As a capital city of international import, it's only fitting that Washington, D.C., hosts more than its fair share of larger-than-life luminaries, political and otherwise. And the city's venerable hotels, famous destinations in their own right, are well-versed in what it takes to satisfy their singular demands, especially when it comes to hosting big-time events.
From political fundraising and charity dinners, to galas honoring world leaders, to multicultural weddings with hundreds of guests, the events that top Washington hotels host are as outstanding as the clientele they serve. To get a sense of what goes on behind the scenes to produce some of the largest, most exceptional events, The Washington Diplomat talked to catering directors at three leading hotels: the Fairmont and Ritz-Carlton, both in the West End, and the Washington Hilton in Dupont Circle.
Though each hotel emphasized different facets of the event-planning process — from setting trends in decoration and cuisine, to arranging rapid room reconfigurations, to dealing with the intricate security requirements of high-level guests — the catering directors at these hotels were unanimous in their passion for their jobs, a passion that has a lot to do with location. As Robert Mikolitch, director of catering at the Fairmont, said: "We're lucky in Washington because this town is just amazing when it comes to numbers of galas and clients. For somebody in our industry, this is one of the most exciting cities to be in."
Situated at M and 24th Streets, NW, in the heart of the West End, the Fairmont hosts around 60 events a year, including galas, weddings and fundraisers. The hotel is distinguished by its blooming courtyard, complete with a splashing fountain centerpiece, which truly gives it the feel of being a lush oasis in the city. Abutting one side of the courtyard is the hotel's signature Colonnade Room: a glass pavilion in the shape of a four-leaf clover, anchored by a gazebo-like stage. Mirrors and chandeliers hanging from the glass-domed ceiling create a glittering, light-drenched space, which "automatically makes any event more fun," said Mikolitch. "We're very lucky with the Colonnade, a great special events space because it doesn't look like a hotel ballroom."
The Fairmont recently hosted the "Newsbabes" reception in the Colonnade, an event made up of local female TV news anchors to raise breast cancer funds for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. This "pink" gathering was not the hotel's only such fundraiser, however.
Mikolitch says that among the Fairmont's "largest and most inspiring" events is the annual Living in Pink gala, held for the past eight years in October, national breast cancer awareness month. The gala features a fully pink menu for "400 ladies every year — a tough audience," Mikolitch joked. "The pastry chef has a lot of fun coming up with creative pink creations," he said, noting that during the entire month of October, the Fairmont features pink up-lighting in the courtyard and pink-themed drinks at the lobby bar, with proceeds going to the Living in Pink organization. "So it's an event that the entire hotel embraces."
Mikolitch, who has been at the Fairmont for eight years and in catering for 25, takes pride in producing events that not only exceed his clients' expectations, but also push the envelope of the event-planning profession while setting trends for decorators and hotels around the country. He talked through his creative process, and the fruit it bore in the case of two exceptional events the hotel has hosted over the past several years.
"The key when you come up with an idea or theme is you've got to really be able to incorporate that theme into the entire event, so people just remember the message through the entire evening," Mikolitch told The Washington Diplomat.
An example is the Sip and Sample, an "event planner's event" geared toward wedding planners that the Fairmont has put on for the past five years. "What we do for this event is sit down with several of our local event vendors, including Party Rentals who handles tablecloths, Capitol Décor who handles flowers, and Hitched, the bridal store in Georgetown, and brainstorm: What are the trends we've seen? What are the hot new colors? What are the hot new flowers? What are the different ways people are now entertaining?"
Out of this brainstorming session the Fairmont and its partners produce "our social and bridal trends reception," attended by event planners and brides-to-be, showcasing the latest offerings in parties and entertaining. But the event is practical from the hotel's standpoint as well, Mikolitch says, in that the culinary team has a chance to practice making its menus in miniature versions, served as hors d'oeuvres.
"When you walk in the hall it's like you're walking through a garden of wedding cakes," he said. One sweet specialty of the hotel stands out: a yellow-and-white multilayer cake, decorated with ornate swirls and adorned with frosted honeybees. The cake is inspired by the hotel's own beehives, located on its roof, which produce about 40 pounds of honey each year. "It's a unique local angle for us to be able to incorporate our local honey," said Mikolitch. "Plus, from an environmental standpoint it's wonderful since bees are slowly disappearing, and it's nice to know we have three healthy hives up on the roof."
The Fairmont also hosts an annual Signature Event, inviting "all of Fairmont's top clients to showcase our hotel as a hotel that really knows how to entertain in terms of food and beverage and creativity," Mikolitch explained. "These people are well traveled and used to really wonderful things, so it's a group that's hard to spoil."
He added: "It's a real challenge for us every year to come up with a theme that's going to be fun for them," but this is precisely where the Fairmont Washington excels.
Mikolitch showed The Diplomat pictures of the most recent Signature Event, inspired by the bestseller "Eat, Pray, Love." The hotel named its own event "Eat, Drink, Sleep" — "a salute to famous beds around the world," he said.
"You went down a long staircase, a 'dream hallway' with walls of stars and a carpet made of feathers. A host in silk pajamas would greet all guests as they came down the dream hallway, to clear your mind and get you ready for this party-scape when you walk in," Mikolitch explained. "As you enter, we had the sandman at the door; he was passing out dreams in little silver scrolls. And some of the dreams were prizes, trips to different Fairmonts and things like that. He would walk around the room in his nightshirt — he was on stilts — so he was the first person you saw before you even went into the room. In the ballroom we had all different types of beds, some beds made of tents, some to sit on, and some as buffets, and food and drink was brought to the guests."
The "Eat, Drink, Sleep" event also featured an inflatable "cloud bar," numbered sheep for counting, and drinks done with liquors meant to serve as aphrodisiacs. Not surprisingly, "people are still talking about this event," noted Diana Bulger, the Fairmont's area director for public relations.
Located just a few blocks east on M Street, the Ritz-Carlton is no stranger to putting on spectacular events for as many as 900 guests, including political heavyweights, high-profile celebrities, media personalities and glamorous everyday divas. As directors of social catering, Annie Boutin-King and Amal Zaari told The Diplomat that clients often come to the Ritz with particularly challenging demands because they know that the hotel, with its "all hands on deck" approach, can deliver. "We're more daring because we know we can do it fast, so we take the challenge," said Boutin-King.
Though the Ritz handles many political and diplomatic galas and receptions each year, these tend to be traditional in style, compared to weddings and especially bar and bat mitzvahs, which often entail the most unique requests, Zaari said. She described a challenging mixed wedding between an Indian groom and American bride, for which the Ritz successfully staged three separate, successive events in the same ballroom.
"For this wedding we first did an Indian ceremony with a mandap for about 400 people," Zaari said, referring to the ornate, covered stage-like structure on which the bride and groom sit during the ceremony. "Then we transformed this ballroom into a Christian wedding ceremony within a very short period of time. And then going to the cocktail reception, we had to transform the ballroom another time, for dinner and dancing. So it was multiple transformations within a very limited amount of time," she recalled.
"Every time the guests walked back into the ballroom, they were walking into a new space, with décor and lighting completely transformed, all within an hour's time. It really requires everyone in our banquet team to make it happen, including us, moving tables and setting up chairs," she added.
Zaari, originally from Morocco, and Boutin-King, originally from France, also highlighted the Ritz's multicultural staff, which hails from around 30 countries. The Ritz is a popular choice for major Indian, Jewish and Persian weddings, among other cultures, because its "ladies and gentlemen," as staff are called, are highly knowledgeable about the respective traditions and can consult with clients, should they request it, on how to cater to diverse customs.
The Ritz's clients choose to host major events there, Boutin-King said, because they value the hotel's ability to "deliver what they're expecting, and in style."
"From a capacity standpoint, others can do it, but the Ritz-Carlton does it on a luxury level," said Boutin-King, who has been with the Ritz in Washington for seven years. "When you research events, you won't find luxury hotels that have the capacity to do such large events. Why do clients take a chance with us, to do events that are so big? Precisely because they know we make it happen."
For dinner events with 600 to 700 people, anywhere from 12 to 15 chefs, including the executive chef and two executive sous-chefs, are at work in the Ritz-Carlton's kitchen. When it comes to fulfilling requests for particular cuisines or precisely tailored fusion dishes, the hotel has two strategies: It can tap into its network of chefs at its properties around the world, soliciting their expertise, or, in the case of national day celebrations hosted by many embassies, it will often invite the embassies' chefs into the hotel to work side by side with the Ritz's own crew.
"We're probably the only hotel I know that welcomes very easily other chefs," said Boutin-King. "And I think [the Ritz's chefs] look forward to working with other people, because you're always going to learn something. And it makes it authentic — we're known for that. That was something I'd always heard about the Ritz before joining — the quality of the food.... That's to me very important. It's why I joined. Some other brands are culinary-specific, but I think more so with the Ritz-Carlton."
The Ritz pulls off its speedy ballroom transformations and culinary feats even as it adjusts to the security demands of the Secret Service, which sometimes needs to do sweeps and pull kitchen and banquet staff away at inopportune moments. When hosting a recent fundraiser honoring a prominent political appointee, the catering directors negotiated a compromise to make sure each side could fulfill its respective mission — of providing security and "putting together a wonderful party."
When it comes to working with security services, however, the Washington Hilton, located on Connecticut Avenue above Dupont Circle, is a seasoned veteran. The hotel — famous for its gargantuan International Ballroom, the largest in Washington — hosts two of the biggest events on the Washington social calendar, the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in May and the National Prayer Breakfast in February. It also welcomes the president of the United States "several times" in the spring and fall as well as at inaugural balls and dinners, according to director of catering and events Thomas O'Doherty.
In an interview at the Washington Hilton's one-year-old, 11,000-square-foot Heights Courtyard — part of a recently completed $150 million overhaul of the entire hotel — O'Doherty told The Diplomat about some of the security procedures the hotel must undergo when welcoming high-level guests.
At the inaugural ball, for instance, when it hosts upward of 5,000 guests, the Secret Service extends the security perimeter to cover the entire hotel, so that guests must be funneled through designated checkpoints located around the exterior. "We work a lot with the Secret Service," O'Doherty says, "and have had some times where for safety reasons we changed the setup in banquet rooms at the last minute, to make sure everything was safe, particularly for the president."
The hotel also hosts the first lady several times each year, including at the annual First Lady's Luncheon held by the Congressional Club each spring. Indeed, The Diplomat's interview was delayed due to the visit of a "VVVIP," later revealed as none other than Michelle Obama.
The Washington Hilton, which defines itself as a convention hotel, with 110,000 square feet of function space, also hosts a variety of large events throughout the year, including the Fight for Children charity fundraiser, featuring four sanctioned bouts in a real boxing ring; the Howard University Charter Day gala; and the Professional Convention Management Association's industry event, a showcase for top event and meeting planners.
O'Doherty recounted a moving story involving two back-to-back visits by Barack Obama to the Washington Hilton, immediately before and after being inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. On the night prior to the inauguration, Obama walked down a hall in which the Hilton hangs portraits of all presidents who have visited the hotel. The president-elect took note of the two empty hooks, waiting for his portrait to be hung. The following night Obama walked down the same hallway, pausing to see his likeness hanging from the hooks. "I'm president," he said — a moment that was caught by the White House photographer and became a part of American history.
O'Doherty also took The Diplomat through the expansive halls of the hotel to the storied International Ballroom, which, at 36,000 square feet, is one of the largest on the East Coast. "We can do 2,670 for dinner," he said nonchalantly, adding that the room seats 4,000 when chairs are arranged theater style. "We don't mess with the fire warden either," O'Doherty said with a chuckle.
When the Washington Hilton hosts its trademark events, such as the White House Correspondents Dinner, 250 to 350 waiters serve the guests, along with 100 additional support staff. It's a precisely timed parade that's made possible by the special design of the kitchen, which O'Doherty notes allows hot toffee pudding and ice cream to be served side by side and deployed to guests quickly enough so that the ice cream does not melt.
When you really think about that, it's quite a stupendous achievement — and an example of the serious work that takes place behind the hotel curtain to create the perfect party. But for the Washington Hilton, as for the other hotels, it's all in a day's work. And judging by the enthusiasm the catering directors exhibit for their work, they wouldn't have it any other way.
About the Author
Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
Last Edited on June 29, 2011