No Vacancy

The tourism business is slumping in Biloxi these days. But a hotelier with an unusual past thinks his town has a promising future.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 9, 2010

I have known Bob Bennett for about 10 minutes, and I cannot decide if he’s making everything up. He’s just spent the previous 10 minutes confessing to the kind of stuff that usually doesn’t get confessed in the presence of a working tape recorder, but hell, he’s the guy with the Tulane Law degree and I’m the guy with the tape recorder, and I’d hope he knows more about what’s admissible in court than I do.

I’ve come to his Biloxi-based seaside hotel, the Edgewater Inn, to ask how, exactly, business is these days, with the oil spill hurting tourism and all, and when, exactly, he started working in this business, and Bennett has instead launched into a story that involves racketeering, money laundering, a judge in Des Moines, Iowa, and Jimmy Freaking Hoffa, and I’m not even sure if I feel comfortable printing the whole thing. Short version is, Bennett’s daddy’s name was Harry, a Jew [1] with a head for numbers. Momma was a Cajun-Catholic named Ora, and you are what you momma is, so Bennett is a Cajun-Catholic too. Harry worked as a bookie at a few casinos up and down the coast in the ’40s and ’50s, and when I mention to Bennett that gambling wasn’t legalized in Mississippi until the Clinton presidency, he just sort of stares at me as if I’m struggling to finish the maze that they print on the side of a Lucky Charms box.

“You gonna call it illegal gambling,” he says, “but it was just paying off the sheriff, paying the D.A., paying the governor….”

In the ’60s, Harry and Ora launched a new nighclub, the Red Carpet Club, right up on Beach Boulevard next to the Gulf. The RICO Act [2] changed things a little for daddy and momma, but the nightclub kept on okay. [3] The place survived Camille, but in ’85, a nothing storm called Elena shorted out some circuits, and the club burned to the ground. So Bennett decided to take the place and turn it into something honest. In June of ’87, he opened the Edgewater Inn, with 32 units by the sea. He dedicated the place to momma.

Anyway, that’s how Bob Bennett ended up the owner and operator of the Edgewater Inn.

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Bob Bennett, owner of the Edgewater Inn

At top, the front desk and pool at the Edgewater Inn. Above, Bob Bennett in one of his hotel’s two-bedroom cottages, each of which has a unique theme.

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“Theoretically, this a dream,” Bennett tells me. “40 percent of my competition disappeared. So you’d think that I would be in the catbird seat, right? But now the tourists aren’t coming.”

I backtrack Bennett two sentences. Your competition, I say. They…. disappeared?

“Katrina,” he says, and that explains enough.

But the Edgewater, Bennett says, was built to withstand winds up to 300 miles per hour, even though nothing above 200 mph had ever been measured on the coast.

“I had lived through Camille,” he says. “I understood the dangers of a major hurricane, because of Camille. And my brother was a builder, so I asked good questions, and I had the architect design it purposefully to take that much wind. In other words, if you’re in an area that you know is subject to hurricanes, it would be stupid to not design a hotel to withstand the winds. And the reason we’re at 28 feet elevation, same thing. I wanted to be above the water.”

In his entire hotel, only 10 rooms — those that’d he added in the ’90s and had built only 26 feet above sea level — were damaged and shut down by local officials. The rest of the hotel never closed, Bennett says.

But competitors saw their buildings cut down to mere slabs. A few chain hotels eventually returned, but the mom-and-pop lodging did not come back, according to Bennett, who’s also the president of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.

A boutique hotel like the Edgewater — which features jacuzzis in many rooms and multi-bedroom cottages for rent — saw loyal clientele return quickly, Bennett says. He took a hit during the recession in 2009, but in late spring of this year, his hotel was sold out four weeks in a row. “There were signs that this was going to be a breakout year,” he says.

Then the oil spill hit.

When President Obama came on a visit to the coast in June, Bennett’s wife, Mary Alice, was among the invited business leaders who spoke with the President. [4] And Mary Alice, who everyone calls Missy, even got the thumbs up from the President, and this part I absolutely believe to be true, since it’s in an official White House transcript:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: As you can see, this is a spectacular beach. You’ve got Missy, who’s got a wonderful inn, the Edgewater Inn —

MISSY BENNETT (co-owner, Edgewater Inn): Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: — and George (sic), who’s got a terrific restaurant. What’s the name of the restaurant?

MR. WEINBERG: Blow Fly Inn.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And Missy was mentioning she’s already seen a 40 percent drop in her occupancy since this crisis occurred, partly because of cancellations of large groups that were planning to stay there. It just gives you a sense — and those folks who were going to stay at Missy’s would have been eating at George’s (sic).

Now, Bennett says the President’s numbers were a bit off. Occupancy has held steady since the spill. It’s the revenue per available room that’s dropped 40 percent.

The reason why — as Stry reported last week — is that the Edgewater is among the properties that’s been renting out rooms to BP cleanup workers. Bennett isn’t thrilled about renting out rooms at heavily discounted long-term rates, but he says he has no alternatives.

“The reason I took it is because if I didn’t take it, I’d have no business,” he says. “The tourists are not coming. So I took that business, as much of it as I could take while still keeping room for my repeat guests.”

Those BP workers will soon be clearing out of his hotel, he says, and his rate of occupancy will drop with it.

“When they go, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “That’s when it’s going to be bad.”

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Bennett was among those who pushed the state Hotel and Lodging Association to endorse legalized gambling in the 1990s. [5] His hotel is next door to the Treasure Bay Casino, and he says he’s a true believer when it comes to the casinos’s ability to generate economic growth along the coast. The fact that it’s not happening right now hasn’t dissuaded him of that fact.

“Where we are now is analogous to where we were after Camille,” he says. “When you have a clean slate, like we do now, of course you have problems: insurance problems, promotional problems, the oil problem. But ultimately, we’re on the road to becoming a premier destination….

“It’ll come back, bigger and better than it ever was,” he says. “No doubt in my mind.” ❏