Luxury hotel managers in the nation’s capital are optimistic that the hospitality industry here will rebound quickly as restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 are lifted.
Right now, most businesses in D.C. are no longer operating under any constraints, a welcome change for hotels that saw occupancy levels — and revenues — drop by as much as 80% in 2020. And then there are the 27 hotels that closed for a portion of last year and the nine that closed permanently, according to Destination DC, the District’s official tourism marketing organization. That included some big names such as the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.
Two main themes emerged as managers discussed plans for making a comeback. One is innovation and the other is improving the leisure experience.
From creating rooms-turned-offices to new dining features, hotels are looking to lure both new and returning guests.
The Mandarin Oriental overlooking the Southwest Waterfront was closed from March 26 to the end of August 2020. Although business has slowly increased since then, factors other than the pandemic also affected the hotel’s struggles, said Torsten van Dullemen, the hotel’s general manager and area vice president of operations.
He cited political instability, “which culminated in the terrible, terrible events of Jan. 6. That really sank business levels to an all-time low. We decided to stay open, however, throughout, and it’s really been since the middle of March that we’ve seen business return.”
In May, the hotel launched MOBase, a membership program exclusive to the D.C. location that lets individuals and businesses rent reconfigured rooms to use as offices or meeting spaces. Rooms are outfitted with a murphy bed that can be stowed during business hours and height-adjustable Vari desks. Membership also allows for access to the hotel’s indoor pool, gym and in-room dining. Other perks include an in-room printer, weekly housekeeping, mail and package handling, and laundry service.
“The first MOBase room was rented for three months six hours after we launched it,” van Dullemen said, adding that if the program is successful, the hotel may dedicate an entire floor — or about 30 rooms — to it.
Perhaps no other property in D.C. has had to deal with the impact of political turmoil more than the Trump International Hotel, a source of both controversy and fascination ever since its namesake took up residence in the Oval Office.
On the one hand, conservatives, lobbyists and even certain foreign governments flocked to the hotel, no doubt seeking to curry favor with a president whose passion is promoting his properties.
On the other, Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency and myriad legal problems turned off many clients, curtailing lucrative event bookings.
Even before the pandemic hit, the Trump Organization was looking to sell the lease of its D.C. hotel, housed in the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion — a search that was paused because of the pandemic.
Now, according to The Washington Post, the Trump Organization has again hired a broker to find someone to buy the lease, which, if purchased, could mean that the “Trump” moniker is removed from the hotel.
In the meantime, though, the hotel (like the former president) is still plugging away — and technology has been key to weathering the pandemic slowdown, according to its managing director, Mickael Damelincourt.
Trump poured an estimated $200 million into renovating the Old Post Office Pavilion, updating the neglected property while retaining much of its original grandeur. While the historic ambience is still there, the pandemic has innovated the hotel’s operations.
During the pandemic, Damelincourt said that guests have taken advantage of being able to text the hotel’s front desk or room service to ask questions or order food and drinks.
“I think the technology is really changing the way we operated and the way we’re going to operate,” Damelincourt told The Diplomat. “We need to be able to have more flexibility.”
Jason De Vries, manager of the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, agrees. Use of the Four Seasons app that lets people text hotel staff grew 500%, he said.
Additionally, a QR code for room service menus is likely to become a permanent fixture. “We can add specials, we can change our wine list, we can do a lot of things without having to reprint a really expensive glossy menu,” De Vries said.
While automation introduced during the pandemic is sure to stay, that doesn’t mean the personal touch that luxury hotels pride themselves on will become a thing of the past.
De Vries, for instance, discovered some baking skills during the pandemic. The hotel remained open last year, at one time serving just a handful of guests. “We just felt like we couldn’t give up on them,” De Vries said. “They were sort of in situations where they were trapped.”
For instance, one person was here from New York City — at one time, the U.S. pandemic epicenter — for cancer treatments. With most of the hotel’s 350 employees furloughed, De Vries and other members of the skeleton crew who were still coming in got creative.
“It was one of the guests’ birthdays and normally we have a pastry team of 12 people who work to do beautiful desserts,” he said. “We’re still the Four Seasons so we can’t just not give a birthday cake on somebody’s birthday. I called out the recipes and put together a cake. It was a little more rustic than our typical offering.”
De Vries and his colleagues put on other hats besides the toque blanche. “As hotel manager, you’re usually overseeing a lot of the activities, but what happened to our entire team is they had to get extremely nimble and flexible to be able to do anything and do everything,” he said. “I helped clean rooms, did dishes, delivered room service orders.”
Speaking of room service, one perk at the YOTEL Washington DC is that hotel guests can enjoy cuisine from Art and Soul, the acclaimed restaurant located inside the hotel, which was formerly the Liaison Washington Capitol Hill.
The 5,100-square-foot restaurant underwent a complete transformation that includes a 1,900-square-foot patio featuring views of the U.S. Capitol.
Likewise, the hotel itself underwent a massive, fortuitously timed makeover that closed the property through much of the pandemic.
“After a seven-month construction project completed during the height of the pandemic, all YOTEL Washington DC public spaces and guest rooms were redesigned and completely overhauled from the previous Liaison Washington Capitol Hill, originally built in 1969,” said James Rattray, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
“YOTEL is at the forefront of innovation, hospitality and design,” he added, “and the flexibility offered throughout all public spaces and new, tech-forward, modern cabins will ease the traveler experience in today’s current climate and beyond.”
Many hotels used the pandemic as an opportunity to do renovation projects, with some revamping not only their indoor offerings, but their outdoor ones as well.
Indeed, properties that have abundant outdoor spaces enjoyed an inherent advantage during the pandemic because many people felt — and still feel — more comfortable socializing outside rather than inside.
At the Conrad Washington DC, which closed from April 1 to the end of August 2020, a big draw since reopening has been themed events on its two third-floor terraces, the Conrad Lounge and North Terrace.
“In the fall, we turned them into a hidden garden and served a pasta dish that looked like a bird’s nest with an egg in it,” said General Manager Laura Schofield.
In the winter, the hotel switched to an Après Ski theme with Alpine décor and French food, and in April, it reopened its rooftop space, called Summit for the first time in two years.
“We really were inspired by the fact that so many people over the last year had been staying at home and had really learned to enjoy being at home and learning to cook so we thought when we opened the rooftop it would be like your very elegant backyard in the nation’s capital,” Schofield said.
The other theme is a focus on leisure, rather than business, travelers. Business travel is forecasted to be down 85% compared to 2019 through April 2021, and will grow slowly, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s (AHLA) 2021 “State of the Hotel Industry Report.” Although business and groups comprised about 40% of the Mandarin’s business before COVID, van Dullemen said the number of leisure guests grew in 2020.
“In a normal year, a five-star luxury hotel in D.C. would be occupied somewhere around 80%, and last year we never got over 20%,” he said. “And then of course there were no corporate business and no groups at all. What remained were local leisure travelers who needed to get out of the house.”
He defined local as a maximum of three or four hours’ drive from the District, although now the hotel is getting guests from farther afield. About 50 million people live within that radius.
“I hope this whole staycation idea stays because it’s great for business and I think it’s also great for guests to have this short break close to home,” van Dullemen said. “The leisure market is something we’ve become very good at and really would like to keep.”
That’s not an off-base wish. The Tourism Economics company predicts that domestic visits to DC will number 14 million to 15 million in 2021, up about 50% over 2020, and could hit 18 million to 19 million by 2022.
Still, van Dullemen hopes that restrictions on international travel ease soon. “One can only go so far just with domestic business,” he added.
Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, echoed the sentiment at the May 5 Travel Rally event at Audi Field. “A national economic recovery won’t be complete without a travel recovery, which requires the reopening of international borders as well as a business travel revival. The domestic leisure uptick is encouraging but won’t be enough on its own,” Barnes said.
D.C. is the eighth most-visited city by international guests, Elliott Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of Destination DC, said at the rally. And although Destination DC states that overseas visitors in 2019 represented only 7% of the total number of visitors to D.C., they accounted for 27% of visitor spending that year.
“Even though the data shows that leisure visitors from a transient perspective will return before meetings and conventions, we still remain aggressively and actively involved in bringing meetings of all sizes,” Ferguson said.
He announced a $2.5 million plan with Events DC to promote the District to the domestic audience. For every $1 spent on marketing the city, there’s a $3 return on investment, Ferguson said.
“We know there’s a lot of pent-up demand for travel right now,” Greg O’Dell, president and CEO of Events DC, said at the rally. “We’ve seen no cancellations in 2022 for our major events, so that gives us a lot of hope and promise that we’re all moving in the right direction.”
The economic hit to D.C. tourism has been significant. From March 2020 through March 2021, visitor spending fell 68%, the District lost $477 million in tax revenue from visit spending, D.C. hotel revenue dropped 84% and 59% of jobs lost in D.C. were in the leisure sector, according to a Destination DC press release.
Hotels can expect 5.7 million rooms to be in demand this year — more than double that of 2020, according to Tourism Economics — and many are starting to see business pick up.
At Trump International, some corporations are starting to inquire about booking events in the fall and into the next two years, Damelincourt said.
“I think the business community understands that people are getting vaccinated and there is really the light now at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
He’s also optimistic about drawing guests from the diplomatic community, something the hotel – owned by the family of former President Trump – was unable to do since he took office in January 2017. When the hotel identified foreign government or embassy business, the process was remitted to the Treasury Department, Damelincourt said. “But I do expect, over the next few weeks or over the next few months, I do expect delegations to start coming back, and we’re getting great interest from the embassy communities,” he said.
Dennis Hernandez, sales and marketing director at the Kimpton Banneker Hotel, is also looking forward to welcoming guests. The hotel closed in January 2020 for a $20 million renovation and reopened in mid-June in time for the summer tourism season.
The new 144-room euro-modern luxury boutique hotel is named after Benjamin Banneker, one of the country’s most renown Black innovators, and is located six blocks from the White House.
The hotel has a French bistro called Le Sel that spotlights locally sourced ingredients from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Helmed by executive chef Laurent Hollaender, Le Sel offers outdoor seating and has collapsible windows to make guests now accustomed to al fresco dining more comfortable.
Additionally, its rooftop bar, Lady Bird, will be open year-round and features views of the White House and Washington Monument. (The name is a nod to former first lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson.)
“What we’re seeing is I like to call it an elevated outreach for [requests for proposals] in the social market,” Hernandez said. “We’re seeing micro weddings being booked. Something really unique are also micro reunion. Friends and family are actually booking small room blocks of 10 to 15 rooms and scheduling a 10- to 15-person sit-down, three- or four-course dinner that they will be able to create that menu with our chef.”
He also expects that the Ambassador Insider Series, co-hosted by The Washington Diplomat, will return to the hotel in October.
The Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center is also reopening after a $64 million renovation of its 1,996 guest rooms and suites. Bookings for overnight stays are available starting July 1.
When the pandemic all but stopped travel in 2020, hotels were one of the first industries affected – and they will be one of the last to recover, according to AHLA. But hope is starting to emerge now.
“We are more hopeful today than we were at this time last year. More people are getting vaccinated, and we are seeing more and more of our community open up,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the rally. “We stand ready to work with our travel industry partners to make sure that all of the investments we are making will let everybody in the nation know and indeed in the world know how special our destination is and that it will be tops on their lists for travel destinations.”