Books & Books backed for airport slot over Miami International Airport staff objections
By Ted Carter
Miami's nationally known bookseller Books & Books has the potential to be a popular destination for travelers passing through Miami International Airport, the Miami-Dade County Commission's Airport and Tourism Committee says.
To that end, the five commissioners who serve on the airport and tourism panel on Jan. 17 rejected an Aviation Department selection committee recommendation to award Maryland-based Host International an eight-year contract to operate a 1,700-square-foot bookstore and café in the new South Terminal. Books & Books, which teamed with Miami-based Areas USA on the retail bid, represents an opportunity to expose airport passengers to a Miami mainstay, committee members said.
The full commission is to take up the bid award Tuesday.
Both bids pledged 12% of monthly gross sales. Host International's bid included an annual payment of $250,770 and Areas USA $260,000. The payments would be made only if the 12 monthly payments totaled below the annual pledge.
Aviation Department staff said Host International won on points, having surpassed Areas USA in its written response to a request for proposals and in the quality of its oral presentation. The committee made up of Aviation Department officials voted 3-2 to make Host International the preferred bidder.
Nonetheless, commissioners voiced surprise that the selection committee passed over the popular Books & Books. Commissioner Rebecca Sosa went further, charging that the selection panel had ignored specifications in the request for proposals that called for an operation with a "local flavor" and local management.
"Local flavor was not respected," she said. "Did they (the selection committee) know what they were doing?"
José Abreu, Aviation Department director, said the selection panel followed the request for proposals insofar as the concept of "local flavor" was an expansive one.
"Local flavor is subjective," he said. "It doesn't say it has to be the concept of a store that is in Coral Gables that has the name "books' in there twice.
"It was left to the selection committee to see if this provider could have a local concept within the establishment. Maybe that is to have a palm tree or sell tamales or something. I have no idea."
The key consideration is that the department adhered to the process established for selecting a bidder, Mr. Abreu said.
"Don't be disappointed at me because I'm recommending the process," he said.
Commissioner Sally Heyman countered that as the executive in charge of the airport, Mr. Abreu can't stay on the sidelines and avoid responsibility for the quality of selection committee's recommendations.
The Aviation Department chief should have emphasized to the panel that its recommendation was flawed, Ms. Heyman said. "I have to challenge you to say they (the panelists) were inappropriate in the value of the weight they put upon the local criteria. Local theme and local management was mandated."
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said it seems the selection panel failed to give sufficient weight to the desire for the contract award winner to principally be a bookstore, with a café operation as secondary. Books & Books puts "out a very good product," Mr. Gimenez said, "and I'd like to see it come to Miami International Airport. The 32 million people who walk through there can get a little flavor of Miami. I think Books & Books does that.
"I do know their product, and I don't know the other product. And I'm very satisfied with the product I know."
Books & Books has bookstore and café operations in Coral Gables and Miami Beach and a small bookstore in Bal Harbour. USA Today recently listed the retailer among the 10 destination bookstores worth putting on a travel itinerary.
Despite the wide popularity of the Miami bookstore operation, the proposal it submitted in conjunction with Areas USA was below the quality of that submitted by Host International and its bookstore partner, Simply Books, said Miguel Southwell, the Aviation Department's assistant director for business development.
Based on the proposals, the selection panel had no choice but to make Host and its bookstore partner the preferred bidder, he said. "I read all of the RFPs. If I had to vote today, I would vote the way the selection committee voted."
He said the deliberation "was one of the most effective processes I've ever seen."
For one, the oral presentation by Areas USA and Books & Books needed "some serious improvement."
Added Mr. Southwell, "Look at the video of the oral presentations and then decide which company presented the most powerful argument."
Further, Mr. Southwell noted, the Miami companies received local preference points despite not filling out the paperwork for a local preference.
Tossing aside the selection committee's pick, he said, will signal to concessionaries across the country that Miami International does not adhere to its own procedures and processes. He said two of them telephoned him after hearing of the likelihood of Host International's rejection and questioned whether "everybody's got a fair chance" in doing business with the airport.
Likewise, Mr. Abreu said the airport must be careful not to signal that whenever a request for proposals specifies a local concept, that does not mean non-locals need not apply.
"I'm concerned with the big picture," he said. "We've come a very long way with our concessions." He noted JD Powers in 2006 gave Miami International a top ranking among US airports for its concessions.
The winning bidder will be among 64 retail operations within the South Terminal, according to Mr. Abreu.
Host International, a subsidiary of Milan, Italy-based Autogrill SpA, operates concessions in more than 70 airports globally and has sales of more than $2 billion annually.
Areas USA, a subsidiary of Barcelona-based Areas, opened its US headquarters on Blue Lagoon Drive last February. Its parent company operates retail and food and beverage concessions in 89 airports around the world.
Areas USA recently won concession rights to seven new restaurants in the South Terminal, including Gloria Estefan's Bongos Cuban Café, Häägen-Daz, Corona Island Chicken Grill, Illy, Famous Familia and casual dining restaurant La Pausa.