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The rich know he's got their backs

Under Miami's vicious, pitiless sun, patrons of the Ritz-Carlton need suffer no more: Their tanning butler is here.

June 08, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI BEACH — With his thumbs hooked through the belt of his holster, Leo de la Hoz walks his beat in the steamy afternoon hours. That's when the enemy he stalks is the greatest danger to his people.

On a recent Saturday, he has barely begun his rounds when he sees he's too late for one victim: Megan Titus, a 37-year-old woman from Boston, is sprawled before him, a picture in red.

"Where were you yesterday, when I needed you?" the very sunburned Titus asks De la Hoz.

Armed with sunscreen in three levels of SPF and an easy charm, De la Hoz is the new "tanning butler" at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, strolling the pool deck and beach on weekends and holidays to guard the hotel's discriminating clientele against the searing South Florida sun.

He spritzes Evian water on the overheated.

He cleans smudged sunglasses with a cloth tucked into a pocket of his lotion holster.

And at the slightest encouragement, he ever-so- decorously slathers protective lotion on the bodies -- male, female and transitional -- roasting in the sun.

In a struggling economy, the little extras may be disappearing from some accommodations, as the hospitality industry competes for the cost-conscious traveler. But for hoteliers catering to the very affluent, pampering and excess are lucrative investments.

The greater Miami area led the nation in hotel occupancy with 80.5% the first four months of 2008, with the luxury market leading the way, according to Smith Travel Research.

"There's a certain segment of the population that is never really impacted by economic downturns," says Michelle Payer, area public relations director for Ritz-Carlton and the creator of the trademarked World's Only Tanning Butler.

Ritz-Carlton South Beach has been sold out most of this year, she said, because it delivers a luxury experience that includes "value-adds" like gourmet nibbles and drinks offered on lobby sideboards, plus club-level accommodation featuring five daily food and beverage "presentations."

And then there is the tanning butler.

De la Hoz is the fifth bronzing coach since the hotel created the position upon opening New Year's Day 2004. He succeeds his friend and fellow model Malcolm Vincent, who had a loyal following for three years.

A 22-year-old model studying to be a paramedic when he's not rubbing lotion into the shoulders of the rich and famous, the tanned De la Hoz navigates the white chaise longues wearing a white T-shirt that stretches across his toned torso.

"Good afternoon, ladies. Does anyone need help getting sunscreen on those hard-to-reach places?" he intones with a sultry air to Stacey Martin, a Gardena security manager on a girls' getaway with friends from New Jersey.

Martin, 42, shrieks with delight at the offer and implores her cousin, Jocelyn Virgil- Phillips, to take a picture on her digital camera.

Karen McCloskey has a better idea for preserving the moment.

As De la Hoz rubs SPF 4 oil onto her back and shoulders, Titus takes pictures on her friend's cellphone camera. McCloskey sends it to her husband, who is home watching their three kids in Salem, N.H. "Miss You Lots!" says the accompanying text message.

As a model, De la Hoz is accustomed to the flash and flirtation of the fashion world, and to the freewheeling South Beach lifestyle that blends Hollywood glitz with the Latin music scene and a Vegas-like what-happens-here-stays-here bacchanalia.

He sought the $30-an-hour job because it doesn't conflict with his paramedic training and the pay is more reliable than modeling stints.

The "tanning butler" service is at least as much fantasy indulgence as sun-damage deterrent at the hotel, which is at the epicenter of happening SoBe.

Part of De la Hoz's job is to give guests a tale to take back from their vacations that will surprise, delight and stir interest, says Payer.

She wants her brainchild limited to the South Beach hotel to maintain its uniqueness. "There's a fine line between being really campy and being a true luxury service that is just over the top."

Although a new Las Vegas hotel plans to offer what it calls "tanning concierge service" -- a mobile unit to "airbrush" sunless tans onto guests -- the South Beach Ritz position remains the only known tanning butler service available.

Part connected local cognoscente, part adjunct concierge, de la Hoz is encouraged to help guests enjoy their South Beach stay far beyond the poolside bar and cabanas.

He dispenses advice on the hottest clubs and shopping. When six thirtysomething men in town for a conference tell him they'd been left outside the velvet rope at the current "it" nightclub, SET, De la Hoz whips out his cellphone and calls the doorman at home.

"I got them hooked up. They'll get in tonight," he says.

As the title implies, the tanning butler is both servant and confidante.

A butler's reserve is called for in dealing with celebrities, whose patronage has been earned by the hotel chain, Greenspan says, because they know their privacy will be respected.

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