25, so named because it's on the 25th floor of the building. Thrailkill called the tragedy an opportunity for Conrad to redesign the space, located at 1395 Brickell Ave.

It recently reopened Level 25, which has a completely redesigned bar and lounge, featuring pintxos (pronounced peen-chose), finger foods and a raw bar, a Wine Attic with 1,000 wines and an updated Atrio, its signature restaurant.

The revamp of Level 25, is a part of more than $3 million investment in the hotel, including installing a new spa and meeting rooms. About $1.5 million went to the social and eating area alone.

Thursday, it will launch a wine happy hour, and Sundays now feature a brunch, additions Thrailkill said, are geared toward the community.

The Miami Herald talked to Thrailkill about the hotels in Miami and the Brickell community. Bottom line: He is optimist about the Brickell area, envisions a thriving neighborhood and wants everyone to know Level 25 is their space to enjoy. Thrailkill says it's the Conrad way.

Q: What role do you see the hotel playing in the community?

A: I think hotels have to make themselves a part of the community. We certainly encourage and invite all our neighbors to come in an visit us as often as they like. The space that we created here was meant to be very contemporary. Miami is a very contemporary, exciting city. I just felt that the older the space we had wasn't really conducive to that, so we brought in some designers and we said, 'How can we take a big space like this, 11 or 12 stories high, and bring it down a little bit and make it more comfortable for people to say, 'You know what, I can come here and feel comfortable to have a drink, watch a game or whatever it may be?' "

The designers created this, what we are sitting on right now, which reduces the scope of the atrium, and gives us a more intimate feel, and adds to the bar and the restaurant, which was missing. I think a space in Miami has to have a connection with the restaurant and the bar, they interact, they give each other support, energy, and we just didn't have that with our previous bar.

Q: What was it like before?

A: It was like a big living room -- two couches, four chairs, there was nothing against the windows, and the bar we had was in the corner back here, isolated somewhat. It was dark, it was black. It was called Noir. What I would see, if I were sitting here, people would walk up to the threshold to come in, and they would say "Hmm should I be in this space? Is this my space?" he said, "It's not working; it's just not working." We had a little excitement in '05, when we launched Black is Back. We had brought in a happy hour crowd here; the bar was full of people, but it wasn't really keeping with Conrad and who we feel was our true market.

Q: Who is your market?

A: The younger crowd. So we said let's scrap that issue and let's build something, develop something that is going to make it long lasting.

Conrad is in the Espirito Santo Plaza, but it wasn't built for Conrad, just a hotel. The design of the original space was not ours, per see. It was the designers they used for the hotel. I can tell you when I got here, the design was OK, but they had already bought the furniture.

Q: So immediately you didn't like it?

A: Immediately it was a disconnect with me . . . that dark space, it didn't have the true sense of what I thought it was to be about, but I am not a designer, I am an operator. So we observed, we watched, we played with it for a year, and then basically Hurricane Wilma came, which caused a bit of damper, but with every bad thing came opportunities. Every window in here was broken. Everything had to be replaced.

Now we have a much more desirable space, with fantastic views of Key Biscayne and Biscayne Bay. Before, it was kind of dead, and now everything is in its right place. Now the space has more space and more energy.

Q: How long did the renovations take?

A: The design started in 2007 and we began construction in August to early December. We had our grand reopening party with more than 400 people Jan. 25.

Q: From the very begining, what was to be Conrad's relationship with the local community?

A: We are in an icon building, spectacular design, so from Conrad's perspective just being in Espirito Santo Plaza, in an one-of-kind building, and a gateway city like Miami, we had to jump on it as fast as we could.

For us, it has been ups -- launching the hotel -- and downs with the hurricanes --and up relaunching the hotel again. And that's what we are doing. It's been sort of a roller-coaster ride, but it has been a lot of fun. Our owners just spent in excess of $3 million to attract our guests not only outside Miami but locally as well.

Q: With a growing number of people who work and live in Brickell, what do you envision happening in the area?

A: Let me preface my remarks with, I have lived in New York, Boston, a lot of great cities, but what you see in the Brickell corridor is something that is evolving now through the next five years. Obviously, this is going to be its own neighborhood.

I was here 15-20 years ago when at 5 on a Friday, everyone was gone. You could shoot a cannon through Brickell, no one would show up here until 6 or 7 on a Monday. Now that doesn't exist; we have a community here of people.

While not every condo is occupied today, I am a firm believer five years from now they will be occupied, and that there will be more restaurants and more shops. We just opened Brickell Village, down the street, they are building the Met II, and then there will be movie theaters and a Whole Foods, then we have our Publix next door and our Walgreens next door. And a lot of new interesting restaurants are popping up. That's the kinda nice thing about this neighborhood, it's changing, it's evolving and there are more buildings coming online. Go down the street, same thing over and over, Miami is exciting, and changing all the time.

To answer your question, what is this place going to look like? It is going to be a neighborhood, where they live, they work, they go out to dinner, they exercise. The entertainment is going to be here, I believe, and with all this coming online, there will be other elements that we haven't even seen yet and heard about yet. All this is going to make it Brickell, its own identity, just like South Beach has its own identity, just like Coral Gables has its own identity. Brickell will be its own destination. And I don't think it's that far away.

Q.: Does your staff downstairs understand that locals are welcomed?

A.: Absolutely. We want the locals to come in, and they know I have been trying to reach out to the locals. The opening party was a way to reach out. We have a bit of a challenge because it's not like you can walk off the street and you are there. You have to ride an elevator, but once you get here, I hope people will find it a space to bring friends to talk, and enjoy the beautiful view.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Miami Herald

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