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 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.
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…