Be Our Guest!
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Captains of Washington's hospitality industry like to say the inauguration is their Super Bowl. But that's wrong. Coming every four years, it's more like the Olympics. Hotel staffs train for it, maniacally, for more than a year.
An inauguration also is Washington's closest blowout to the Academy Awards, or the Grammys. Certain hotel bars are thick with stars. Even politicians, those gray creatures, are transformed like Cinderella into something to be envied, royalty temporarily liberated from their pumpkin chariots. For a brief, free-spending quadrennial orgy of fine food, couture and oratory, Washington is unashamed of itself, and the hotels rise to meet the glitz with their fussiest pampering.
At the Washington Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd and M streets NW, the doormen wear top hats, silk scarves and special Hawaiian kukui nut leis that look like strings of polished black chocolates around their necks.
"Welcome to the Ritz-Carlton!" they say, their nut necklaces rattling as they wrestle suitcases out of hired cars and usher guests up the red carpet to the big wooden doors, which swing open majestically.
The guests cross the threshold and in that instant become players themselves, paying for an experience -- at these prices, it better be good -- and yet participating in something filled with ritual and common purpose.
The doormen slyly read luggage tags, then speak into microphones in their sleeves, announcing the arrivals. The news reaches the earpieces of staff inside. It is as if a nervous system has been stimulated, and intricate institutional reflexes twitch into action throughout the hotel.
"Mrs. Winfield, can I offer you a hot towel?" The scented towel is proferred from a silver tray with a pair of silver tongs. "Would you like to try Michelle Obama's shortbread cookies?"
Tonya Winfield is a tall woman in a long emerald coat lined with mink. She jokes that the Ritz is spoiling her -- but she looks unsurprised by the attention. Her husband, David, the retired Hall of Fame baseball player, will be arriving the next day. The couple met Barack Obama when he visited their church in Los Angeles.
"We have our dancing shoes and our vitamins, and we'll sleep when we get back to L.A.," she says, and then she is escorted to her room.
* * *
This year, the customary luxury is impassioned and emboldened by the lightning strike of history.
Since the best hotels knew they would sell out at a premium rate, they are competing for something bigger: bragging rights, and buzz.