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The Nicklaus Family Celebrates 50 years in the Resort Business

Sirata Beach Resort
Family Stands Out in Era When Locally
Owned and Managed Hotels Are Scarce

March 20, 2012 - ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. — Harry and Beverley Nicklaus had two rules for their children who grew up with the family trucking business in Pittsburgh.

One: Get a college education. Two: Leave home to attend school.

Their three daughters and son listened well. Two became lawyers and the others earned degrees in fine arts and hospitality management.

But the separate paths of Lenne, Deborah, Gregg and Valerie Nicklaus eventually led to St. Pete Beach, where they blend varied business backgrounds and personalities to run the 382-room Sirata Beach Resort & Conference Center on the site where their grandfather bought a tiny 46 unit motel in March, 1962.

The Nicklaus group stands out in an era when locally owned and managed hotels have become increasingly scarce. That trend has resulted in less community participation on the part of hoteliers, more of whom must focus on short-term goals and distant corporate headquarters.

“Most family-owned hotels here have been involved in the chamber, in local politics and in the community,” said Lenne Nicklaus-Ball, the eldest of the Nicklaus group and the resort’s vice president. “Managers at the corporate hotels have a short shelf life, and the community as a whole loses as no one is interested in the area’s small businesses. It can become all about the bottom line.”

Family-owned hotels often struggle for name recognition for marketing and reservations purposes, especially with the onset of Internet booking. Hotels under family ownership frequently seek to operate under national flags like Hilton or Marriott and turn to outside companies to operate the properties, he said.

The Nicklauses’ success draws on their ability to merge loyalty with different skills and fierce streaks of independence. The siblings are unlikely to pass each other in the halls during the workday in the Sirata’a offices, but the four faithfully meet each day for lunch and business planning.

“This is not a democracy,” Gregg Nicklaus said, “but we truly try not to divide and conquer. If there is a strong personal feeling, the other three often will yield.” But operating a hotel with more than 250 employees requires more than hands-on from the four Nicklauses.

“It’s a family operation, but it is a very, very professional situation. They have given senior management autonomy to hire the right people and they have encouraged the rest of the staff to buy into the ownership mentality, that all of us are part of the business.”

The resort has a Mediterranean feel. It has an eight-story main building, 15,000 square feet of meeting space, three swimming pools, two restaurants and two beach bars, including Harry’s Bar, named for the founding grandfather. The family has invested more than $40 million in renovations and expansions to what originally was the El Sirata Motel, not including regular improvements.

If the Nicklauses stand out as a family that continues to run a large hotel, then the four siblings successfully working side-by-side is even more impressive. “If you look at where we are today compared to where we started, we are unusual,” Gregg Nicklaus, pointing to a series of photographs in his office chronicling the growth from a 3,000-square-foot motel to a 300,000-square-foot resort.

“We don’t see this simply as an investment of 50 years, but as being a part of what this family represents. It transcends business philosophy. You have to commit to the same goals and family arrangement and be successful at it.”

In personality, the Nicklauses are “totally” different, said Deborah Nicklaus, laughing as she repeats the word “totally.” Nicklaus-Ball, Vice President, earned a fine arts degree. She enjoys meeting and talking with people, so sales became an ideal fit. Valerie Nicklaus Hval is the youngest of the group, and the only one to study hospitality. She oversees operations and prefers the one-on-one rapport in shaping the staff.

Gregg Nicklaus, third - youngest, turned his outgoing personality and negotiating skills into becoming the resort’s general manager after a stint as a lawyer specializing in real estate investments. He now serves at the President of the family corporation. Deborah Nicklaus is the hotel’s finance officer and Corporate Secretary. She is the active partner in the Nicklaus and Nicklaus St. Pete Beach law firm. She’s detail- oriented, preferring to work behind the scenes.

The group credits their parents for providing what they euphemistically call “the opportunity” to learn business at an early age. “I never seemed to let them have summer vacations,” said Harry Nicklaus Jr., who roams the property helping guests. “There was the trucking warehouse to paint and trucks to wash. “When Deborah finished law school, I told Gregg, ‘Welcome to the trucking business,” and he said ‘I’m going to law school, too.” They all went separate ways, but here we are.”

In the early days, when it was surrounded by empty land, the El Sirata was open only during the winter. By the 1980s, the Nicklaus siblings, who spent time visiting and working at the El Sirata, realized Florida was emerging as a world-class tourist destination with the advent of Disney, the completion of the interstate system through Pinellas County and Tampa’s new airport.

“We began to think, ‘Why work for someone else?’ ” Gregg Nicklaus said.

When Harry Nicklaus Sr. died in 1981, Harry Jr. and the children purchased his share of the business. In 1985, the siblings bought 100 percent of Nicklaus of Florida. Over the years, the group orchestrated a succession of expansions, including the purchase of an adjacent Holiday Inn. Many of their guests were visiting from the Midwest and Northeast, and a good number from Europe. “We are try to establish business alliances with the chambers and local companies to hold meetings and social events here,” Nicklaus-Ball said.

The hotel has long depended on its name and reputation, drawing up to four generations of the same family as frequent guests. But the goal is to fill the hotel, so the Sirata also must seek to diversify beyond its leisure trade that customarily totaled 85 percent of its business.

“I don’t think of us as competing with corporate hotels or anyone else,” Hval said. “Our philosophy is if we are out there, proud of that room, proud of that employee. That will please the guests.”

The family’s last comment: “50 years is just the beginning!”