Hospitality Capital


As Area Becomes Hilton’s New Home, D.C. Cements Status as Industry Powerhouse

Essentially there’s nothing that won’t change as part of the Hilton Washington’s head-to-toe 0 million renovation. General Manager Steve Cowan says it’s better to explain the interior and exterior makeover in those terms rather than trying to go through what will stay the same and, in effect, go unfixed.

There’s the highest-profile part of the project, the addition of a new 30,000-square-foot multipurpose meeting space with moveable walls allowing for different meeting and exhibition setups. The guestrooms are being revamped. New fitness centers and lobbies are also being thrown into the mix, as are state-of-the-art presidential suites. A more close-up view of the Washington Monument will become part of the hotel experience. And the overall aura and feel of the Dupont Circle-area hotel will significantly change to reflect the times while also keeping with tradition.

“Right now you’ll see more reds and browns. But with the new look, we’re creating something more calming, with blue and jewel tones. We wanted to restore the hotel to its original grandeur,” said Kristin Adderson, Hilton Washington’s marketing manager. “It will be a cultural evolution.”

Built in 1965, the hotel sits on prime real estate on Connecticut Avenue near Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, just a short jaunt from downtown D.C. The original design incorporated a Brutalist style of architecture, while the shape of the building was fashioned to resemble a seagull, a remarkably unique concept, especially for that era.

Over time though, there have been only minor upgrades here and there. “Hotels need infrastructure renovations every 40 or 50 years, and it was our time,” Cowan said.

Industry experts agree that it’s a transformation that was long overdue and will propel the 44-year-old property back into the spotlight of Washington’s increasingly crowded hotel scene.

What’s more, the redesign comes as Hilton’s global headquarters has just relocated from California to the Washington area, a widely anticipated move announced earlier this year that has turned D.C. into a major player in the national hospitality sector. Taken together, the move and renovation make it a season of momentum for the 500-hotel Hilton chain in the region.

“It puts them back in the game,” said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., about the Hilton Washington’s large-scale undertaking. “The renovation was 10 years overdue.”

As for the headquarters move, it speaks to the growing stature of the Washington region in the hotel arena, said Durso, who has been an industry insider for 20 years.

“As it’s been the center of the government and financial sectors, Washington is becoming the hospitality capital of the country too,” she pointed out. “We may not have as many rooms as, say, Miami or Vegas, but we are a very strong powerhouse in the industry.”

Hilton officials announced in January that they’d be moving their global headquarters to the D.C. region, though they didn’t indicate specifically where. For months afterward, area jurisdictions courted the prominent hotel chain, with Montgomery County, Md., going so far as to offer economic incentives if it was selected as the new post from the previous headquarters in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Later in the year, higher-ups announced that the headquarters would be in McLean, Va., situated in close proximity to a nearby Hilton and within the burgeoning Tyson’s Corner area of the suburb. Christopher Nassetta, Hilton Hotels Corp. president and chief executive officer, cited the less expensive costs in the region and proximity to the company’s major business hubs as rationales for the big move.

“The opening of our new global headquarters marks the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in our company’s rich history,” he said in a release to the public. “ We are delighted to join the vibrant Fairfax County business community and are confident that our new location will enhance our ability to operate seamlessly as a global company.”

In August, the first crop of the 300 staff members expected to work out of the new headquarters began moving in. Eventually, the environmentally friendly LEED-certified offices will house senior management, executive staff, human resources and communications officials.

In addition to Hilton, two other major hotel chains are headquartered in the region — Marriott and Choice Hotels International — which Durso views as a huge boon for the area and an indicator of the strength of its hospitality sector.

It’s still too early to tell what impact the presence of the Hilton chain, the world’s largest, will have on Choice or, to a greater extent, on the Marriot chain, a longtime business presence in the area (J.W. Marriott founded the company as a District root beer stand in 1927).

Speculation ran rampant after the original announcement that Hilton might even try to hire away prominent Marriott staff members. Durso said she “only thinks that’s possible” because CEO Nassetta formerly worked for Marriott and knows the figures in that company.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to say how the three chains will fare and what the increased competition will do for any one of them in particular.

The most recent figures for hotel occupancy rates across the country show a decrease of 18 percent from a year ago due to the recession. Meanwhile D.C.-area hotels are faring much better, down less than 6 percent from last year to date, according to the Hotel Association of Washington.

The nation’s capital obviously has a lot working in its favor — it is the seat of the federal government, a steady slew of industry conferences keep business flowing, and heads of state and foreign delegations constantly pop in and out.

Cowan’s Hilton Washington hotel — which boasts some 110,000 square feet of function space — hosts the president of the United States 10 times a year on average (it also earned fame as the site of the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan). For more than 30 years, it has also been the site of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, mixing Hollywood entertainers, politicos and journalists in a star-studded setting. And when Barack Obama took office, the Hilton Washington played host to the only official inaugural ball attended by the first family.

The property’s longstanding allure is partly why hotel officials consulted with repeat customers when conceiving of the 0 million renovation. At this point, 40 percent of the guest rooms have been revamped, with close to half of the rooms closed off for upgrades. The goal is to complete this portion of the project in February. The spaces more geared toward hospitality-style, large-scale events will be finished four months later, in June.

Marketing manager Adderson is particularly excited about a separate terrace-level entrance that will allow event guests and lodging guests to come inside through separate areas. In the case of a glitzy affair like the Correspondents’ Dinner, it would allow the Hilton to offer a true red carpet experience. “They’ll have their own sense of arrival,” she said.

The top-to-bottom makeover has actually been in the works for years. Two years ago when Canyon Johnson Urban Funds and Lowe Enterprises — of which former NBA great Magic Johnson is a part — purchased the property, they agreed to two points: The hotel would stay within the Hilton brand, and they would pump more than 0 million of renovations into the landmark property. The second part of that deal is now nearly coming to fruition.

Cowan added that with the Hilton headquarters moving nearby, there has been substantial interest at the corporate level in his hotel’s renovation as officials look to make similar improvements at other locales in the Hilton family.

“We’ve become a much higher focus,” he said. “They’re taking serious interest in the design of the hotel and our presence in the community, which we think is great.”

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.