The Brazilian real estate stampede

MIAMI – Feb. 14, 2011 – Suddenly, everything seems to be coming up Brazilian.

President Barack Obama will visit Brazil during his first South American trip in March and Brazil is Florida’s top trading partner. But Brazilians are also snapping up beachfront luxury properties and downtown Miami condos, investing in everything from real estate to Burger King, and shopping voraciously.

It’s as if a “swarm of grasshoppers” has descended on South Florida, chomping through bargains from Dadeland to Sawgrass Mills, says one tour operator.

“The trend now is everybody comes to shop, shop, shop,” says Claudia Menezes, of Pegasus Transportation, which operates a fleet of buses for conventional tours as well as the shopping excursions that are so popular with Brazilians. “They’re buying up everything from $10 creams at Victoria’s Secret to Luis Vuitton and Prada.”

Testimony to Brazilian consumerism: When Pegasus buses return Brazilians to the airport for their flights home, Menezes says, they have to put on extra trailers behind to haul the loot.

To keep the Brazilian visitors coming, American Airlines now offers 52 flights a week to Brazil from Miami International Airport.

“Brazil is breaking all sorts of records,” says Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of marketing for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It has been our rock star market.”

When all the numbers are tallied for 2010, Miami-Dade expects to have rolled out the welcome mat for more than 500,000 Brazilian visitors who spent more than $1 billion.

That would move Brazil into the top spot for international visitors, dethroning Canada, the perennial leader.

During the oil boom years, Venezuelans were legendary for their dame-dos (give me two) ways and Latin Americans have long loved South Florida shopping. But what sets the Brazilians apart is there are so many more of them and they’re really big spenders.

To cater to the Brazilian crowd, the GMCVB has published shopping guides, maps and other materials in Portuguese.

Even though Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport has no direct Brazilian flights, the number of Brazilian visitors to Broward County has increased by 50 percent to 300,000 annually in the past year. Brazil now ranks as Broward’s second most important foreign market after Canada.

“They may enter though Miami, but they go to Sawgrass Mills,” says Francine Mason, a spokeswoman for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

And they also visit their relatives. Broward County, especially the Pompano Beach/Lighthouse Point area, is home to the largest contingent of resident Brazilians in the state.

The Brazilian Consulate in Miami estimates that there are 250,000 to 300,000 Brazilians living in Florida with the largest populations in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and Orlando.

What’s spurring the Brazilian stampede?

Brazil’s economy is booming and expected to become the world’s fifth largest by 2016. Unemployment is at record lows. And perhaps most important, Brazil’s currency – the real – is extremely strong against the dollar, making Florida trips and shopping sprees very affordable for Brazilians.

Coming to South Florida for a week is often cheaper for a Sao Paulo resident than a vacation in Northeast Brazil.

“Real estate is extremely high in Brazil right now – untouchable for many people,” says Claudia Bacelar, a Brazilian who works as a Realtor at the Esslinger-Wooten office in Coral Gables.

Edgardo Defortuna, president and chief executive of Fortune International, says, for example, that an apartment equivalent to a 3-bedroom unit at Jade Ocean in Sunny Isles Beach that goes for $1.6 million might cost $2.5 million in Belo Horizonte, a state capital in southeastern Brazil.

And there’s another reason so many Brazilians are visiting: they just like it here.

“Florida has always been a favorite – the warm tropical weather and the beaches with the benefit of the shopping and now, of course, it’s so much more affordable,” says Bacelar. “When Brazilians come here and I see how they shop, I’m in shock.”

At Dolphin Mall near MIA, for example, Brazilians are the top international tourists, surging past Venezuelans for the first time last year, says Madelyn Bello Calvar, director of sponsorship and marketing.

And they typically spend about three times what local customers do, she says.

At Sawgrass Mills, Marcos Freire, the assistant general manager, has watched with satisfaction as shoppers speaking Portuguese flood the mall and buses full of Brazilian tourists in matching T-shirts pull in.

Mall surveys show that Brazilians are the most numerous international shoppers, followed by Colombians and Canadians. But Freire says, “The Brazilians are way ahead.”

As shoppers, he says, they are extremely brand-conscious, loading down their carts with Nike, Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger plus high fashion, televisions, video games, and the latest technology.

They know their way around American retail, says Freire, who is originally from Rio de Janeiro. “They’ve done their homework and they know where they’re going.”

Menezes, whose company often runs shopping tours that stop at Sawgrass, says the trend used to be that Brazilian groups would ask for some time at the beach, Orlando or the Everglades and maybe a day of shopping.

“Now we have some groups that are coming four or five days just to shop,” she says. “This year for the first time we even had shopping tours for Black Friday.”

It’s not just hotels and stores that are benefitting from Brazilians planting their green and yellow flag around South Florida.

Real estate

Real estate sales to Brazilians also are booming.

“Today, they’re the most important foreign sector of the South Florida market,” says Defortuna. “During the past 12 months, they have come in very strongly.”

So strongly that late last year, Fortune International opened an office in Sao Paulo to market its own luxury developments such as Jade Ocean as well as other projects it handles such as Icon Brickell and Trump Hollywood.

“I have never seen anything like this – such demand. I get calls and e-mails every single day with a new Brazilian contact or lead,” says Fabiana Pimenta, a top Brazilian Realtor at Fortune.

About a quarter of all new Fortune sales are now to Brazilians, Defortuna says. They basically fall into two categories, he says: high-end buyers who are buying for themselves – although it may be their second, third or fourth home – and investors who tend to gravitate toward properties in the Brickell and downtown Miami areas.

If they’re buying for themselves, they like beachfront properties in Miami Beach and the Sunny Isles Beach area, real estate agents say.

The apartment-buying spree also is having a positive impact on other businesses.

Five years ago, Ornare, a high-end Brazilian kitchen, bath and closet store, opened its first U.S. branch in Miami’s Design District. And while the local housing market has slumped, Ornare’s business hasn’t.

Its closets with leather doors, sculpted bath fixtures and sleek, sophisticated kitchens have found a ready market here. Increasingly, it’s Brazilians who are doing the buying. Sales are up nearly 40 percent since last year and now Ornare is planning showrooms in five other U.S. cities, says Claudio Faria, director of Ornare Miami, which imports nearly everything in its showroom from Sao Paulo.

In 2009, Brazilians accounted for just 5 percent of Ornare’s local sales. Now, it’s about 25 percent, says Faria.

Brazilian interior designer Mirtha Arriaran, who has run a Miami interior design business since 1995, says that one of her jet-setting clients recently purchased a Miami apartment as a 12th residence.

“These Brazilians are very, very rich,” she says. “They are not looking for bargains. They are the type of people who will pick out an apartment they like and then ask the price.” About 85 percent of Arriaran’s clients are Brazilians, and these days with all their new condo purchases, she’s so busy that her firm, MAS Interior Design, is not taking on new business.

But not all the Brazilian real estate buyers fall into the ultra-rich category.

“Now Brickell is very affordable for the middle class,” says Bacelar. She recently sold several smaller apartments there for just under $200,000 – with low maintenance fees, too.


Two years ago, American Airlines served just two Brazilian cities – Rio and Sao Paulo – from Miami. Now it’s added four more: Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and Salvador with continuing service to Recife.

“This is huge for us – to be in six cities in one country,” says Martha Pantin, an American spokeswoman. “American Airlines is very bullish on Brazil.”

TAM, a Brazilian airline, also recently added direct service several times a week from Miami to Brasilia and Belo Horizonte to complement its daily flights to Sao Paulo, Rio and Manaus.

But the best may be yet to come. With the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, American is now negotiating to add extra flights to Brazil before and after the World Cup.

American believes Miami will be a transit point for many people from around the world as they head to the sporting events, says Pantin. “The World Cup,” she says, “also will introduce Americans to new destinations in Brazil.”

The Florida/Brazil trade and business connection

Brazil ranks as South Florida’s top trading partner as well as the Sunshine State’s top trading partner. Florida’s merchandise trade with Brazil during the first 11 months of 2010, the most recent statistics available, topped $14.4 billion, a 27 percent increase over 2009 figures.

Enterprise Florida recently reopened an office in Brazil. Its purpose is to not only promote Florida products and services but also to attract Brazilian investors to Florida.

Brazilian companies Embraer, an aircraft manufacturer, and Odebrecht, a construction firm, already have extensive operations in South Florida, and last fall 3G Capital, a private investment firm with Brazilian backing, acquired Burger King in a $4 billion deal.

“We think with the emergence of Brazil as a world economic power, it will become very fertile ground to recruit companies to Florida,” says Manny Mencia, vice president of international development for Enterprise Florida. “There’s no market going forward that offers Florida the opportunities that Brazil does.”

Source: The Miami Herald, Mimi Whitefield. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.