Unlike Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale Beach, two of the hotter hot spots on the southeast coast of Florida, St. Pete Beach—on the central west coast of the Sunshine State—is lazy and low-key, quiet and calm, unpretentious and unassuming. More old Florida than new, it has no throngs of party-down revelers looking for a noisy good time in anything-goes clubs with velvet-roped VIP rooms. You will see fewer Porsches and Escalades here cruising Gulf Boulevard, the main thoroughfare dividing the east side of St. Pete Beach from the west side; fewer cigar-smoking “players” in Gucci shirts and Prada loafers noisily ordering magnums of Cristal. Instead, you will see a vast array of casual restaurants, plus a full complement of Laundromats, souvenir shops, convenience stores, gas stations, bicycle shops, and surf shacks. Also visible along Gulf Boulevard is the fact that if St. Pete Beach has a dress code, it is cutoffs and flip-flops, bathing suits and bare feet.
Here, on this particular stretch of the west coast of Florida, between tiny Pass-A-Grille Beach to the south and Treasure Island to the north, the landscape comprises mostly nondescript two- and three-story motels with colorful neon signs erected in the late 1950’s and 60’s and then, by the look of things, pretty much left to entropy. One of them, however, has just been renovated and renamed: Postcard Inn on the Beach, an easygoing beach hotel with a bohemian edge. Built in 1957 as the Colonial Gateway Inn, a 204-room, two-story, U-shaped motel with a large pool and a grove of mature royal palms at its core, it became a Travelodge in 1999. Now, in its latest incarnation, the property joins a new wave of stylish, affordable beach hotels, including the Surf Lodge in Montauk, New York, and the Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara, California.
The Postcard Inn story begins in 2005, when Barry Sternlicht, the high-profile chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, led his company to acquire the Travelodge, with plans to raze the motel and build a condo-hotel. But the neighbors banded together and objected to the proposed development, and the plan languished until the economy finally undermined the viability of Sternlicht’s project. So he came up with an alternative: renovate the Travelodge to transform what was a down-at-the-heels motel into a chic inn. For that he turned to his friend and business partner Stephen Hanson, founder of B.R. Guest Restaurants, co-owned by Starwood Capital Group.
Despite the trend over the past two decades, what Hanson had in mind for St. Pete Beach was not a boutique hotel. The Postcard Inn is, in fact, a world away from, say, South Beach’s Delano and Shore Club. It has neither the aesthetic panache, the too-cool-for-school attitude, nor the room rates of such well-known hotels. Hanson had a dramatically different agenda for the Postcard Inn on the Beach. “Howard Johnson meets JetBlue is probably where we want to be,” he says. In practical terms what that means is he was determined to renovate the aging motel into accessible, affordable accommodations—$99 out of season (July through December), $189 in season (January to June)—but with a bit of user-friendly flair, including the addition of Wildwood Barbeque & Burger, an outpost of one of his busy New York restaurants. “We’re looking to build a successful brand with unique character that will cater to all types of travelers—singles, couples, families with children—looking for more than just the trendiest new hotel,” Hanson says.
Collaborating with Hanson on programming, planning, and design was Tara Oxley, head of B.R. Guest Restaurants’ in-house design team; Chris Sheffield, principal of Philadelphia-based S.L. Design; and marketing maven Donna Rodriguez, who has worked with Hanson for 16 years. Landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck, based in Phoenix and Austin, Texas, assumed responsibility for everything green.
To focus the team’s vision for the hotel, Oxley assembled a bulging scrapbook of images and thoughts that served as inspiration and guide. On the first page of the book are the words vintage, American, hot, beachy, and getaway; on the second is a passage from, as fate would have it, Jack Kerouac, about the glory of living life to the fullest. Taped to the following pages is a range of colorful fabric swatches and alluring vignettes, plus evocative snapshots meant to capture the general mood: from seagulls on the beach in the morning and octogenarians taking in the sun on a bench in the afternoon to picture-perfect waves crashing against the Gulf shore.