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.
(A few days later, a new tiny trouble surfaces at the Gaylord: Mice! Three mice in a guest's room, nibbling on an unattended energy bar! Crisis control starts all over, and a top team of exterminators is brought in. This is a PR problem, but it was also a very successful Pixar movie. Can this incident somehow be re-spun? Can the mice sing and dance?)
* * *
The Gaylord National was built by the Nashville-based Gaylord media/entertainment empire, and is billed as the largest hotel on the East Coast, if you don't count casinos. Gaylord has now built four such hotels, starting with the Gaylord Opryland, which it acquired when the Gaylords, a rich Oklahoma newspaper family, bought the Grand Ole Opry, which came with a hotel. A Florida hotel opened in 2002, and then one in Texas in 2004.
The Gaylord National has 2,000 rooms, five restaurants, five shops, a spa and a two-level, extra-bougie, New York-style nightclub at its tippy top. The hotel is staffed by more than 2,000 workers (culled from an applicant pool, according to the Gaylord, of at least 16,000). Gaylord employees are all referred to as "stars" and have been drilled with the company's mantra for serving People of the Atrium: "Consider It Done."
"Consider It Done" is a twist on the Disney slogan "Be Our Guest" crossed with the golden rule of commerce: "The customer is always right." Here's how it works:
Guest: Please kill the mouse in my room.
Front-desk star: Consider it done.
One thing People of the Atrium love more than premium service, more than atria, more than sending their Kobe steaks back, is meeting space. The Gaylord National has a half-million-square-foot convention center attached to it, seemingly miles of carpeted ballrooms, walkways and vast hallways.
People of the Atrium go to plenary sessions and breakout sessions and keynote luncheons. They love a trade fair. They are at their happiest in hotels.
* * *
So we check in for a night, in an atrium-facing $314 king.
* * *
Well, no, not yet. First we just get there.
It is an easy drive to National Harbor from Washington, but a psychological journey of unfathomable distance for most Northwest Washingtonians, and certain Virginians, and almost anyone who just doesn't get out enough. Gen. Colin Powell came to the Gaylord National on its second day of business, to give a paid speech to a convention of Saturn employees, and he got lost twice. He was driving himself in his sports car, and Amie Gorrell came to his rescue, got on the phone and talked Powell through every exit and turn he'd missed, right up to the door.
Otherwise, he might never have found it.
Because the Gaylord National is . . . where? (It is at National Harbor, a 10-minute drive down Interstate 295 from Capitol Hill.) And National Harbor is . . . where? (We told you: on the Potomac, in Prince George's County, next to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.)
National Harbor is . . . now, what is National Harbor, exactly? (Dude, you really should read the Business section once in a while. National Harbor is this gazillion-trillion-dollar clusterfarg of five hotels -- the Gaylord, a Hampton Inn, a Westin, a Marriott and a Wyndham time share -- and a million or so square feet of shopping and restaurants, with the requisite condos and parking garages. All of this is brought to you by Milton Peterson and the same visionaries who tricked out downtown Silver Spring. They've been building it since 2004, after two decades of different development schemes. At one point there were 20 construction cranes. Celeb investors Ashton Kutcher and Wilmer Valderrama are going to open a restaurant on the harbor called Ketchup. The developers took the "Awakening" sculpture from Hains Point and put it there.)
Oh, that place. And the Gaylord National is . . . where?
The Gaylord National sits next to tens of millions of dollars of untapped market. While the rest of America's suburbs and exurbs were repeatedly Old Navy'd and Barnes & Noble'd and P.F. Chang'd, Prince George's always got the shaft. You could say that National Harbor is Prince George's big dance.
Are we there yet?
No. Unfortunately we were too busy yammering on and did what we always do -- missed the exit for National Harbor on a tight spaghettini of new freeway ramps, and then made another wrong decision about Indian Head Highway, and cannot quite track back the way we wish to, and it becomes the same Prince George's story it always was for visitors: Now it's trees and trees and trees and houses and trees and little homemade crosses by the side of the road, and teddy bears, shiny balloons and plastic flowers next to those crosses, and you think death, death, death, death.
Back again, loop, exit and now this -- hooray -- this is National Harbor.
* * *
We pull into the the Gaylord driveway, where we are met by a group of smiling doormen in handsome blue overcoats and bowler hats. Prepare yourself for a degree of kindness hitherto unknown. On this particular afternoon, Day Four of operations, the Gaylord is filling up with Army guys in their desert camos and honey-hued boots, here for a 6,000-person annual convention of the aviator's branch. They've landed helicopters out back to show off at the trade fair. They are loving the hotel. "What's our view from the room? Is it a great view?" one guy asks his buddy in the elevator as it climbs high into the atrium.
"Just the construction outside," the buddy replies.
The view is always being touted at the Gaylord. The best tables in both of the higher-priced restaurants -- Moon Bay and the Old Hickory Steakhouse -- look out at the harbor docks and the river and the bridge and Old Town Alexandria. Choice suites look out to the view. The couple's treatment rooms at the Relache spa face out onto the view. At Pose "ultralounge," the men's urinals look out over the entire, imagined city. The view, the view, the view. (The view is the Wilson Bridge, about which the most attractive thing is that it is nearly finished.)
Our room is wallcovered in creamy, faux leather. The decor is updated nautical, and there are grainy, sepia-toned prints of Chesapeakeana ("Bloody Point Bar Lighthouse, Maryland, Photographed by Maj. Jared A. Smith, July 3, 1885" . . . ). The aesthetic mood in most of the hotel is a familiar reiteration of tall ships, colonists, nation, Betsy Ross, seafood, flat screens, WiFi. In the 1960s, Washington hotels stopped looking like the Mayflower and started looking like the United Nations building. Then in the '80s, they looked like the first "Star Wars" movie or "Logan's Run," with chrome and concrete passageways and discotheques. The Gaylord evokes, in a way, the last "Star Wars" movie, a CGI galaxy gone faux fancy with red carpeting and marble; fleurs-de-lis and Jedi temples.
Everything in the Gaylord seems to have the purpose of referencing something else, the hallowed Epcot principle of being derivative: "Think of the Bellagio," Gorrell said, about the dancing fountains in the atrium, on a tour of the hotel a couple of weeks before it opened. "They were designed by the same team."
In the atrium, the Gaylord built two full-scale houses, the red-brick one being, Gorrell said, "A re-creation of a Colonial-era mercantile shop. This architecture is representative of Old Town Alexandria." Inside it, the Gaylord sells merchandise straight from Colonial Williamsburg (ready-to-mix spoon bread, Byers' Carolers dolls in revolutionary outfits). The other house sells monogrammed pajamas, delivered to your room before turndown, Gorrell said, and is inspired by a yellow, 18th-century clapboard farmhouse in Georgetown.
The Relache spa one level above the atrium garden eschews the same-old earth-toney Sedona feel, and is decorated in all black-and-white tiles, "like Chanel," Gorrell said. The Old Hickory Steakhouse, with seating for 200 patrons, is supposed to be "like a Georgetown rowhouse" and features its own maitre de fromage, who will custom-select and teach you about your cheese plate, "just like in Europe." The Pienza buffet restaurant specializes in being "like an open-air market," preparing fresh pastas and antipasti and desserts; the Moon Bay restaurant throws fresh fish, Chef Duane Keller says, "like in Seattle," using crushed-ice-filled fish bins, onto which green flecks of verdigris on copper have been meticulously painted, to look real.
Having been to Vegas, Seattle, Chanel, Georgetown and Williamsburg in one hour, it is time to take the elite, express elevator up and up to the Gaylord's rumination on "New York," at the Pose ultralounge. ($20 cover charge; reserved tables and booths require a $500 minimum liquor and small-bites tab.) The club's manager, Anthony Rakis, brags on a publicity tour that no other bar, even in New York, has the elaborate infused-vodka delivery system that Pose has, with a network of pipes running under the floor, serving it up at seven bucks a shot. Nothing was spared: the sound system, the projection system, the chrome, the clear stairwells and dance-pod balconies. The two-story plate-glass windows and wraparound balcony look back toward teeny, tiny Washington -- monument, dome, small enough to fit into a snow globe of Washington. "This is where everyone is going to want to be on Fourth of July," Rakis says.
Who named it Pose?
"That was . . . picked long ago by someone in corporate," says Rakis. "What it means is, everyone has their 'pose.' As in, what's your pose? Is it someone who wants to hang out with his friends and kick back, or is it some of the aficionados or fashionistas who come through? So we like that -- 'pose' -- we're going to work with that idea, that everyone has their pose."
* * *
Out on the dock, later, getting some actual air. The hotel looms behind us. Here is where water taxis will shuffle conventioneers to Georgetown or Old Town or Mount Vernon several times a day, $7 each way.
Giant birds are making late-afternoon circles over the Potomac, while outgoing flights from Reagan rumble away, high above. Are the birds hawks? Bald eagles? To ask is to half suspect that the Gaylord had them brought in, special.
Turn around, look at National Harbor and the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. Consider it one day, decades or centuries from now, as a fabulous ruin, a tell-all biography of who we were, People of the Atrium. Consider it done.