By creating a new active adult model through an innovative partnership with Jimmy Buffett-affiliated hospitality brand Margaritaville, William Bullock has earned the status of senior living gamechanger.
Bullock started his career with publicly traded home builder companies, but wanted more freedom to be creative and entrepreneurial. He found that in privately held developer and manager Minto, which he joined in 2009.
After acquiring some other active adult projects, Bullock partnered with Margaritaville to create large-scale developments offering a Jimmy Buffett-inspired lifestyle.
The Margaritaville projects have involved taking chances rather than replicating cookie-cutter projects that have been profitable in the past. In this effort, Bullock has let the consumer be his guide, relentlessly asking older adults what they want.
As a result, Latitude Margaritaville communities are not only reinventing the traditional active adult model, but they could be some of the earliest examples of how to successfully reach the baby boomer demographic. Latitude projects are delivering a mixture of wellness and fun — ditching terms like “senior” and “retirement” while offering an active lifestyle and a connection to a celebrity icon who is embraced by multiple generations.
Can you provide some background on Minto and how Latitude Margaritaville was created?
Minto was building out in Florida for about 40 years. Coming out of the downturn in 2009, when I started with the company, Minto had a lot of dry power in the form of liquidity. We bought good projects from people who had unfortunately got caught up in the downturn.
The first big active adult we bought out of the downturn was from WCI out of bankruptcy, and that was Sun City Center Tampa, one of the original Del Webb communities, that he did in conjunction with Arizona. When we bought it, it was almost 47-, 48-years-old, and had an incredible history.
Shortly after, we moved into Naples and bought a 1,800-unit community. This also was a WCI community, but it had never gotten off the ground. What was unique about this piece of property of 2,400 acres is 1,500 were preserves with hiking trails and a waterway that you could kayak all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico.
We held focus groups with realtors and residents and customers and said, “If you could pick what the next big community in Naples would be like, tell us what it is.”
Overwhelmingly, people came back and they said two things. “Don’t build a golf course. Naples has plenty of golf courses,” and, “Don’t do more Mediterranean.” They used this slogan: Med is dead.
It’s amazing what this active adult crowd will do for you if you listen. They’ll show you how to be successful.
It’s amazing what this active adult crowd will do for you if you listen.
We got rid of the golf course, [and instead created something] more eco-based. Miles of walking trails, kayak out to the Gulf of Mexico, all based off old Florida, old Naples architecture.
We were down to our last couple of hundred lots now by this time at Sun City Center Tampa and we knew for large-scale active adult [developments], you’ve got to have enough scale where you can put amenities in that compete [with] what Arizona has to offer or The Villages in Florida.
There are a couple challenges to that in Florida. Number one, finding a large enough contiguous piece of land that is next to five criteria which we think are very important for active adults: access to major interstates and/or airports, access to medical, access to higher education, access to shopping, convenience and entertainment.
We found that in Daytona. We hooked up with a group called Consolidated Tomoka Land Company. They’d owned the land since the early 1900s. We were able to construct a deal where we were going to do a 3,400-unit active adult community right at 1,600 acres. We were going to call it Oasis.
We started development back in early 2017. While we were in the initial stages of developing, Margaritaville had gone out to the beach in Daytona and bought a site for a beachfront restaurant. It just so happened that they bought that piece of property from the same folks that we bought our residential land from.
John Cohlan, he’s the CEO of Margaritaville, had also started a vacation ownership community in Orlando. In talking with Consolidated when they bought the beachfront piece, they said, we’re doing really good success in Orlando, but Jimmy Buffett — who was 70 at the time — the demographic around Jimmy is his age, and we know there’s got to be something in retirement communities. The CEO of Consolidated said, “You need to talk to Minto. They’re doing exactly what you want to do. They’re calling it Oasis.”
Within a couple of weeks, I met with John Cohlan and Jim Wiseman, the president of Margaritaville. We met at the Orlando airport and we talked for a couple of hours and we both walked away from that meeting convinced that this thing had legs.
What convinced you?
What’s great about the Margaritaville brand is, it’s synonymous with food, fun, music, escapism. It naturally fit what we were discovering from folks wanting to get away from golf and get into more active sports and wellness and nutrition, the fun. What we were seeing down in Naples with this transition out of Mediterranean architecture into something more coastal, Key West or that type of thing, it fit like a glove.
In February of 2017 we came out with a formal announcement, which went viral in the press, that we were going to do the first Latitude Margaritaville.
We’re approaching 700 units in a little more than 18 months of sales in Daytona. Since then, we’ve launched a community in Hilton Head [South Carolina], which is right at 3,000 units, and we’ve also announced a third Latitude in the Florida Panhandle, partnered with St. Joe, who is one of the largest landholders in Florida. They have a piece of property with 15 miles of intra-coastal frontage. What’s amazing about this piece is it’s entitled for over 100,000 units. What we have on the drawing board right now is our first phase at right at 3,500, with a second 3,500 phase under planning.
We believe in the Panhandle that there’s an opportunity to take what we’ve done at Daytona and Hilton Head and really take it to the next level and create a city. There’s a lot of other really cool things that I can’t disclose just yet to assist with the aging in place. Some aging research centers and all of those different things that I kind of talked about in the four or five key elements, we’ll be able to put them all within the community up in the Panhandle which is going to be called Latitude Margaritaville Watersound.
Have people already moved into those 700 units sold in Daytona?
We have closed over 400 homes out there right now. That’s all done without amenities. Our town center is opening the first week of June.
A lot of folks want to discredit what we’re doing with, “Hey, you just bought the name Margaritaville,” but we didn’t. The Margaritaville folks, we’re interacting with them on a daily basis. Jimmy Buffett has been out to the community three times. He bought a house in Latitude Daytona and just randomly started knocking on doors one day and said, “Hey, I’m Jimmy Buffett.”
Explain the wellness element of this. Some people probably think of Margaritaville as lying in a hammock and sipping a cocktail, not being focused on wellness.
We have 40,000 square feet under air roughly and it’s broken down into four buildings, each one about 10,000 square feet. One is the Latitude Bar and Chill restaurant, and that’s just what it sounds like. It abuts a giant resort-style Paradise Pool and that’s where, when you think of the Margaritaville lifestyle sipping on a cocktail and listening to music, that happens.
But next to that, we’ve got our Fins Up Fitness Center. I’ll come back to that because that’s a huge wellness component.
The third building is the Workin’ N’ Playin’ Center. That’s where clubs and activities occur. Then the fourth is the Last Mango Theater, which is like a music hall where you can have dances and education seminars, et cetera.
This forms a quad, if you will. Each of these buildings are independent and then in the middle is a huge bandshell where we have concerts.
When I said that the No. 1 proximity attraction the active adult is looking for is medical, we partner with Halifax Medical in Daytona. We actually, in our fitness center, created space for them to put personnel. So, as a resident, not only will you do your own fitness activities, but you’ll be able to engage with Halifax personnel on fitness regimens, dietary needs. They’re going to come in and talk about a healthy house and the type of things you do and don’t want to bring into your home. In the Last Mango Theater, we can do dances or educational seminars, and we will do large scale demonstrations and programs on wellness and nutrition.
So, you can work out in the community, you can get consultation in the community, you can do a one on one, we can do it in a group setting. Shortly, within hopefully two years as the medical community advances the concept, we’ll have high-res teleconferencing abilities where you’ll be able to actually get a doctor consultation from within the community at the fitness center to a doctor back at the hospital.
Then, we’ve got miles of walking trails to the community. We’ve got pickleball, we’ve got tennis. So all the active components of lifestyle and wellness and nutrition, they’re all built into the community down to our partnership with Halifax. If this is level one, what we’re proposing to do at Watersound, it will be level 10.
I can’t disclose exactly what that is because we’re still planning it out, but I would say our intent is to have one of these premiere aging in place research and education centers in the US at Latitude Watersound in the Panhandle.
What role do you see for more traditional assisted living in or around a Latitude project?
I think you go back to Sun City Center Tampa. There are a host of assisted and congregate living facilities in that Sun City Center campus site. I think they maxed out at about 17,000 residents of build out.
We have the license for all 48 states in the U.S. to be this exclusive Latitude provider, and we’re going to take Latitude outside of the Southeast. So the ability to partner with assisted living and congregate living facility providers is definitely something we’re focused on. We don’t believe in [that at] the inception of a community, but we definitely believe they have a need and a position in the community when the time is appropriate. That may be five, six years down the road.
The Jimmy Buffett brand of sun and surf and fun naturally fits coastal areas, but what about other markets?
We call it brand portability. One of Margaritaville’s most successful hotels is in Pigeon Forge [Tennessee], which is in the mountains. That would be the last place you’d think you’d take the sand and the beach, but it works up there.
What’s cool about the Margaritaville brand is music, so any music hubs, Nashville, Austin, those are already likely candidates. Again, the opportunity to expand those is all predicated on market timing and finding the right partner or piece of land that the numbers work.
We’ve got over 250,000 people in our database who’ve expressed interest in Latitude. We’re constantly asking, “Where would you like to have the next Latitude?” Not only do you inherently think about food, fun, music and sand and where you want to put them, it’s all validated by their response.
Would you ever do a smaller-scale Latitude project?
I’m all for intergenerational communities and there very well could be a Latitude 2.0, which is a smaller community, urban in-fill where we’re presenting the lifestyle but counting on the surrounding neighborhood and community to provide ancillary activities, like an urban center. But for now, we’re focused on the larger-scale, true age-restricted because of its ability to provide more attainable housing.
Do you think younger people will be more likely to visit Latitude because of the Jimmy Buffett associations?
Absolutely … Margaritaville has the college ambassador program and they have ambassadors in 110 different colleges where they want to keep the brand relevant across all age groups, so we would be foolish to deny that.
Are you tracking how old the general buyer is right now for Latitude?
We are, but I can’t disclose specifics because of privacy laws.
I can say it skews younger than for instance, what we were experiencing in Sun City Center Tampa. The younger, more active 55 and better crowd is definitely targeting Latitude.
How did you first come to the senior housing space?
Ever since college, I’ve been in the home building industry. I’m a professional engineer by background, and I went straight from college into the housing industry.
I spent probably a good 15 years in the public [company] building side of the business. The last 10 years of my career have been on the private side. Towards the latter part of my public building experience I started getting more involved in product design. When I came to Minto we had enough wherewithal, for the good of the consumer and realtor groups, to say, “All right, the whole [housing] world just fell apart in 2006, 2008. What should we do now to move the market forward?”
We’ve shown that there’s some opportunity to be unique and creative while being mindful of affordability.
I think, without tooting our own horn here, we’ve shown that there’s some opportunity to be unique and creative while being mindful of affordability. If you’re going to do large scale active adult communities and you’re going to want to do 400 and 500 units a year per community, you’ve got to appeal to a broad spectrum of buyers, and we believe that starts in the low $200,000 and works its way up to the mid-$400,000, which is where we’ve targeted our pricing.
Do you thrive on change or are you more cautious by nature?
One of the reasons I wanted to get out of the public builder business is … the ability to be entrepreneurial in the public builder business is somewhat limited. It’s not a critique of public builders and their ability to be creative. It’s a reality of Wall Street and there’s a certain expectation on hitting quarterly and annual results.
So to answer your question, I’d say I’m entrepreneurial and definitely always looking at our product. I go to some of these national builders, and I won’t name them, but because their hands are tied by their ability to spend money the way I think you need to spend it to be successful with an active adult community, they tend to get sterile and they just repeat the same thing. You hear these builders say, “We know how to build that house. We’ve been building it that way for 10 years. We probably shouldn’t change.”
I can’t wait to compete with those builders head-on because I know we’re going to give them a run for their money with what we’ve got in Latitude, which is very, very fresh.
Describe a time when you were trying to make a change and it didn’t go well?
Latitude has gone extremely well. I think the biggest challenge any of us in the home building industry have had to deal with is market cyclicality. It’s trying to launch something in a declining market. We’ve all had to deal with that. You’ve just got to do the best you can do positioning and not going too long in a declining market.
If you look back to December, according to all the talking heads, the world was about to end and Wall Street was down 20% and the end was near, and now all of a sudden everything is great again. We’re probably closing in on a market top in the not-so-distant future, and we’re being very careful on the deals we’re selecting, not to overextend or put any community launch in a bad position.
What traits and skills do you possess that enable you to be a changemaker?
It’s not all about me. I’ve got an incredible team of support folks. One of the biggest challenges for housing developers right now is finding people. It’s amazing when [they] say, “Oh yeah, you’re doing the Margaritaville thing?” We’re not having problems finding sales agents and construction superintendents. They want to be part of the fun brand.
When we launched with Margaritaville, the first thing I said is, hey, we know how to build houses. We’ve got years and years of experience doing it, but when it comes to running restaurants and entertainment and hospitality, we’re home builders.
I hired a senior level executive from Ritz Carlton who brought a whole new dynamic to our business platform. He doesn’t have a housing background, but he knows how to run restaurants and knows the Ritz mentality. So he’s now projecting that, not only in our Latitude brand but through our entire portfolio outside of the Latitude platform.
Are there other businesses or individuals that are inspirations or mentors for you?
What Del Webb did early on, having the guts to come down to Florida and start a community which back then was kind of in the middle of nowhere. We learned a lot from closing out Sun City Tampa along with its 50-plus years of lessons.
I’ve worked for several public builders and the discipline they exhibit because they have to, because they’re so closely watched financially on their metrics. You’ve really got to respect that, and it’s built into the way we run our business even though we’re private.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for what The Villages have created. It’s phenomenal and there’s a lot of really unique things that they do.
Does senior housing need a faster pace of change?
Absolutely. Selfishly, no, I don’t want them to change anything, we like being the innovator. But innovation just breeds more opportunity for all, so we welcome that.
Even within Latitude, active adult rental is starting to poke its nose up. How cool would it be to have 200 or 300 active adult rentals right next to the amenity, so that if you want to come in and try it out for a few months you can? Maybe you want to live there permanently under a rental.
We believe there are multiple layers inside or outside the Latitude brand for the industry to start thinking about. From congregate living, rental, fee simple, how you do the amenities, how you brand it, how you create the lifestyle, there’s so much opportunity out there.