In its 262-year history, Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood has been a shipping center for tobacco, a military depot, industrial home to coal and flourmills, a haven to freed slaves and one of the District’s worst slums. But since the 1930s and with the help of Georgetown University, it’s become a can’t-miss stop for locals and visitors alike.
It’s also used its split personality as a historical landmark, college town, shoppers’ sanctuary and exclusive residential area to attract some of the biggest names in the hotel industry — Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and, more recently, Capella — as well as some smaller ones, such as the new Graham Georgetown.
“Georgetown has always had an image of being the best place for shopping, nightlife, restaurants and the place you want to go to when you visit Washington, D.C., above the traditional aspects of our city,” said Elliott L. Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of Destination DC, a private, nonprofit corporation that promotes and supports D.C. travel and tourism. “It’s one of the hip addresses to be in Washington.”
“It is one of the unique gems of a historic 18th-, 19th-century neighborhood in the country, and it sits right on the edge of every destination in Washington,” added Joe Sternlieb, CEO of the Georgetown Business Improvement District. “Since Georgetown is on almost every visitor’s itinerary, it makes just as much sense to stay here as anywhere else in town, and we are only 10 minutes by taxi to the Smithsonian museums and the monuments, and 15 minutes to downtown or Capitol Hill. After a day of doing business or touring the sites, returning to Georgetown for the evening can feel like a respite.”
A record 18.9 million people visited Washington in 2012, according to Destination DC, and hotel business throughout the city is booming with $8.5 billion in developments. But it’s Georgetown that the six-star Capella decided to call home for its first U.S. property (the group also has properties in Germany, Mexico, Singapore, Russia and elsewhere).
“Georgetown is really a seven-day destination,” said Alex Obertop, general manager at Capella. “That’s what our guests want. They don’t want to be in a downtown location where there’s no activity that is consistent through the week.”
Size has a lot to do with why boutique hotels are popping up here, Ferguson said. “There’s just not a lot of area to build a brand-new hotel in Georgetown, so what you’re looking at is refurbishing space that already exists,” he said, citing Capella, which took over the building that housed the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. “You had a great space in the heart of Georgetown which literally set the number of rooms that you would be able to create in that property because the building already existed.”
More than half of the hotel rooms in Washington are considered luxury, upper upscale or upscale, according to Lodging Econometrics’s market trend report from the third quarter of 2012. When the properties cluster in one neighborhood — Capella’s rooftop overlooks the nearby Ritz-Carlton, for example — it ups the game even more, Ferguson said.
“Anytime you have a product that opens, folks are going to look at it and see exactly what they need to do to remain as competitive as they can,” he said. “Those brands are notably always on top of their game anyway.”
They each appeal to wealthy, stylish guests in different ways — and with different price tags. For instance, standard rooms run about $200 per night at the Graham and in the $400 range at the Ritz and Four Seasons. Capella charges $595 to $745.
Those numbers have gotten plenty of attention. Obertop says the hotel’s size and service level justify the hefty cost.
“The other hotels are great hotels. They have their market segment, what they do, they do it great. We’re different,” Obertop said. “We want the right guests. We don’t want to just occupy the hotel. That’s why the rates are what we charge, because there’s great value for the money that we charge. There’s a lot of personnel investment to really create those experiences, from calling the guests two weeks before arrival to ask them, ‘What can we do for you?’
“The easiest thing is to open a hotel and open the floodgates [with] low rates,” he added. “Then you’re full from, let’s say day one, because everybody’s going to want to see it. But they’re not the guests that appreciate the service always.”
Capella will be counting on those uber-discerning guests who are willing to pay top dollar to realize its grand ambition of becoming the luxury destination of choice in a market already saturated with sophistication.
But Capella’s premium on privacy and service is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, Ferguson said. “There’s a niche for them, and I think they’ve found it in a great location in the city.”
High-end boutique hotels fit the Georgetown brand of charm, beauty and luxury, Sternlieb said.
“Their message that Georgetown is the place to stay for an exclusive, luxury experience is reinforcing the brand regardless of which of these boutique hotels the guest stays with,” he said. “The Capella guests — who may have slightly different desires or needs from the Four Seasons guests — want to stay in Washington’s luxury neighborhood and they like the fact that their peers are here as well.”
The Georgetown boutique hotel market is not finished growing, he added.
“The next great opportunity to expand the luxury boutique hotel market in Georgetown is the redevelopment of the Latham Hotel, which is out for bids now,” Sternlieb said. “There may be a tipping point where there is an oversaturation of high-end hotel rooms in Georgetown, but I don’t think we are anywhere near that point yet.”
Here’s a closer look at three posh properties that call Georgetown home.
At Capella (1050 31st St., NW), which opened March 22 after being in the works for five years, the guest is supreme and service is the top priority. The 49-room hotel eschewed a front desk and concierge in favor of seven personal assistants who also serve as round-the-clock butlers to help guests with whatever they might need, whether it’s backstage passes to the Washington Ballet or access to the city’s premier restaurants.
Indeed, the Capella “experience,” as Obertop called it instead of a stay, begins two weeks before guests arrive. That’s when their personal assistant calls to find out what they might need during their visit and when they might arrive — part of the hotel’s flexible check-in and check-out policy.
“From our philosophy perspective, we need and we want to provide very personalized service because that’s what our guests want as well,” Obertop said. “It’s all about the guests. It’s not about us having an easier operation.”
He calls the Capella the perfect Washington hotel because of its location near culture, shopping, universities, hospitals and sports. Additionally, its layout enables guests to remain secluded or social — from the small lobby elegantly adorned with custom-designed furnishings, to an expansive rooftop bar and black-granite infinity pool that only guests can access, to the intimate Living Room space juxtaposed with the Rye Bar and Grill Room restaurant, which overlooks the cobblestone streets lining the C&O Canal.
At the heart of the hotel’s overall color scheme of dark woods and light accents is an international collection that rivals some museums. All upholstered furniture and beds are custom-made in Germany, the millwork was done by an Austrian company, England’s Victoria + Albert made the enormous circular bathtubs, and the executive chef is a Swede. There’s even reclaimed antique parquet flooring from a European castle.
The steep prices, attention to detail, and obsession with service have already attracted celebrities and diplomatic customers, Obertop said.
Amenities include free Wi-Fi, guestroom mini bars stocked with complimentary full-size non-alcoholic drinks, free continental breakfast in the Living Room, and the pressing of a few articles of clothing wrinkled from travel.
“We don’t want to nickel and dime the guests for $5 here, $25 here,” Obertop said. “One of the last questions you want to get when you leave is, ‘Did you have anything from your mini bar?'”
The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown Hotel
The 86-room Ritz (3100 South Street, NW) has been overlooking the Potomac River for about 10 years, so the appeal of the area is nothing new to general manager Jeff Brower.
“When you stay in Georgetown, you feel a part of the neighborhood versus being in our nation’s capital, and yet you are completed connected,” Brower said.
The Ritz has become an integral part of the Georgetown fabric, housed inside a former incinerator that’s a neighborhood landmark. The redbrick industrial structure epitomizes the industrial roots of Georgetown (before it became awash in multimillion-dollar row houses) and offers a nice contrast to the hotel’s sleek, contemporary design.
That neighborly sentiment extends beyond the Ritz’s luxurious appointments and amenities, such as feather beds and down comforters, 400-thread count Egyptian cotton linens, complimentary overnight shoeshine, and twice-daily housekeeping.
“We are very connected and work closely with the Georgetown Ministry Center, which we fundraise for and have supported with holiday meals for the homeless,” Brower said. “The C&O Canal is in our backyard and we maintain two of the locks, and we work with mentoring students with the Shaw Middle School.”
In the past decade, the neighborhood has also had a makeover, he added, with the resurgence of retail shopping and design in Cady’s Alley. The opening of the Graham and Capella further support Georgetown’s status as “D.C.’s location for luxury,” Brower said. “These hotels combined with great restaurants and shopping have helped define a historic neighborhood that you can enjoy and work in or visit.”
To keep itself fresh, the Ritz recently added the loft-style Fahrenheit Ballroom and Urban Garden, which Brower describes as “an oasis within the city, where you don’t see many green spaces, not in hotels, at least.” The hotel also recently introduced the Urban Garden’s “Sun, Stretch, Sip” program, featuring high-intensity workouts with local fitness expert Chris Perrin and Sunday brunch with a DJ on the outdoor terrace.
Additionally, the hotel is getting ready for a two-year renovation, starting with the guestrooms.
The Ritz’s rates start at about $400 for a Large Premier room with a king bed or two doubles and pass the $6,000 mark for the Royal Potomac, which includes a one-bedroom Presidential Suite, a king bed, one and a half bathrooms and views of the river and city.
The Graham Georgetown
For Camilo Miguel Jr., owner of the Graham (1075 Thomas Jefferson St., NW), finding property in Georgetown was extraordinary.
“We just really liked how charming the area was, just kind of the Old World feel of the area is very unique,” said Miguel, CEO of Mast Capital, the Miami-based real estate private equity firm responsible for remaking what was the Monticello Hotel. “Owning something there is actually something quite special.”
The Graham opened in April and is already seeing a mix of clients, including businesspeople and families.
Named after Alexander Graham Bell (who lived in the neighborhood), the hotel has 57 rooms, including 30 suites, spread over seven floors and topped by the Observatory, a 3,000-square-foot rooftop lounge — the only one in Georgetown that’s open to the public, a huge draw.
“The views from there are, in my opinion, spectacular,” Miguel said. “The sunset, when it’s coming down over Georgetown University, it’s really special.”
On the bottom level sits A.G.B., a farm-to-table restaurant/cocktail lounge that serves plates such as Maine lobster rolls with white truffle-lemon aioli, pan-seared Scottish salmon, and the house specialty cocktail: Angels’ Envy, a custom whiskey distilled exclusively for the hotel.
The five room types, ranging from king deluxe (250 to 300 square feet) to the Frank Sinatra Junior Suite with outdoor patio (750 square feet), offer amenities such as pillow-top mattresses, Liddell linens, free Wi-Fi and Bvlgari White Tea toiletries. Room prices vary from about $199 to $599 in the low season and $259 to $799 in the high season.
Besides welcoming guests, Miguel wants his hotel to be part of the community. To that end, the restaurant will bring in chefs from local restaurants at brunch to showcase their food.
“We have a great GM and we have a great team with Hersha [Hospitality] managing the property, and we just opened a month ago so we’re continuing to evolve and continuing to improve our operations, but it’s really a lot about people feeling like they’re having a great experience,” Miguel said.
“For a small property, I feel like we have a lot to offer,” he added. “I think it turned out to be a very nice product.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat