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At the Ritz: Send Us Your Coddled Masses

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

To that end, a hotel wants the right kind of guest. Boldface names are nice, of course. When it comes to rock stars and other celebrities, the Washington Ritz-Carlton might not match the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton, its younger, hipper cousin; the Four Seasons, that home-away-from-Hollywood; the posh-glam Mandarin Oriental. And it can't compete for historic resonance and location with, say, the Willard or the Hay-Adams.

The Washington Ritz's stronger suit is lavishing its particular style of clairvoyant excellence -- the Ritz-Carlton knows what you want before you do -- on diplomats, politicians, CEOs, the deep ranks of those with money and taste to spare. Add the energetic choreography of what transpires in any of Washington's several luxury hotels during an inauguration. It's like one of those lavish Broadway musical revivals that are mounted every few years -- familiar melodies, rich kick lines, the plot set in the golden mist of long ago.

Impress them once, they'll be back. That's how success in the Inaugural Olympics can pay dividends.

"We're trying to make a memory," says Elizabeth Mullins, general manager. "People are here to celebrate this amazing inauguration and we're part of that memory. Everything we do during the four days has to solidify this great experience."

If you had booked before Election Day, you could have had one of the cheapest rooms for $899 a night, four-night minimum, payable in advance, no refunds for cancellations. On Election Day, prices started rising every 12 hours. By that Friday, all 300 rooms and suites were sold. The price of the cheapest rooms ultimately hit $2,000 a night.

At that price, the expectations of the guests are high.

"It's not an easy task to deliver excellence during a mad time," says Cenk Turanli, director of guest services.

* * *

Steven Koskie, Will.I.Am's Web producer, is just off the red-eye from Los Angeles.

Will.I.Am's Web video, "Yes We Can," became the soundtrack of the Obama movement, and now Koskie and his crew are going to document the weekend. A Ritz public relations manager, Audrey Slade, takes Koskie and crew up to their suite.

Slade has been in touch with them for weeks, which may make the guys feel special, but it shouldn't. For the inauguration, 50 Ritz managers, from Mullins to the executive chef to the budget director, each "adopted" four or five guests, so everyone in the hotel will have their personal concierge.

"Your Internet wireless should be all hooked up," Slade says.

"Good," Koskie says. "We'll take all the bandwidth."

In the suite, the first thing they do is upload photos of the 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton pillowcases embroidered with a seal that says: "Inauguration '09, The Ritz-Carlton Washington D.C." Their blog says: "We plan on stealing them."

Dudes, no need. After the guests slumber presidentially on the pillowcases the first night, they will be laundered, then presented as souvenirs.

Down in the lobby, a giant green donkey is stealing the show. Surely a shoulder-high topiary Democratic beast beneath the bronze chandelier is not standard Ritz lobby furniture -- but it's a hit. Guests are giving it sunglasses, posing for pictures. "Say cheese!" "No, say Obama!" "Ready? Obama on three!"

Larry King is giving an interview to 9-year-old Logan Gruss, making a video about his trip for school in Lincroft, N.J.

A stretch limo pulls up and the doormen open the trunk to reveal two Segways, which one of the owners later rides in the lobby.

Tina Brown crosses the lobby in the direction of the restaurant. Jessica Alba checks in quietly. Later, Sharon Stone will be seen complimenting Turanli.

There are always issues, relatively minor: A steak sent back, someone annoyed by a neighbor smoking, a cold omelet, a staticky phone, a broken television in the room of guests from Philadelphia during the Eagles game, and two Code 50s, which is hotel talk for a clogged toilet.

Delivering a tall edible pastry sculpture and a book of presidential quotations to a guest's room, Mullins glances out the window, where she spies something that makes her frown. It is on a section of roof visible to the guest. She gets right on the phone to engineering.

"Okay, there's a Bud Light can out there," she says.

But all that is nothing compared with a near-disaster at 4 a.m. Sunday. A frozen sprinkler burst in the hotel's swank Westend Bistro, and a flood of up to five inches filled the place where the hotel is counting on serving hundreds of meals and hosting a buzzy late-night bar scene.

Hotel manager Kari Koskela rushed in from Reston. A wood restorer was summoned from Baltimore at dawn. The hardwood floor was drained and dried. It's probably ruined, but should survive the inauguration.

The Westend opened for lunch. The guests never knew the difference.

"That's what we do," Koskela said.

* * *

The Ritz's inauguration planning began a full year ago, as a kind of daydream where anything seemed possible.

Nightmares involving giant donkey-shaped topiaries started happening around November.

"I had this dream about this topiary that didn't come," Mullins told her department heads.

"I had the same nightmare," said Richard Hays, director of catering.

The green beast was penciled in as an elephant or a donkey, depending on the results of the election. The challenge was to have it arrive on time.

Nightmares are good, Mullins found out later: "If I had not had the nightmare, we wouldn't have checked and it wouldn't have come," she said.

At one meeting they voted on which of four styles of canvas tote bags would serve for the "survivor kits" that every guest would receive the night before the inauguration. They created an assembly line of hotel managers to fill 300 bags with lip balm, donkey-shaped mints, gum, a coffee thermos and so on.

Dana Pellicano, director of food and beverages, researched the candidates' favorite foods and home-state drinks to come up with menus and specialty cocktails.

"I cooked for Bono once," she said. "This might be cooler."

* * *

Nicholas Hockman, interim guest relations manager, inspects a room.

He flushes the toilet -- no Code 50. "Nothing more embarrassing," he shudders.

He is not happy that in the bathroom two of the towels bear cobalt blue Ritz monograms, and the rest have marble white lettering. He resolves to harmonize the towels.

"For my whole career I'll be able to tell people I have been part of the most historic election we've ever had," Hockman says.

The kitchens are located off the corridors that surround the ballroom. Open an unmarked door and find yourself in a hive of labor and art.

Working in teams, the cooks have already methodically arranged 750 plates of whole grain mustard-crusted chicken, a scoop of parsnip puree, two asparagus stalks, one carrot and one roasted tomato. Now, in the seconds before the waiters grab three plates each, Chef David Serus wipes stray spots of sauce from each one. All 750 plates are served in 12 minutes.

Up in the lobby, concierge Michael High can't keep the smile off his face, busy as he is, because he feels the energy, too. Working the concierge desk this weekend is like facing a fastball-pitching machine gone haywire.

"I'm loving it," High says. "The manager is looking at me like I'm on something."

Every inauguration yields up its concierge heroes who do the impossible and go down in concierge lore, like the guy from the Ritz eight years ago who hopped a shuttle to New York to retrieve jewelry for a guest.

This year, a guest named J.P. Ottino calls High in a panic. He lost $10,000 worth of VIP tickets to Joe Biden's home state ball. Thinks he threw them in the trash.

High finds the housekeeper who cleaned Ottino's room, searches her trash bags and comes up with the tickets. "Thank God she hadn't taken the bag down to the dumpster because then I was going in the dumpster," High says.

* * *

The nights end much as the days begin, with the doormen on the cobblestone drive giving their welcome.

Now the hired Town Cars, Navigators and Tahoes are ferrying guests returning from parties and balls. But it's complicated, because another set of folks is hailing their hired cars to take them out, while the neighborhood fills with traffic from other events. Gridlock.

In a rush of fur and wool, a family from Pine Bluff, Ark., by way of Chicago barrels after Robert Bornschein, another concierge.

The family's hired Town Car couldn't get closer than Pennsylvania Avenue, four long blocks away, so rather than bring the car to them, Bornschein decides to deliver the family to the car. They hustle to keep up with his brisk stride in his long gray concierge coat.

When last seen, one of the guests was laughing out the window of the car, lauding her concierge and the whole inaugural experience that is shaping up so splendidly. "Oh wow," she says. "This is great."

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