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Lenny Kravitz, Philippe Starck, Nazarian, and José Andrés at the opening of SLS Hotel South Beach in 2012.
Paris (LEFT) and Nicky Hilton with Nazarian at the grand opening of the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills in 2008.
What recession? In the period between 2008 and 2010, during which much of corporate America was lodged firmly in the doldrums, Sam Nazarian’s luxury hospitality and real estate company, SBE, grew fourfold in terms of the number of properties it owned and the number of staffers it employed. Now, Nazarian, scion of a Jewish-Iranian family of telecommunications entrepreneurs, is in the middle of another major move, one that has him broadening his focus from the West Coast’s traditional entertainment hubs (Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas) across the country to Miami.
Nazarian’s first foothold here was the opening last year of the SLS Hotel South Beach. “When I stood at 17th and Collins in 2009 and 2010, all I could see were empty skyscrapers with cranes on top of them,” he tells Ocean Drive. “Clearly, people had written off that area.” Now, he says, the area is back to an “even more aggressive hotel and residential boom than we saw in 2006 and 2007.” And Nazarian’s new hotel is right at the heart of the action. Built from the old Ritz Plaza, its Art Deco roots received an overhaul from design guru Philippe Starck and a big boost thanks to Nazarian’s partnership with José Andrés, the chef who has made the hotel’s eatery, The Bazaar, an avant-garde destination for foodies. Late last year, Nazarian announced he would team up with fellow hotelier David Edelstein to revamp the boutique Raleigh hotel in Miami Beach, and this spring came news of what may be the biggest initiative yet: another partnership, this time with Jorge Pérez’s The Related Group, to develop the SLS Brickell, a $300 million condominium and hotel venture on South Miami Avenue, with design by local powerhouse Arquitectonica. And that isn’t all: Even with four projects under way (including Hyde at the AmericanAirlines Arena), Nazarian says he’s ready to announce a fifth one “relatively soon.”
“It’s not just because we are smarter or better than anybody else,” Nazarian insists when quizzed about the rapid pace of his firm’s push into Miami. “It’s just that we are set up to expand rapidly in markets.” For a nightlife entrepreneur like himself, both LA and Miami offer fertile ground because of their evolution. “When we started in LA in 2002, it was not a city you could take seriously in terms of what it offered in the way of nightlife,” he recalls. After all, the 465 or so square miles that make up the city are really little more than a conglomeration of neighborhoods whose inhabitants tended to stick close to home. Nazarian helped turn Hollywood into a hospitality destination, and sees a shift in Miami as well. “It’s no longer seen as just a party town for college kids, but as a serious city,” he says. This means diversified and sophisticated nightlife alternatives to South Beach mega-clubs. Nazarian has played a role in that transformation, and says he is intent on staying a part of the evolving scene for a long time. “The expectations of people coming to Miami— from Latin America, from Western Europe, from Russia— showed us the need for more offerings, and there also is a workforce ready to view hospitality as their profession, not just a job.” That change—the evolution of a year-round scene in Miami, fueled by the demands of visitors from around the world establishing second homes and spending months at a time in what until recently had been the “off season”—is what has sparked Nazarian’s own interest here, and made him willing not just to establish a token property or two, but to become engaged in an array of projects.
“Differentiation in a world where everyone is building again is important,” he says. “We are one of the only lifestyle companies out there that can manage hotels in a way that appeals to the emerging generation.” His interest in hospitality grew almost as a by-product: After being tapped to oversee the diversification of his family’s wealth into real estate (his father is Younes Nazarian, a cofounder of Qualcomm Inc.), the then-24-year-old realized that if he played his cards right, he could emerge as a key player in the next stage of the industry. His angle was to make SBE a kind of institutional “backbone” for companies that had wonderful talent but lacked efficient infrastructure and systems. “They had great visionaries among the chefs, hoteliers, and operators,” Nazarian says. He resolved to make SBE “an incubator, backing some of that great talent.” He also convinced more established personalities from this world to work with him, including Starck, chef Katsuya Uechi, and now José Andrés in the new Brickell project.
Which brings us back to Brickell. Why did Nazarian—once well known for fueling the hard-partying lifestyle that is more of a feature in South Beach clubs (he even played himself on HBO’s Entourage)—opt to place his latest venture in the more residential Brickell? “We have earned our stripes by going into less obvious areas and being part of their DNA as they develop,” he says. At the same time, he doesn’t want to oversee “just another residential development” in Brickell. “We liked the idea of being a solution provider for a visionary like Jorge [Pérez], who wants to make sure this neighborhood doesn’t turn into just [another] high-rise community.”
Projects like Brickell and SLS South Beach, he explains, are about more than just building another property. In Nazarian’s eyes, they are tantamount to making a down payment on Miami’s future. Both Los Angeles and Miami, Nazarian notes, serve as gateways for new and significant groups. He sees Miami as evolving into a 21st-century capital of business and culture, one shaped by international influences. “This is where the future is coming, where people are being drawn, and that’s why we need a presence here.”
photography by brad swonetz