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by michael b. dougherty | February 1, 2010 | Lifestyle
If Bobby Schlesinger aspires to the ranks of Ian Schrager and André Balazs, he’s not currently emulating their lifestyle. He arrives to our meeting on foot, having stepped not out of a Bentley but a New York City subway train, politely explaining that the choice of a vegan restaurant is due to his sister-in-law’s recent conversion. There’s no Tom Ford suit with a generous flash of clavicle; instead, Schlesinger looks his boyishly handsome 25 in dress pants and a checkered oxford, whose pink polo pony elicits some playful teasing from our Kirsten Dunst-lookalike waitress. “Would I like to date Uma Thurman and be a successful businessman? Sure, who wouldn’t?” Schlesinger says when asked where he sees himself among those majordomos. “But I don’t want to be a celebrity hotelier. I’m not in this business to be a personality.”
Whether intentional or not (and he assures me it isn’t), Schlesinger has emerged as the face of The Obadon Hotel Group, a family-run portfolio of luxury properties in Palm Beach and Miami. Obadon is the hotel arm of Ceebraid-Signal, which was founded in the 1950s when Schlesinger’s grandfather Gilbert began buying multifamily real estate in the New York metropolitan area and which quietly grew to include some 15,000 residential units up and down the East Coast. Today Obadon comprises The Mayfair Hotel & Spa in Coconut Grove, The Brazilian Court Hotel & Beach Club on Palm Beach, The Traymore on Miami Beach (currently under construction) and the most recently opened, The Omphoy Ocean Resort on Palm Beach. Schlesinger says it was his father, Richard, the managing director of the company, who first took the business in the luxury direction, thus giving rise to Obadon. “The first superluxury thing he did was a condominium on Palm Beach Island called Il Lugano.” Less than a dozen units, Il Lugano was the first modern incarnation of its kind on Palm Beach, and enjoyed an unprecedented level of success for the family, providing an incentive to expand in a new direction.
The Brazilian Court had been a landmark of old Palm Beach exclusivity since the 1920s, but by 2002, the property was long in the tooth and up for sale. Richard—together with middle son Adam (Obadon’s COO)—acquired the property, investing $35 million and transforming it into a secluded oasis of elegant Spanish courtyards framed by stucco arches and palm gardens. “If we didn’t go out and pursue people like Daniel Boulud and Frédéric Fekkai, I don’t think our business would have taken off the way that it has,” says Schlesinger, referring to the celebrity chef and stylist who both opened outposts at The Brazilian Court. “And it has been frequently copied,” he continues, his voice mixed with a certain brio. “Not to say that we started the trend, but I would hesitate to name another developer, in their first hotel project, who achieved partnerships with the likes of those two.”
Despite the confidence and obvious pride in Obadon’s accomplishments, Schlesinger admits that joining the family business wasn’t always a given. “My mentality was, I don’t want to go into the family business because I’m just going to be another son studying real estate behind two brothers,” he explains. For some it could have taken on shades of a Balthazar Gettyesque rejection of birthright, but far more simply, and practically, Schlesinger just didn’t see where he fit in. After a stint at Deutsche Bank and some flirtations with a sports-agent career, Schlesinger realized that while his father and brothers (eldest brother Jason is involved with Ceebraid-Signal but not Obadon) had built a solid framework of business models, acquisitions and development, the day-to-day operations of the hotels were not being handled within the fold. He says his thoughts became, “We now have a hotel and there’s no one who knows how to operate these types of things. You’d better start learning this business.”
“It’s not easy to be in a family business,” remarks Richard Schlesinger of Bobby’s ultimate conversion, adding, “Bobby takes more from his mother [Leslie] than he does from me. She is both intelligent and incredibly creative; he follows her acumen in both areas.” When discussing The Obadon Group, the conversation often turns to Leslie Schlesinger, who is both a partner and the dominant creative force behind the hotels. It was Leslie’s vision for a remodeled Brazilian Court that Bobby often credits as being responsible for its success. She dictates the interior and exterior designs of the hotels, a fact that comes into full relief with the family’s latest and most ambitious (even audacious) project: The Omphoy Ocean Resort.
It’s been 19 years since an oceanfront hotel was constructed on Palm Beach, which in many ways explains Omphoy’s raison d’être. Palm Beach is many things— exclusive, beautiful and born of blue blood—but no one under the age of 60 would argue that it is hip. “We said, Let’s come up with a hotel that has some sex appeal, that provides something that you wouldn’t normally think fits on Palm Beach,” says Bobby. In an obvious attempt to eschew the floral-print sheets and Bermuda doors that have defined the area’s accommodations for decades, The Omphoy pulses with South Beach’s youthful sophistication.
Constructed with sleek, modern lines—from the Shinto shrine-like portico to the Macassar-ebonywrapped columns—The Omphoy finds aesthetic reference points in other Asian-influenced properties, like The Setai or a Mandarin Oriental. But what sets it apart, besides the location, is the intimate, boutique quality and the physical proximity to the ocean. The Omphoy is in fact set closer to the high-water mark than any other Palm Beach building, something that is immediately apparent upon ascending the blue-glass main staircase (with a koi pond below) and entering the lobby bar with its panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. Says Leslie of the look, “I have always been original in my concepts. Sometimes people don’t get it, but those that do, they really get it.” Bobby is obviously a believer: “While I’ve heard criticisms of everything else, the one thing I haven’t heard is that any of our hotels she designed aren’t absolutely gorgeous.”
With Bobby splitting his weeks between Miami, Palm Beach and New York, he might be getting a little closer to that popular image of the jet-setting hotelier than he feels comfortable with, but he remains conscious of why it is he gets on a plane every week. “I don’t want to exude the attitude that I’m only successful because I went into my family business,” he says. “I hope I would have been successful in whatever realm I would I have gone into. But I went into it because I knew there would be nothing I would care about more, nothing that I would work harder for, than to preserve the hard work that two generations of my family had done before me.”
TOP IMAGE: Bobby Schlesinger at Palm Beach's new Omphoy Ocean Resort
CENTER: The pool deck at The Mayfair Hotel & Spa
photograph by kate benson