While its sister islands were embracing mega-resorts and cruise ships, Bimini worked hard to maintain the small island charm and outpost image that had attracted visitors for decades. Unfortunately for Bimini, its celebrated past eventually caught up with modern day realities. The old Chalk’s Airlines was grounded after a 2005 crash off Miami Beach that claimed the lives of eleven Bimini residents. Then, just a month later, the historic Compleat Angler Hotel burned to the ground, reducing Bimini’s legendary connection to Hemingway to nothing more than a pile of ash and trailing smoke.
In the meantime, Bimini began to see the rise of large-scale developments and resorts, most famously the sprawling Bimini Bay Resort. It seemed Bimini’s past had finally quit being its present. The island was at a crossroads – poised to become either another over-developed Caribbean vacation destination, or just a distant memory as an island whose time had passed. For the first time in its history, it seemed Bimini had lost its identity. Now, there’s a project underway that very well may right the ship and help Bimini bridge the gap between old and new.
The Bimini Big Game Club (BBGC), one of the island’s oldest and most famous landmarks, recently reopened after years of financial troubles and changing ownership. The BBGC has a long history as one of the premiere fishing resorts in the world, having hosted big game fishermen, celebrities, politicians, and other notables during its 74-year history. Now, the BBGC is operating under the banner of the Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts, which is promoting a vision of sustainable tourism, environmental awareness, and adventure travel aimed at fishing and diving enthusiasts. After undergoing a partial renovation, the BBGC reopened Memorial Day Weekend with a newly renovated pool, restaurant, and 75-slip marina. The new ownership had planned to spend about $500,000 remodeling the facilities, but recently decided to increase their commitment to $2 million instead in order to fully renovate the 39 hotel rooms as well.
GHM: recently had a chance to talk with Mark Ellert, president of Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts, to get the inside scoop on how the Guy Harvey Outpost concept developed and what the group has planned for the legendary Bimini Big Game Club.
GHM: Your team searched the entire Caribbean for the perfect location. How did the selection process work, and what ultimately led you to the Bimini Big Game Club?
ME: We kept saying to ourselves, ‘It’s like a UFO…we’ll know it when we see it.’ The challenge, as with all resort situations, was to find the right combination of factors – accessibility/convenience for travelers, supportive development and political environment, and realistic property valuation. Our search was complicated by the need to be situated within a unique eco-system with pure ongoing marine research, and a local that offers the best in offshore and backcountry fishing but also diving. We toured extensively, met with numerous brokers, property owners, and the like – all for the purpose of familiarizing them with our concept and us with their markets. Bimini has always been of interest because of its proximity to South Florida, its awareness among serious fishermen/divers, and the government’s interest in supporting out-island tourism. More specifically, many aspects of our concept were taken from the Compleat Angler, and when it burned down we spent the better part of nine months trying to arrange a deal with the Brown family to rebuild it and integrate its operations with the adjoining Blue Water Marina and the Anchorage hotel, all owned by the Brown family. When we determined that wasn’t in the cards, we went scouting further down island, only to become aware that the Big Game Club was “in play.” Although we could never reach agreement with the prior owner over terms, when he closed for financial reasons, it created the opportunity to come back to Bimini.
GHM: The BBGC, and Bimini in general, are at the epicenter of recreational sport fishing. Tell us a little bit about the history of the club and the island.
ME: The club was organized in 1936 as the Bimini Big Game Fishing Club, by a Nassau entrepreneur and bon-vivant, Neville Stuart. Originally it was formal restaurant/lounge, and quickly established itself among the “A-List” celebs of the time. In the mid-50s, Stuart acquired the grounds of the current resort, relocated his business, built cottages and a marina, and the club as we know it today came to life as the “go to” out-island destination for the serious big-game sportsman. Of course, Hemingway popularized the destination with his widely reported fishing exploits during his time on Bimini in 1935 and 1936. More important, perhaps, is the friendship he formed with Michael Lerner, who spent much of his time on Bimini when not running his fashion empire in New York City. It was Lerner who inspired Hemingway to chase the big fish for research purposes, supporting the work of the Lerner Research Lab, which was a field station aligned with the American Museum of Natural History. Lerner and Hemingway were driving forces in the creation of the IGFA, which today reflects their shared passions of angling as a sport and a research endeavor.
GHM: Aside from the fishing and diving, what makes this a “Guy Harvey” resort?
ME: The proliferation of recreational products, diminished customer loyalty, elevated expectations, and competing demand for the consumer’s time and attention are but a few of the challenges of today’s tourism world….challenges that threaten to overwhelm a travel and leisure consumer. While consumers continue to view cost, weather, and quality of facilities as paramount in vacation planning, demand for socially responsible vacation and eco-labels is growing. Consequently, the Guy Harvey Outpost concept is rooted in this fast growing ecotourism industry. These consumers are rapidly transforming the landscape of traditional resort design and recreational product offerings. An important benefit of Dr. Harvey’s participation in the development of the Guy Harvey Outpost concept is his authentic conservation credentials and his passionate pursuit of environmental awareness through science, art, and recreation. Both consumers of the resort product, and as important, governmental officers in which an Outpost will be located, will understand immediately that the Outpost is no imposter. There is nothing contrived or artificial about Dr. Harvey’s commitment to conservation and the eco-tourism experience that can be built around each Outpost Resort.
Our market is adventure travelers and water sport enthusiasts who share Guy’s vision of respecting the oceans, land, and cultures that together create the fabric of our blue planet. The Guy Harvey Outpost concept is conceived in response to the enormous world-wide popularity of water-oriented recreational sports across all age groups. Whether it be active pursuits such as fishing and diving, or simply relaxing at the water’s edge, at a Guy Harvey Outpost customer will have the opportunity – without quilt or obligation – to engage themselves and their families in a fun and enjoyable educational environment affiliated with one of the world’s foremost marine scientists, Dr. Guy Harvey, and his research organization, The Guy Harvey Research Institute, at NOVA Southeastern Oceanographic Center. To these sporting enthusiasts, the popularity of water-sports activities has increasingly pressured all theaters of marine biodiversity. Fortunately, the sportsman’s passion for his pursuits has brought, in fact, deepening appreciation for the stewardship each of us has in protecting the marine environment for current and future generations.
Each Outpost, consequently, will have a dedicated focus on “edutainment”, that is, the offering of entertaining educational programs and opportunities that showcase scientific research of the marine ecosystem of each destination. We will have a Guy Harvey Theater on site to showcase these activities.
GHM: The marina, pool, and restaurant opened Memorial Day but the hotel is still being refurbished. What type of renovations are going on?
ME: By July 4th, we will be complete with our Phase One efforts, which included a complete interior reconstruction of the marina bar, refurbishing the pool patio complex and pool bar, and opening of the Outfitter Shop, offering a complete selection of Guy Harvey sportswear along with ships supplies, tackle, and bait. The buildings are repainted, decks are repaired, and all new landscaping is growing in. Guest rooms have been gutted and are reopening with new bathrooms and a completely new décor package. Throughout the property, Guy Harvey art is prominently displayed. After the busy summer season, we’ll move into our Phase Two efforts which include reinstalling the fuel docks, opening up the full-service dive operation, creating a new guest arrival/check-in experience, added food and beverage facilities, a spa, and the Guy Harvey Theater.
GHM: Once the renovations are complete and the resort is fully operational, what can guests expect in terms of amenities, activities, and events?
ME: Our biggest amenity, of course, is the amazing “Bimini Blue” waters, and the Club’s history with Alice Town. For the first time since Bacardi sold the hotel in 2000, the intent is to run the property as a first-class hotel, not a real estate deal. Guests can expect the best in out-island accommodations and service. It’s certainly more than a fishing lodge. The completion of Spa Renovo will give us fitness and wellness. We’ll be developing a complete “Lil Guys” program for younger guests, and our Outfitter will assume the job of developing individualized fishing and diving experiences with industry personalities. For 2011 we intend to introduce a series of tournaments and fun fishing events. We have a lot planned. As we say, ‘The Big Game is On!’
GHM: Will the BBGC reopen as a modern, upscale resort in the mold of the Bimini Bay Resort, or is it your goal to retain the club’s link to the “old” Bimini of the Hemingway?
ME: Our DNA is about authenticity, so we’re zeroed in on the heritage of Bimini, and the legacy of the Big Game Club that dates to Hemingway’s time on island. We are today’s custodians of that legacy, some of which has been lost to the winds of time. Our best record of the club’s early history is the Bimini Bugle, a weekly newspaper pamphlet originally published by Neville Stuart. Fortunately, Les Hemingway, the author’s younger brother, later continued the weekly, publishing the Bimini News through the early 1980’s, and we’ve had access to these and other family treasures. Working with his daughter, Hillary, and other relatives, we’ve enjoyed recreating the Hemingway spirit of the times, and intend to incorporate this in our proposed Hemingway Lounge. It’s only fitting, as many of the Outpost ideas came from the art and artifacts once displayed in the Hemingway museum at the Compleat Angler. We believe this historical venue is a perfect point of view from which to launch the Guy Harvey Outpost Club, which will redefine the club’s original social membership club that attracted sportsmen from around the world.
GHM: There are some people who believe Bimini lost a lot of its historical significance when the Compleat Angler burned, and then lost much of its “fishing outpost” vibe when the large-scale Bimini Bay Resort opened. How would you describe the atmosphere of the island today?
ME: The Compleat was as much a state of mind as it was historic. Certainly losing the Compleat, Chalks, and the Big Game Club was a perfect storm that devastated Bimini and Alice Town. The world-wide environmental controversy relating to the Bimini Bay project further cast a shadow over the island, and certainly dispelled the notion that Bimini was any longer “off the grid.” But to be sure, the Bimini spirit lives on. Bimini’s seen a lot of ups and downs since Hemingway sailed in that May afternoon in 1935, and not all good. “Turn the Lights on In Bimini” was our argument when negotiating our approvals with the Government. That became our rallying cry, and our “friends of Bimini” came to the support of the island. The government wanted to help, too, and in helping us get open, they did. The attitude among the many locals who helped us renovate and reopen the property was nothing short of Herculean. I’ve seen new stores open and we’ve had proposals of every sort to work with the Club. I certainly believe the reopening of the Club has put a smile on the face of Alice Town.
GHM: Guy has long supported the work of the Bimini Biological Field Station (BBFS). Will the BBGC partner with the BBFS in some way?
ME: Absolutely. The goal of a Guy Harvey Outpost is to create the environment where research personnel and guests have the opportunity to interact – from friendly conversation over a cocktail to a more spirited opportunity, such as assisting in field research. Introducing guests and educating them on the marine bio-diversity of a specific location is a key element of our sustainable tourism mission. The BBFS needs more promotion and exposure, particularly in their work in shark research. If our guest leaves without learning about the BBFS, meeting someone from their staff, or even visiting their facility, I believe we will have failed. And failure is not an option! Our first event will likely involve trying to bring the Guy Harvey Shark Challenge to Bimini, creating a satellite tagging tournament event that once again brings us back to Lerner and Hemingway – combining sport and research.
GHM: What other Guy Harvey partnerships do you think you can leverage in order to enhance the experience at the BBGC and make it a true “Guy Harvey” resort?
ME: Our intent with Guy Harvey Outpost is to create a Guy Harvey lifestyle umbrella, under which the numerous Guy Harvey partners can fit. Today, we increasingly process information visually, so we will have a strong emphasis on art and digital media offerings. We want multiple experiences, so we will partner with folks developing events and products that creatively expand his authoritative voice in marine conservation. No, a Guy Harvey Outpost Resort won’t be a shrine to all things Guy Harvey. Rather, it will be the reflection of the scientists, adventure travelers, conservationists, writers, artists, anglers, and divers that make up the world of Guy Harvey. These “Friends of Guy Harvey” will, along with Guy and the founders of the company, make for a unique and memorable experience.
GHM: Where do you anticipate going next?
ME: We would like to add one or two more properties in the Bahamas and migrate our way down island. Walkers, Andros, and the islands around Rum Cay are all on our radar. We can’t imagine not having something in the Cayman Islands. We have some discussion underway about an Outpost Galapagos. There’s a lot of real estate 20 degrees north and south of the equator!