By John Morton
Maria Bankemper has taken something big off her plate, but this longtime Siesta Key go-getter still has plenty upon which to chew.
In March, she and her husband, Ed, sold their 114-room Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway hotel that stands proudly on South Tamiami Trail, just south of the Stickney Point Road intersection. The sale price was $18 million, going to Rhode Island-based Magna Hospitality, which plans to rebrand the property into a Hilton product.
The Bankempers and Maria’s parents, under the company name M&M Lodgings, bought the hotel in 2007 when it was a Holiday Inn Express. In 2012, it transitioned into a Best Western Plus.
“Most owners and operators/entrepreneurs, whatever we call ourselves, sell a business either due to a pressing matter or just due to timing. For us, it was definitely the latter,” Bankemper said of the sale. “Our family had owned, and my husband and I operated, the property for over 15 years, having been courted to sell on many occasions. But we didn’t feel that the time was right, nor the buyer at any of those previous times, even though the property performed well for all of us despite the many challenges that we faced — from the Great Recession to the pandemic, and through the Gulf oil spill.
“In 2022, we were coming off of the most successful year we had ever had, despite the ongoing labor issues and various cost increases, and it was in the latter part of 2022 that Magna Hospitality came along. It all just fell into place and we decided to move forward with the transfer of ownership. The buyers are breathing new life into the property from the lobby into the guest rooms, which is great for the entire area.”
And for those who rely upon the hotel.
“In Magna, we felt that we had found a company that would continue to serve the area and provide our current personnel employment and the chance to continue their hospitality journey, if they chose to do so. This was important to us as we navigated the process,” Bankemper added.
The headboards in those guestrooms feature a signature painting from the late Shawn McLoughlin, illustrating Maria’s ongoing connection with Siesta Key – the place where she spent most of her youth in the 1970s and ‘80s and later lived again after college. She’d go on to be chairman of both the island’s chamber of commerce and its Crystal Classic sand-sculpting event, and also played a role in the Save our Siesta Sand 2 organization that fought the dredging of Big Pass to renourish Lido Beach.
The Bankempers, who raised their children in Osprey, now reside part-time on the Key, having purchased one of their rental properties in 2021. Two years earlier, they had launched Coastal Soul Vacations and Hour Holdings, a business specializing in vacation rentals and commercial office rentals.
Plus, they stay active with local issues and volunteer on their behalf.
“We have been involved in supporting the grass roots efforts of the Siesta Key Community (organization) and Lourdes Ramirez, to assist her in her brave battle to halt the travesty of increasing density on this barrier island from the beginning of her launch,” Bankemper said. “We will continue to support her efforts as she moves through the process and we hope that, at least this time, we can save the island from further intensity, density and pressure on its infrastructure that clearly was not intended as part of the original comprehensive plan.
“It is our hope that the recent wins regarding the density increase, that was inappropriately approved by our county commissioners, are indicative of the future success of protecting the island from one of the most egregious acts that may be launched upon it.”
Siesta Key’s quest for incorporation is another crusade they’ve supported, and they remain hopeful for the restoration of Midnight Pass — what was once a waterway between Siesta Key and Casey Key.
“A difficult endeavor but one that those of us who have been here for many years know is a necessity to improve our bays, among other reasons,” Bankemper said.
Meanwhile, Bankemper will continue to own, with her father, the Jonny’s Original Free Ride service that was synonymous with the hotel and is omnipresent on Siesta Key, running from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week.
“We are very fortunate to have a dedicated staff,” she said of the business.
Lastly, she takes comfort in knowing her hotel is in good hands. After all, it does indeed make a big impression as part of the gateway – as reinforced in its very name — to an emerging part of Siesta Key.
“There is no doubt that Siesta Key will continue to flourish as the south end of the Key — or south Village — continues to develop with the assistance of those who have expanded and those who continue to invest in the area,” Bankemper said. “It has created its own vibe, separate from the north Village, and I hope to see it continue to develop.
“Siesta will always be a prime destination as more and more people discover this jewel and our slice of paradise.”