National Day Receptions Serve As Rites of Passage at Area Hotels
Washington loves a good party — even when it’s thrown together at the drop of a hat. In a city where heads of state come and go almost daily, the top-tier hotels that host them have become adept at meeting any and all requests and staying as flexible as the most seasoned yogis.
“At noon the family of a president wanted to have lunch on a boat because I guess in their country they do have boats waiting for them, so we had to cater a 20-people lunch, rent a boat, find a captain, and have it ready for them at 2 p.m.,” recalled Fabien Odry, diplomatic sales manager at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel. “That was pretty intense.”
He’s also put together a lunch for 400 people with just 18 hours’ notice and a 200-person press conference with 30 minutes’ notice. “I think we understand the nature of their business and that’s why we’re so flexible,” Odry said. “They’re very busy. We want to take away the accommodations or the events side out of their head. We know how to do it. We’ll do it for you.”
But the biggest and most frequent international bashes that hotels handle for embassies are their National Day celebrations — those anticipated annual rites of passage that have become Washington diplomatic mainstays, which can sometimes attract hundreds of people, making state dinners look like child’s play. And for those embassies or ambassadorial residences without the space to accommodate a National or Independence Day reception, countries often look to the city’s hotels to host their version of America’s July 4th festivities.
“For our events we currently are using the Ritz-Carlton,” said Khalid Y. Al-Jalahma, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Bahrain, whose National Day events, held in mid-December, typically have guest lists of 800 to 1,000. “It’s basically a dinner, kind of a buffet dinner where we have a speech by the ambassador and maybe one of our guests. Basically we have some traditional foods and other foods as well. It’s just to celebrate our National Day.”
This is the second year that the embassy will hold its party at the Ritz on 22nd and M Streets, NW, after switching from the Willard in search of a larger venue. “The main reason we went for the Ritz-Carlton is obviously their service is very good and they’re all very helpful there,” Al-Jalahma said. “Other than that, their ballroom is actually very large. It’s easy for us to accommodate the number of guests that we invite. Plus their food is very good, too.
“We haven’t asked for anything where they said, ‘We can’t do it,’” he added. “The ambience at the Ritz, you know, even though it’s a five-star hotel, it still gives you a very homey, comfortable feeling. The décor and the way the furniture is are just very comfortable.”
The Ritz property has seen an increase in the number of embassies choosing to hold their National Day receptions there, according to Kate MacInnis, director of transient and diplomatic sales at the hotel. It has two scheduled for December and is in talks about another next month. “We’re getting a good following,” she said.
Much of that business comes from Arab and African countries because they tend to have larger National Days, said Richard Hays, the Ritz’s director of catering, and the hotel has the largest ballroom among D.C.’s luxury hotels at 10,500 square feet. That’s plenty of room to handle the formal receiving lines, stations of indigenous foods, and mingling guests typical of these events.
Along with the uptick in receptions, they’ve noticed changes in the ways embassies are choosing to celebrate. “A lot of them are now thinking about doing their receptions in the middle of the day at lunchtime because so many people are here in Washington and can get away on a Thursday or a Friday and come in,” Hays explained. “The networking and the amount of people who know one another at these events is tremendous.”
Although the format for National Day events is fairly ubiquitous, embassies do strive for individualization. “They compete a little bit with each other in the sense of ‘What did so-and-so do? ‘I want mine different, I want mine more special.’ There’s a little bit of kind of rivalry,” Hays said.
Several stand out as they try to update their style. Bahrain, for instance, served alcohol for the first time this past year, in addition to featuring henna artists who painted guests’ hands with the intricate body art.
“A couple of the countries are wanting to be very modern and want their guests to realize that they’re a very modern country and are very in tune with what’s going on in the rest of the world. So they’re trying to get away from more traditional looks,” Hays explained. “We’re using a lot of glass and metal elements and building specific kinds of buffets and displays. We’re really getting away from a more traditional Washington look and much more toward kind of a fun look.”
Depending on the level of extravagance and length of the guest list, National Day receptions can cost an embassy as much as ,000, Hays said. “You’d think that the embassies would have free reign to spend money, but they have budgets and they watch them carefully and they competitively shop. They still want elegance, they still want fabulous, but they’re also looking for value.”
Oftentimes, nations with sizeable embassies or residences — such as France, South Korea, Pakistan, Russia and Sweden — opt to keep the events in-house. “So many embassies that have been built recently have incredible representational space,” MacInnis said.
That might help their bank accounts, but hotels’ party-planning expertise gives them an edge. “It’s cost-effective for them, but at the same time, those buildings, because of how they’re situated in Washington, they’re difficult to get to, parking is extremely limited,” Hays pointed out. “It’s a real conscious decision on the part of the embassy not to use the hotel, not to use the services, not to have that kind of turnkey approach to the event. There are so many elements that a hotel allows for them and that’s why they come.”
Even with the boom in new or renovated embassies over the years, diplomatic missions still outsource many of their events, and competition among Washington hotels for this business is as fierce as ever.
Although space and location play an important role, sometimes one hotel wins out over another because it appeals to an embassy’s homeland. “I think different countries like different types of hotels,” the Willard’s Odry said. Over the past few months, Libya, Oman, Pakistan and Sudan have chosen the Willard for various events, but Francophone countries such as Monaco often favor the hotel because of its European ambience and because much of the staff, including Odry, speak French.
For its 400-guest National Day, the Embassy of Ireland turned to the St. Regis and its historic Astor Ballroom. The hotel is owned by a Dublin-based company, Claret Capital, and has had an ongoing relationship with the Irish Embassy for the past few years, said André Jacques, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “It was the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration event in Washington,” he noted.
The Embassy of Indonesia — housed in the former Walsh mansion, a historic beaux-arts landmark — uses its own ballroom for most events, including its National Day, but it needed a larger space for an August reception and gala dinner for the opening of a major exhibition of Indonesian batik textiles owned by Ann Dunham, President Obama’s late mother. To accommodate the 500 guests, the embassy chose the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest, overlooking the Tidal Basin.
“We thought that the association of the Mandarin Oriental with Asia is strikingly a very interesting concept — Indonesia is part of Asia, Southeast Asia to be precise,” said Ricky E.V. Ichsan, third secretary at the Indonesian Embassy. “And we also heard that President Obama favored the hotel for his pre-presidential accommodations.”
He credits the event’s success to the hotel staff’s willingness to work with the embassy’s special requests, especially culinary ones. “The [hotel] chef went to the extent of hiring an Indonesian chef from a local Indonesian restaurant in Alexandria to make sure that the taste is as authentic as possible. And the result shows,” Ichsan said. “Our partners from Indonesia, the Investment Coordinating Board of Indonesia, wanted to serve Indonesian cassava chips and marquisa juice. The hotel was able to get a hold of those items from the local Asian market at no extra charge.”
Indeed, flexibility and service seem to be the key to getting — and keeping — coveted diplomatic business.
“We’re kind of experts in what we do,” said the Willard’s Odry, who handles an average of 15 National Day events each year. “We work very closely with the White House. We work very closely with the Secret Service, with other government-run agencies. We get to know people. They get to know us. They know how we work, so I think the sense of comfort from our guests sets us apart from the competition.”
“It all boils down to relationships and maintaining contact with the key decision makers at the embassies and making sure that you maintain that relationship throughout the year,” said Jacques, who credits the St. Regis’s diplomatic success to its atmosphere. “One of the reasons we’ve done so well in this market is because of the intimacy of the hotel. It feels more like a private guest residence than a big hotel.”
Neither the competition nor the need for event space is likely to decrease any time soon, “because we’re in a city like Washington and we have kind of a revolving door,” added the Ritz’s MacInnis.
Jacques agrees. “With the first year of the new administration, there’s a lot of activity coming through the Washington area on a very regular basis,” he said. “A number of countries are coming in to meet President Obama” and other members of the new administration, a trend he predicts will continue well into 2010.
To stay viable, “we just have to be extremely flexible with everything,” the Ritz’s Hays said.
Odry understands. The next time a visiting head of state asks him to stop traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue so he can be photographed with the U.S. Capitol in the background, he’ll be ready. “I love it,” he said of his job.
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.