In Hypercompetitive Market, Hotels Spruce Up to Stay Fresh

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c1.hotels.renovation.sofitel.lobby.story
Photo: Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square / ABACAPRESS /
Bob Coscarelli
Since unveiling its new look in February, Sofitel guests have been greeted by hues of black and white with green accents inspired by 1920s Paris.

When Washington welcomed a record-breaking 18.3 million domestic visitors in 2014, local hotel owners sat up a little straighter. After all, whether they came here for closed-door meetings with members of Congress or to stroll with their families around the Smithsonian museums, those visitors needed places to sleep.

And this area has plenty of options when it comes to lodging — with many more on the way. Currently, the nation's capital is home to more than 140 hotel properties and 31,000 rooms, according to Destination DC, which markets the area as a great place to visit. About 20 more properties are set for construction.

Also worth noting is that while visitors are here, they spend money — and plenty of it. Domestic visitors alone spent about $6.8 billion in D.C. last year, according to IHS Global Inc., a year-over-year increase of 1.9 percent. Yes, that's billion with a B.

Today, in addition to the Hiltons, Hyatts and Holiday Inns, Washington has boutique hotels decorated with local art (we're looking at you Kimpton), mammoth structures with 1,700-plus rooms and convention centers (think Marriott Marquis and Gaylord National Resort), hotels with histories (the Hay-Adams, Willard InterContinental and the Jefferson fit the bill) and uber posh hotels that get upward of $800 a night for regular rooms (also known as the Capella). Next year, D.C. will even have its first "micro hotel" at 7th and H Streets, NW, courtesy of Modus Hotels. The New York "pod" concept will feature much smaller rooms (and rates) than the typical hotel setup.

To remain competitive in this constantly evolving environment, established hotels have to step up their games and constantly refresh themselves. Here we look at how five hotels have reinvented themselves in recent months:


The Embassy Row Hotel

2015 Massachusetts Ave., NW
embassyrowhotel.com

First opened in the 1970s, this Dupont Circle hotel finished a $15 million top-to-bottom renovation in March. When Destination Hotels took over the property in November 2013, it wanted to "bring it back to life," said Sarah Vining, the hotel's director of marketing and communications.

c1.hotels.renovation.embassy.row.story
Photo: Embassy Row Hotel
First opened in the 1970s, the Embassy Row Hotel in Dupont Circle recently finished a $15 million top-to-bottom renovation.

"It's the Embassy Row Hotel, it was an iconic hotel on Embassy Row," Vining said. "There's a history of politicians, ambassadors and socialites and really big-name people who would stay here.

But you won't find the drab, buttoned-up style that D.C. has long been associated with at this place. Instead, the hotel's metamorphosis represents Washington's own, embracing color and an edge.

"The hotel décor is authentic to D.C. with art from local photographers and artists," Vining said. "But we're not trying to do your typical D.C. with the Constitution on the wall. We're trying to make it more authentic.... There are pictures of the Blind Whino [a local arts club located in a church], there are pictures of the [U.S. National] Arboretum — just different things that [guests] might not know about D.C., but then they're walking around the city, they go, 'Oh, I know that place. There's a photograph of the Watermelon House.'"

The revamp started with the roof last year, which had little more than a pool and some lounge chairs, Vining said. Now, $500,000 later, it's also got a bar and grill, making it one of the few hotel rooftop pool lounges in the city. The pool also boasts one of the city's only heated saltwater chlorine swimming pools with sweeping views.

Heading inside, the redesign affected all 11 floors and 231 guest rooms, including the addition of three suites. No rooms were harmed in the making of the suites. Instead, doorways were added to the ends of the sixth, seventh and eighth floors that could be closed off to make a suite.

"The guest rooms were really nothing to it — bland, simple, white-beige," Vining said. "That's not us. We're eccentric. We're eclectic. We're vivacious. Everyone who walks in comments on the energy in the hotel, and the rooms really portray that."

That means leather headboards outlined with shiny nail heads, vinyl wallpaper and custom throw pillows with the silhouettes of the National Cathedral and Washington Monument.

The new lobby also has a new eatery, Station Kitchen & Cocktails, which has local ties. It serves Compass Coffee, a company founded by two 20-something Washingtonians, and locally made pastries. An adjacent 24-hour Chef's Pantry partnered with the Union Kitchen food incubator for grab-and-go items.

The restaurant also partnered with So Others Might Eat (SOME), which feeds, clothes and houses D.C.'s homeless. When someone orders the special of the day, 25 cents go to SOME, and when guests book the SOME Suite, the hotel donates a percentage back.

The hotel also incorporated 8,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, which is handy because for two straight years it's hosted Passport DC's Around the World Embassy Tour — this year with the embassies of Fiji, Rwanda, Libya, Morocco and the Arab League setting up shop at the hotel.

Right now, most of the hotel's guests are domestic travelers, Vining said, but she expects that to change. "A lot of European countries are so design-focused that we'll start to see more of those European travelers who are looking for boutique hotels and really eccentric experiences," she predicted.


Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC
2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
fourseasons.com/washington

At the Four Seasons, work kicks off this month on a $13 million renovation of all 222 guest rooms and most of its eight major suites. Changes include new carpet, paint, furniture, bathroom vanities, bathroom tiles, light fixtures and even doorknobs, said general manager David Bernand.

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Photo: Four Seasons
The Four Seasons in Georgetown kicks off a $13 million renovation of all 222 guest rooms this month (a west wing room rendering is pictured above).

"Basically you empty the room and we change everything," Bernand said. "The only thing that's staying is actually the TV because we just changed them, and the mattress."

Technological updates are an important part of the renovation. The hotel offers Guest-Tek, which lets guests connect their smartphones or tablets to the TV to play music, movies or TV shows.

But the changes are designed to give guests an outlet for both work and play — or rather, unplugging after work.

"We're literally designing the rooms to create specific areas that are ideal for work, that are ideal to relax and unwind, and also the perfect sleep," Bernand said. "So for example, the mattresses we just put in place have different toppers. So based on the type of sleep you like to enjoy, whether it's regular, soft or firm, we have the ability of actually changing just the topper."

In addition to customized sleep technology, rooms will also get couches and a large workspace counter, plus coffee machines and tea kettles for in-room refreshments.

"When it comes to bathroom amenities, we are switching from L'Occitane to Ferragamo," Bernand added. "It's a custom Four Seasons line that we have that's also a little bit more contemporary in look and has a better sense of place, especially when it comes from the design perspective — less resort-like."

Construction will start in the 70-room west wing on July 23 and finish by Sept. 6. In January 2016, construction will start on the east wing and take about two months.


Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square
806 15th St., NW
sofitel.com

The four-star Accor hotel is billing its makeover as a "magnifique renewal." Boston-based architectural and design firm CBT is behind the look, which celebrates the ties between Paris and Washington, D.C.

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Photo: Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square / ABACAPRESS /
Bob Coscarelli
The Sofitel's "magnifique renewal" celebrates the ties between Paris and Washington, D.C.

"The renovation gives a much more modern touch to the rooms," said general manager Mathieu Riviere. "What we tried to achieve with the design team was to bring an art deco ambience to the hotel and to really enhance the luxurious aspect of the property."

The hotel was designed in 2002 and was heavy and dark, he said. Since unveiling the new look in February, guests have been greeted by hues of black and white with green accents inspired by 1920s Paris. Prominent in the lobby is a large tufted banquette, reminiscent of both the Palace of Versailles gardens and the White House Green Room.

The black-and-white color scheme is carried into the guest rooms and suites, where it's accented with red or blue. The Prestige Suites have a lounge chair in the color of the White House Blue Room and a blue duvet inspired by the Hope Diamond, once owned by Marie Antoinette and now displayed at the National Museum of Natural History.

"It's not bland. You really have a sense of atmosphere," Riviere said of the redesign. "That's important."

From a comfort level, rooms now have 55-inch HDTV sets, new mini bars and many more outlets, Riviere said. "Now travelers, being either business travelers or leisure, want to be able to plug their laptop, their tablet or their smartphone," he said.

Stylish touches reminiscent of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy punctuate the modern, classic look. One of her quotes is reflected in the bathroom mirror, and vintage fashion prints are found throughout the hotel.

Also new to the hotel is Riviere. He's been in the job for about six months, and his first major task was overseeing the renovation.

"It's not only the product that is new but the leadership of the hotel, so that's exciting," he said.


JW Marriott Washington DC
1331 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
jwmarriottdc.com

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Photo: JW Marriott
The JW Marriott completed a redesign of its 750 guest rooms, corridors, executive lounge and more than 37,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space in May.

A redesign of the hotel's 750 guest rooms, corridors, executive lounge and more than 37,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space was completed in May, after five months of construction. The new look calls to mind bespoke business suits with its palette of dark brown, charcoal and pearl gray. Accents of pink and chrome punctuate the style and are intended to remind guests of pocket squares and men's watches. Sprinkled throughout are textures of tweed, leather and herringbone stitching, along with patterns of Greek keys and paisley, like those of men's neckties.

"The renovation brought an updated and sophisticated look that's synonymous with JW to bring our property back up to that level of the JW tier," said Tony Bonanno, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.

The hotel opened in 1984 and had its last renovation in 2008. This new makeover was inspired by guests' feedback. Unsurprisingly, updated technology was high on the wish list, so the hotel upgraded its Wi-Fi, added more USB ports and outlets near the beds and installed 48-inch HDTVs.

"Based on our guest feedback, we needed to invest in our hotel to maintain our prominence in Washington, D.C.," Bonanno said. "The quality of the room now with its subtle sophistication and calming tone is exactly what our business traveler and our group traveler was looking for, and really sets us apart from our competition."


Hotel Palomar Washington DC
2121 P St., NW
hotelpalomar-dc.com

In March, this 335-room boutique hotel completed a $600,000 renovation of its meeting spaces. After being largely unchanged for more than a decade, the 10,000-square-foot section needed a new look, said Erica Gonzalez, area director of sales and marketing for the Kimpton hotel, not only to account for wear and tear, but also to keep the hotel competitive.

"During that time period, all of our competitors were really catching up," she said. "You have to always make sure you're staying one step ahead. So since that time, since our hotel doors opened and we became the Palomar D.C., one of the larger Kimpton hotels in D.C., every single one of our competitors has renovated."

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Photo: Ron Blunt
In March, the 335-room boutique Hotel Palomar completed a $600,000 renovation of its meeting spaces, including the Phillips Ballroom, above, which now features chevron wallpaper, patterned carpet and mirrored columns.

A renovation of the rooms is slated to start in November and finish in February 2016, but the Palomar started with its meeting spaces, brightening the dark browns that dominated the previous look with brighter neutrals and pops of color. Overall, the design draws inspiration from Washington's universities, so a portion of one meeting room has wallpaper book shelving, another has color-blocked linen curtains that resemble a canvas tote bag, and the light bulbs are molecular spheres, modeled after what you'd find in a lab.

"People want something different, and that was another piece of that inspiration," Gonzalez said. "Ballrooms are no longer expected to be cookie-cutter.... We want to be able to speak to all different types of customers — you know, the corporate pharmaceutical company down to the alumni association, the nonprofit organization, the medical group. Then at nighttime, there may be a wedding reception there, there may be a political dinner, a speaker may be coming into town, so we want to make sure that our colors speak to all of those different audiences."

Los Angeles-based Powerstrip Studio handled the designs. For example, in the 2,200-square-foot Phillips Ballroom, which can hold up to 300 people, you'll find chevron wallpaper, patterned carpet and mirrored columns.

"We really stayed with classic colors, but instead of being brown, it's a lighter brown, and we added hints and touches of blue throughout the space versus different textures and different colors in the brown family," Gonzalez explained. "That navy blue hue just gives you that pop, that accent."

The Kimpton brand is not only trying to stay fresh, it is also aggressively expanding, having recently taken over the management contracts for the Carlyle in Dupont Circle and the Savoy Suites Hotel in Glover Park. The latest additions to the company's portfolio bring the total number of Kimpton properties in D.C. to 10 — the highest concentration in any U.S. city — and mean one thing: more renovations.


About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2015

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