Caroline Bay: a hotel versus single-family office community
Albert Einstein wrote if you keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, it is the definition of madness. Looking back over the past 30 years, from a high of 11,000, the Bermuda hotel industry has shrunk to about 2,300 hotel rooms.
Major hotels such as the Bermudiana were turned into the Ace building; others into condominiums, while some were just blown up.
The use of large areas of land has almost exclusively remained zoned for tourism — yet another hotel or condo development. Perhaps it is time to consider what else may be a better use and, crucially, more sustainable.
When Brian Duperreault engaged me to look at the Caroline Bay model in 2018, and raise finance, after a few months I explained to him that the concept of spending $350 million to $400 million to complete the 77-room, boutique Ritz-Carlton hotel and 35 luxury rental residences, economically, had little chance of success. For several reasons.
After the last recession, home sales in Bermuda have slumped. Caroline Bay simply could not sell enough homes fast enough to contribute to the construction and finance costs, and no one would lend the capital to finish the project.
Bermuda already has enough new hotel or condo projects at Tucker's Point, a major renovation with condos at the Fairmont Southampton and another similar venture at the St Regis, in St George's. At this time, it is more than enough.
Given my club and development experience serving ultra-high-net-worth families, my immediate thought was to consider using Caroline Bay to serve a different set of customers other than tourists. We already have a few single-family offices in Bermuda, but under a new model, which offered attractive benefits and solutions for their needs, we could attract large numbers of new family offices.
By making Caroline Bay an economic zone and providing a specific package of privileges, it would make it easier for SFOs to buy into the luxury community and, more importantly, Bermuda.
The SFO model submitted is based on solid foundations and facts. It is a much larger project creating hundreds of construction jobs over an eight to ten-year development cycle. From sales of homes at Caroline Bay, tens of millions of dollars are pumped into the Government in land sales tax revenue and associated closing fees.
This model creates work opportunities immediately in security, finance, sales, legal, audit, housekeeping, concierge, events, marina, drivers, haulage, maintenance, food and beverage, design and decoration — the list is long.
It can start in May, meaning $200 million would be pumped directly into the Bermuda economy this year.
Post-Covid, Bermuda is desperately going to need an immediate economic stimulus.
Tourism will not do that.
Instead of competing, trying to find tourists who may wish to buy a second home in Bermuda, Caroline Bay caters to families who need to live here for compelling reasons. Bermuda can take advantage of other countries' oppressive regimes, which enforce egregious tax structures, dysfunctional inheritance laws and restrictions on the distribution of wealth and overseas investment.
As a result, Bermuda would become a key international financial centre serving billions of dollars of new wealth. As well as buying a home at Caroline Bay, the family office model includes setting up offices in Hamilton, using the present abundance of empty office space, to generate hundreds of new careers in the family office financial community.
New asset managers, private equity, fund managers and financial services companies would open, creating more new jobs in the financial sector — all taxpayers and all paying rents with all the associated benefits. Our estimates project that new company and trust formations and ongoing administration would result, with thousands of people each year from the family office and investment community visiting Bermuda for seminars, conferences and board meetings.
Hundreds more jobs and millions of dollars would flow into the audit, accounts, legal and professional services space. It would mean more and more people coming through the new airport, taking taxis, buying cars, boats, paying marina fees, eating in restaurants, renting places, filling hotel rooms — the list is endless.
The point is it would affect all Bermudians and all local industries.
The plan has taken more than a year to crystallise. I brought ten billionaires and their advisers to Bermuda to meet with government and industry professionals over the past year. Three have committed to purchase; the other seven have expressed interest subject to legislation, and we have a developed a strong pipeline of others.
Starting with 20 SFOs in 2020, we aim to bring 60 SFOs in the next two years and, over a ten-year cycle, we would introduce an average of 30 SFOs a year by which time Caroline Bay's family office model would underpin a new financial pillar for Bermuda.
Before the Covid-19 lockdown, the Government favoured continuing with a hotel model at Caroline Bay and elected to turn down a proposal, along with the offer to buy back its loans in March.
The Government now controls one small part of Caroline Bay — George's Bay Ltd — a subsidiary that is only 36 acres of the 196-acre estate. Caroline Bay still owns and controls the rest. Further legal disputes lie ahead before either side could progress.
It is costing millions a month to continue investing in a hotel, which begs the questions whether it is the right time for the Government to borrow $250 million-plus to invest in building a new hotel at Caroline Bay — as it, too, will have to overcome the same problems as anyone else.
To continue with this strategy also risks the Government having to sell its $250 million debt in the coming months for cents in the dollar in the distressed market. A situation we must avoid at all costs.
Under new ownership and management, new finance, and a new plan other than tourism, we could take over the Government's loans and generate for it tens of millions of dollars in fees this year to help reverse its financial position.
After the lockdown, we need to work together if the Government wants to secure this project here in Bermuda. This could be a massive public-private partnership success story that provides a win-win scenario for everyone.
Caroline Bay's single-family office model is a far better use of the property than another hotel. It offers a new economic pillar and a solution post-Covid that everyone in Bermuda needs and benefits from. But without government support for the vision, it would be yet another opportunity lost.
• Tom Lawrence has more than 20 years' experience in the luxury development and high-end club industry as chairman of The Eden Group. Through one of his clubs, The Boars Club, a private international investment club for single-family offices, he oversees off-market private placements of equity, debt and venture capital investments