Down the street from the Red Lobster and the shuttered Broadway theaters, a large model of Jimmy Buffett’s seaplane, Hemisphere Dancer, was being uncrated inside his brand-new 32-story hotel. It was 14 weeks before the grand opening of the Margaritaville Resort Times Square, and there was much to do: Lumber and scaffolding were everywhere, and walls of hand-painted palm trees were being touched up. Many of the 234 guest bathrooms were still waiting for their whale tail faucets. “Ahoy!” shouted a masked worker rolling a giant compass toward the lobby where, hiding under a tarp, was a 32-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty, hoisting a margarita to the blue skies ahead.
The development, which cost almost $370 million and will have taken more than three years to complete when it opens in July, is a treasure map of Buffett brands. Up the lobby escalators, tourists and curious locals will find the 5 O’Clock Somewhere bar and the License to Chill cocktail lounge. A Margaritaville restaurant, garnished in tikis and surfboards, will serve Cheeseburgers in Paradise, and, by the heated outdoor pool, bartenders at the LandShark grill will be pouring LandShark Lagers, the beer Buffett brews with Anheuser-Busch InBev SA.
Even those who aren’t fanatics of Buffett’s music probably have some vague sense of the Margaritaville lifestyle, which refers to both the hit song—No. 1 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart in 1977—and its steelpan-inflected vibe, synonymous with slightly baked Floridians searching for that lost shaker of salt. That this mindset also happens to be the antithesis of the pandemic lifestyle is why Buffett is so excited about the project, even after a year of quarantine-related delays. “On the island of Manhattan, as we’re coming out of the pandemic, this is a lucky charm that says it’s time to go back out and have fun again,” Buffett says. “When you can’t go out and soothe the savage beast, you got problems.”
In the 24 years since Buffett founded Margaritaville Enterprises LLC, the company that manages his brand and intellectual property, he’s offered Parrotheads, as his disciples are known, as well as the Parrot-curious, an ever-increasing menu of savage-beast-soothing options. There are luxury resorts, retirement villages, $500 daiquiri makers, Growing Older But Not Up pickleball paddles, lime-wedge-shaped pool floats, salad dressings, casinos, water parks, RV camps, and, where legal, a line of cannabis goods developed with an heir of the Wrigley’s gum fortune. (The Surfin’ in a Hurricane vape pen goes for $35 and can “bring sunshine to your stormy day with significant euphoric effects.”)
It may sound counterintuitive for a 74-year-old crooner whose songs include Too Drunk to Karaoke and Math Suks, but the branding bacchanalia puts Buffett at the cutting edge of so-called experiential marketing. The buzzy trend is all about trying to get consumers not merely to shop or admire a brand, but to swig a double shot of it. It’s why Mark Wahlberg is pushing into burger joints and fitness franchises, why Krispy Kreme’s new “immersive” retail experience features a doughnut-glaze waterfall, and why you can now literally order breakfast at Tiffany’s.
And why not—especially in 2021? After the interminable tedium of stay-at-home orders, in-person attractions, even ones that seem extremely kitschy, have an undeniable appeal. Margaritaville is moving ahead with new developments everywhere from San Diego and Palm Springs to Nassau and Belize, even as a string of other properties have suffered or closed down during the pandemic. The Times Square location, though, is by far the most ambitious.
Buffett has always viewed Manhattan as the toughest nut to crack, or perhaps—per his 1973 classic, Peanut Butter Conspiracy—the toughest Jif jar to swipe. He found this true, first as a musician struggling to win gigs early in his career and now as a marketing tycoon betting his beachy cachet will captivate in one of the world’s largest cities. The risk reminds him of what an actor friend once told him: “If you don’t take New York, Buffett, you ain’t shit.”
The headquarters of Margaritaville Enterprises sits in an office park in Orlando, just across the street from the twisting water slides of the Universal Studios theme park. Inside, a few dozen employees, with titles such as director of atmosphere, sit at cubicles messy with products they’re testing for possible inclusion in the Buffett empire, such as branded hotel ice buckets.
Pictures of the man himself are everywhere, but Buffett leaves day-to-day operations to Chief Executive Officer John Cohlan, who calls Margaritaville a “real ecosystem” that he estimates was facilitating $1.5 billion in annual sales prior to Covid-19. (The company declines to share actual revenue figures.) Although its brand appears on countless products and hotels, the company doesn’t actually sell or own much besides its intellectual property. The New York real estate firm Soho Properties, for example, oversaw financing and construction of the Times Square resort. The business model, as Cohlan explains it, involves searching out hospitality ventures and consumer goods to Buffettize, enforcing strict design and quality standards, training staff, and earning fees licensing the brand. Buffett takes a single-digit percentage in royalties on portions of partner revenue, which means every Margaritaville hotel suite booked and every “Fins Up Mon’” T-shirt sold. “Same business model as Marriott and Hilton,” Cohlan says.
The company got started in the late 1990s, after Cohlan, who was senior vice president of finance at the investment firm that owned Arby’s and Long John Silver’s restaurants, moved to Palm Beach for work. Buffett was spending a lot of time in South Florida, surfing and deep-sea fishing, when not on tour. Cohlan met Jane Buffett through mutual friends, who introduced him to her husband, Jimmy. They hit it off. Later, at one of Buffett’s sold-out shows, an idea bonked Cohlan over the head like a tequila bottle. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, this could really be a brand. Forget Arby’s.’ ”
In fact, Buffett was already intensely aware of the branding power of Margaritaville, having previously fought the Mexican food chain Chi-Chi’s for the rights to the name. He had dabbled in T-shirt shops and a few eateries, and an up-and-coming beer called Corona even sponsored his concerts. But Cohlan had larger plans, and the pair entered a formal partnership in 1997.
The next year, Buffett released his autobiography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty, a salty travelogue of his Caribbean fishing jaunts and seaplane expeditions. The book references the time he and U2’s Bono flew to Negril, Jamaica, for jerk chicken and, after safely landing, were shot at by local police, who thought Buffett’s taxiing twin-propeller Hemisphere Dancer was smuggling drugs. (Nobody was hurt. The incident inspired his song Jamaica Mistaica.) Ironically, much of the book depicts Buffett avoiding corporate tourist traps and bemoaning how, as he puts it, “Taco Bells and Burger Kings permeate the lower latitudes.” Yet he also wrote of the big money in packaging these experiences in an authentic way.
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