By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007
Depending on where you're standing, the growing skyline of the new Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is looking like either a boon or a bane.
In 10 months, the Washington region's newest hotel and convention center will open, with its 2,000 rooms, more than 10 acres of indoor meeting space, spa, shops and restaurants on the Potomac River in Prince George's County -- and the competition in the District is squirming.
Business circles buzz about flirtations between Gaylord and groups long loyal to the District. Washington hotel and convention officials launch interventions to thwart defections. Inevitably, however, some occur.
The Air Force Association has grown out of the District's largest downtown hotel, the 1,348-room Marriott Wardman Park, and is moving its annual Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition to Gaylord National in 2009. The District-based Council on Foundations will go there next year. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which is holding a national conference this month at the D.C. Grand Hyatt, will go, too.
"They're hiring all of our sales staff from our hotels [because] they want to take as much business as they can from the city," said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. The sheer size of Gaylord National is daunting. "It's as if you move all the Baltimore hotels and the Baltimore convention center to Prince George's County."
Gaylord's 48-acre property on the Potomac -- the fourth in the Nashville company's portfolio, which started with Opryland and includes resorts near Orlando and Dallas -- has already booked nearly a million room-nights, many of them with groups and associations that have met at its other hotels. Nearly 80 percent of its business will be with conference and convention groups that look for all-inclusive meeting and resort facilities -- a niche that no property in the District targets exclusively, said Sheldon Suga, general manager of Gaylord National.
This, however, is of little comfort to D.C. hotel and convention officials who are struggling to fill their group reservation books. The ease of being able to schedule a conference and set aside a block of hotel rooms in the convention facility or within walking distance at overflow hotels at National Harbor is an advantage, industry officials say.
"Certainly in D.C., where the leisure and transient corporate business is so good, you end up having to book more hotels with smaller room blocks" for a conference, said John Graham, president and chief executive of the D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives. "A more desirable model is fewer hotels with larger room blocks. . . . I think Gaylord is going to provide a nice addition to the space in D.C. for our community."
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been considering Gaylord as a meeting site, in part because of high security costs in the District. Hotel and convention officials appealed to the city to help prevent "the irreversible precedent of ceding our ground to Prince George's County," Durso wrote in a letter to the D.C. administrator.
"The inclination to yield to Prince George's County dramatically impedes our city's marketing efforts and our economic and political capital," Durso said in the letter, which was also signed by Bill Hanbury, president and chief executive of the D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. "We would specifically lose over $11 million in yearly spending if the World Bank/IMF meetings do not come to Washington, D.C."
Gaylord National markets itself as a self-contained destination, noting security features such as a single-access road, which could be closed to protesters. But at the same time, it is dependent on its proximity to the District. The center highlights its regional connections, including water taxi service to Georgetown and Alexandria and a menu of concierge services. Their client and guest services will help personalize forays into the District, arranging tickets to shows, museums and sporting events, Suga said.
All of which means the District will have to work harder for its customers, said Stephen S. Fuller, regional economist for George Mason University who also serves on the board of one of the construction companies building the Gaylord hotel.
"They're going to have it all in one package," Fuller said of Gaylord. "It does point up the deficiency in the District's offerings. They should've had a hotel up and running already next to the [D.C.] convention center and they know it. Gaylord has 2,000 rooms sitting right there that will be opening" in April.
Plans are in the works for a hotel next to the D.C. convention center. But otherwise, the D.C. hospitality industry's strategy has been to respond to threats as they arise. When the city hotels lose bookings to Gaylord, Durso said, "You try to figure out, okay, in the future when I have to go to that kind of business again, what do I do differently? It really doesn't always boil down to price; it boils down to values."
Those "values" reflect the District's appeal for the non-convention crowd -- tourists, businesspeople and political or diplomatic visitors. One Washington hospitality executive, who spoke only on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, said the District will always beat Gaylord when it comes to cachet.
"This is no slam on Gaylord because they are very astute competitors, and they will be very successful," the executive said. "But they've become the Wal-Mart of the tourism industry, where they pick off Ace Hardwares off the corner."
That may work for the masses, the executive said, "but you're not going to tell the finance minister of Saudi Arabia where to stay. He's going to stay at the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton, or go to dinner at one of the very exclusive restaurants in Washington, D.C. That ambience, that level of service just isn't going to be part of the Gaylord product."
While Gaylord declines to discuss its marketing and sales efforts, its promotional materials tout its hotel spa, a 14th-floor VIP cocktail lounge overlooking the Potomac and glittering boutiques. It's a different face for a company otherwise known for such offerings as Old Hickory Steakhouse and Wild Horse Saloon.
Gaylord National "will increase the reach of Washington's appeal to a group of people who might otherwise would've thought Washington was a little staid, or a little too sophisticated or boring," Fuller said. "I think we're going to get some repeat visitors out of this."