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Sweating the Details To Pamper Guests

Ritz Aims for Repeat Customers

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page B01

Ten high-level company executives hunkered in a subterranean meeting room one recent afternoon, a flip chart at hand and objects of the discussion laid out on the glossy finish of the oval conference table. Their focus on details in this critical campaign session evoked the celebrated attention of Karl Rove.

Key agenda items: white chocolate cowboy boots, yellow roses, and red, white and blue cocktails with a special "handmade" Texas vodka. The hats the staff would wear. In every room, a half-filled vase of water so guests would have somewhere to place their yellow roses without having to think about it.

Ritz-Carlton executives Wendy Wang and Desmond McKenna try candies that the hotel might offer in the lobby. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

While most people were focusing on the holidays, planners like those for the Ritz-Carlton were preparing for something that comes only once every four years. The presidential inauguration is a massive challenge -- and opportunity. With top Republican donors coming to town and the Republican National Committee reserving a block of rooms, the Ritz-Carlton tastemakers were charting their campaign to make the most of it at both of their hotels in the city.

How could they ratchet up the "wow" factor? Would such inauguration flourishes as monogrammed pillowcases entice customers to return? And could the staff live up to managers' expectations? After all, this was well beyond the usual pampering of Ritz customers, who are routinely treated to 300-count Egyptian cotton sheets and, in some cases, butler-drawn baths.

Most hotel guests are impressed to find their favorite soap in the bath, the thermostat set to a preferred temperature and the staff greeting them by name. That a different chocolate snack is left by the bed each night would just lock them in as satisfied and future customers. Few of them will know how much planning goes into their stay, especially during preparations for an inauguration. At the Ritz, inauguration meetings began two months out, transforming this example of Washington's hotel industry into a frenzy of activity before the first guest begins to pack.

"When you take away the holidays, it's really two weeks away, and that's the way we need to be thinking," Paul Westbrook, the general manager, reminded his directors as he presided over the meeting two weeks ago. "The world watches Washington, D.C., and we want to be known as the headquarters hotel."

To make sure the Ritz is ready, directors of such duties as guest relations, room operations, food and beverage, catering and quality drilled each other on which rooms would have designer, silver-plated souvenir champagne cork holders and which VIPs would receive limited-edition cufflinks painted with the Capitol dome.

VIP guests, it should be noted, aren't necessarily celebrities, but regular or potentially regular customers. "We love having the celebs, but they're not constantly coming to Washington and booking rooms with us," said hotel spokeswoman Colleen Evans.

To keep the regulars happy, details that must be juggled are magnified tenfold during an inauguration, compared with such other big occasions as the Kennedy Center Honors, Evans said.

There are potential repeat customers to track, large groups to book, lessons to be learned from the 2001 inauguration, and staff and equipment to be borrowed from Ritz properties in Tysons Corner, Philadelphia and New York.

At the start of the meeting, Annie Boutin-King, director of catering, had good news for Westbrook. A 500-seat dinner made up largely of diplomatic spouses had been scheduled for Monday night, the 17th. An 800-person dinner hosted by the Traditional Values Coalition was set for the night of the 19th. A celebrity dinner she would not discuss was planned for the next evening, Inauguration Day.

Though most rooms are sold out (with four-night minimum stays), renting out the rest of the hotel for events was hardly a given. But it all had come together in the two weeks before the meeting.

"That's the best news, because the locations for all the major balls are set," Westbrook said.

Boutin-King, who had fielded multiple inquiries from potential party givers, told Westbrook she had been successful but picky. "We do have a very selective audience staying with us," she said.

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