Essay

The Haute In Hotel

The Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Prince George's County, a new addition to the Gaylord Hotels chain in D.C., boasts an 18-story glass atrium, multi-level indoor gardens, and a rooftop lounge.

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

Inside the 200-foot-tall atrium of the new Gaylord National hotel, there's a soft, ever-present roar -- a gentle non-noise made by carefully conditioned air, gurgling streams and the tappity-tickety of luggage being pulled across marble. It is the sound of Aerosmith ballads, piped in from speakers in planters and speakers hung somewhere above.

There is a lot of "above" to be had in the Gaylord National, the newly opened, $800 million resort and convention center built so ridonkulously large that it makes you think of those Bruce McCall cartoons in the New Yorker. You crane your neck and take it in, reaching for sunglasses and wondering what the Windex bill must run. Heaven is a place on E arth, you hum along with the plants. It is glorious and mesmerizing and bright white, a specific heaven meant to attract a specific and spendy market:

The People of the Atrium.

Now is a terrific time to be alive if you have money (or credit, or a travel budget) and you love glass, soaring ceilings, sports bars and spa packages.

People of the Atrium live in a land of shopping malls multiplied by new airport terminals plus crystal cathedrals divided by convention centers, ringed by crew-cut landscaping and golf courses. The world is now designed first and foremost for People of the Atrium, who go to lots of conventions, so many conventions that now they go to conventions of people who plan conventions. On a typical night, eight out of 10 guests at the Gaylord are expected to be conventioneers. It's as if the Plaza's Eloise grew up and got a job in human resources and goes everywhere on business conventions. She is still always in hotels.

Life now merely shifts from one big atrium to an even bigger atrium, and to still increasingly larger atria. It's about Newseums and glassy ballparks and now the Gaylord hotel, the largest atrium in the land, the showpiece of the micromanaged, 300-acre sprawl of the new National Harbor project on the Potomac River, just over the District/Prince George's County line. It is a world contained within a world.

* * *

After years of promising and building the ultimate, customer-pampering experience for People of the Atrium, the Gaylord National opened last Tuesday.

Four hundred health-care workers came for the first official convention and stayed in the grand hotel, presumably ate at its restaurants, touched its stairway and escalator railings, breathed its air, and shook hands constantly. On Thursday night, a couple of dozen of them were on their way out of Reagan National Airport and reported getting sick to their stomachs, which health officials investigated and decided was likely caused by a norovirus, which could happen anywhere, but probably did not start with the Gaylord or its food or its water. Nevertheless, the next morning, the Gaylord is having its first full-on crisis.

"I actually had to call in [media] crisis control," says Amie Gorrell, the hotel's extremely cheerful director of media relations. She meets us Friday night in Moon Bay, the Gaylord's fancy interpretation of a crab shack on a pier. Three television trucks are parked outside the hotel's porte-cochere, and Gorrell won't let them on the property. Have a glass of white wine, we tell her. She is clicking the scroll wheel on her BlackBerry. Relax, unload. Enjoy the rosy sunset light on the river.

The chef sends out seared scallops, pieces of sushi, fried oysters with caviar. We are so not afraid to eat any of it. Amie, try an oyster.

Her happy veneer -- she trained for nine years at Disney -- has been slightly cracked today, but she easily brightens. It's a hotel, we say: This sick-guests-virus thing, whatever it is, will surely blow over in one, maybe two, news cycles. And then you know what? Something worse will happen. Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan could check in -- you did tell reporters that the hotel hopes to attract VIPs. The next Eliot Spitzer-style sex scandal will check in. Someone will eventually check in and die here; there's a lot of balconies to fall off. Even picture-perfect hotels have messy, interior lives. You know that old curse about hotels? " May you inherit a hotel with a thousand rooms, and may a guest be found dead in each one of the m." Gorrell is suddenly not hungry, even as lovely crab cakes arrive.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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