Searching for the ultra-luxe at Georgetown’s Capella


A suite at Georgetown’s Capella. (Robert Reck/Capella)
February 20

Extravagant decor in the spirit of Versailles is the old luxury; Luis is the new.

Luis Colmenares is the chief concierge at Capella, the top-shelf hotel in Georgetown that opened last March. From my arrival until my departure, the indefatigable Venezuelan carried me like a Fabergéegg through the hotel’s obstacle course. He helped me clear the hurdles of check-in and the touch-pad panel that manipulated the lights and curtains in my guest room. He pulled out the drawers that discreetly hid the outlets, preempting my question about charging my gadgets. On his way out the door, he informed me that I could have five items pressed for free; if I’d asked nicely, he’d probably have scrunched up my shirt so that I’d require the service.

“Anything you need,” he said with a Spanish lilt, “we’re here for you, Miss [Nom de Travel]. Just call us.”

They say you get what you pay for. In this case, I got Luis and a team of obliging personal assistants who would fulfill a specific request and then ask: What else can we do for you?

“Luxury 20 years ago was a big lobby with a glass elevator, chandeliers and art. It was grandeur and sparkle and not really service,” said Horst Schulze, who runs Capella Hotel Group, a collection of resorts and hotels around the world. “Now, it’s about individualization; treat me my way.”

Any hotel can throw high-thread-count sheets onto the bed and dazzle guests with a this-minute entertainment system. They can leave you a bowl of M&Ms at bedtime and fetch your slippers like a well-trained puppy. But do they make you feel coddled, cuddled and cared for? Do they create the fantasy of you=royalty, they=ladies- and gents-in-waiting? If so, then you are ultra-luxuriating.

The luxury hotel market is undergoing a metamorphosis. Fancy furnishings and high-end amenities still matter, of course, but personalized service is shooting the super-luxury stars into another stratosphere. Schulze, the co-founder and former president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., compared the new segment to a Bentley; the category below is a Mercedes.

In all honesty, I typically stay in a Honda with a loud muffler and 120,000 miles on the odometer. However, earlier this month, I upgraded. My ride was short (one night), so I took as much joy out of it as possible.

Service is king

I originally approached Capella with a mission more taxing than soaking in the rooftop infinity pool. To understand why the room cost this much, I would attempt to affix price tags to the various elements, such as the 600-thread-count linens, the Acqua di Parma toiletries, the Illy espresso in-room service, etc. I’d even pin a dollar sign to Luis’s lapel. At the end of my stay, I’d add up the numbers and, if my theory worked, I’d come up with the rate of my room: $595, before taxes.

As you can see, business and reality are not my strong points. In a post-visit consultation with Alex Obertop, the general manager, I learned that the rate was impossible to calculate so precisely because of such intangibles as electricity, travel agency commissions, real estate taxes and the cable bill. As a consolation, he explained one factor that helps the decisionmakers set the base rate: supply and demand. Apparently, the latter was strong enough to compete with the former (e.g., the Four Seasons, the Jefferson Hotel). It also justified one of the highest starting rates in the city.

Undeterred, I switched approaches. My new goal: to understand what separates mega-luxe from meh-luxe.

“The difference between luxury and ultra is all about the people,” said Philip A. Wood, managing director of the Jefferson. “We cater to individualized needs.”

Wood trains his staff to read body language and signs so that they can determine how best to approach a particular guest. The staff also maintains a file of return visitors’ likes and dislikes so that they can cater to the guests’ particular tastes.

“We challenge hospitality boundaries,” he said. “We anticipate needs.”

Service is a delicate art. Some guests embrace enthusiastic solicitude; others shun even eye contact. According to industry experts, the staff should be attentive, useful and efficient but should avoid slipping into obsequiousness. Fawning can make a guest feel like a fly caught in a web of treacly cotton candy.

The 49-room Capella, for one, employs a team of personal assistants who draw a circle around the guests and never let them stray into the uncomfortable outskirts.

Luis, who is also the lead personal assistant, immediately rescued me from my puddle of despair. When I arrived, I was freezing and confused. He abandoned his podium to escort me to the lobby, a private clublike space that only guests can access with their key cards.

“Take a seat so you can be more comfortable,” he said to me, while he checked on my reservation. Another staff member offered me a beverage.

Luis continued to stick by my side. We rode the elevator together to the fifth floor and strolled down the hallway to my room. He took me on a brief spin of the 480-square-foot space, pointing out certain features.

“It’s almost like football,” said Obertop. “The running back catches the ball, and he doesn’t let it go until he reaches the room.”

And then, like a cloud or a drafted player, Luis gently drifted away, leaving me alone with my minibar full of soda, my plate of macarons and my DirecTV. On the desk, a handwritten note repeated the team’s at-your-service pledge.

Whatever the guest needs

Before your arrival, a staff member typically contacts you to discuss your check-in and -out times, plus any preferences for in-room amenities or activities. For example, I could have asked for Diet Dr Pepper and fruit instead of Diet Coke and cookies, the standard provisions for each room. I would also have fielded suggestions for a veg restaurant. One problem: No one telephoned me.

The staff, however, somersaulted over themselves to respond to my calls and visits to their desk, which an employee covers 24/7. When I forgot my charger, Michelle, a PA, hunted for a loaner. When I inquired about walking directions to Dupont Circle, Greg printed out a map. For dinner, Michelle attemped to print out a menu for Moby Dick’s House of Kabob, a few storefronts up from the hotel, but couldn’t get the Web site to work. Luis then took over, running through the cold night air to grab me a paper copy. When I was ready to order, an employee would pick up my meal.

During the gaps of time when I wasn’t being needy, I reveled in Capella’s extras. I raided the fridge, which housekeeping refilled during turndown service, and drank several cups of the German loose-leaf tea. (A nod of appreciation for the hot water kettle.) I mined the complimentary travel kit packed with a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash and other essentials. (Sadly, someone had removed the razor and shaving lotion.) I taped television shows that I would never have time to see.

Dressed in a plush robe and slippers, I attempted to swan dance around the penthouse floor like a princess of privilege. But the tiara quickly slipped off my head. I visited the gym but was disheartened to find a glass hamster cage crammed with two treadmills, a bike, some weights and a piece of equipment that required an Ikea manual to use. A few steps away, an indoor/outdoor infinity pool stretched toward the rooftops of Georgetown. A gas fireplace gave off a whisper of heat and a shout-out to romance. A chill blasted through the open door to the pool and smacked me in the face like a wintry kiss.

Returning to my unluxurious habits, I walked over to the nearby Washington Sports Club (to which Capella does provide a free guest pass; in warmer weather, there’s also Pilates on the roof).

Every time I entered the lobby or exited the elevator, a staff member would greet me as Miss [Nom de Travel] and ask after my well-being. Usually I was great. On one occasion, I was cold. Not happy with that answer, an employee checked on my heat (which was uselessly cranked to 90 degrees) and delivered a blanket (surprisingly mangy) to my room.

I slept well; the room was in my comfort zone. The decor has exotic pedigrees — Italian sheets; German furniture, faucets and artworks; British tubs; Chinese marble — but without the pretensions of a Sotheby’s showroom. Without hesitation, I threw myself on the feather bed and molded the firm and soft pillows to my head.

In the morning, the elevator doors opened to a smiling twosome and a breakfast spread of fruit and croissants. The hotel has no rigid check-in/out times (vaguely, 8 a.m./6 p.m.), so I lingered in the Living Room, a zone of relaxation with board games, books and a gas fireplace. At the PA’s desk, a guest worked with an assistant to find a car wash. (Obertop said that he’d noticed a dirty car in the parking lot and was going to surprise the guest with a free wash.)

When I checked out, a staff member helped me tote my bags to the main entrance hall. She offered me a coffee or a bottle of water. I heard “Miss [Nom de Travel]” for the last time.

I left my final farewell for Luis. We shook hands, and he invited me to come back for a drink at the bar or a meal at a vegetarian restaurant. Even though I was no longer a guest, he was still holding on to the football.

Andrea Sachs (not the one who wears Prada) has been writing for Travel since 2000. She travels near (Ellicott City, Jersey Shore) and far (Burma, Namibia, Russia), and finds adventure no matter the mileage. She is all packed for the Moon or North Korea, whichever opens first.
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