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Putting on the Glitz for Inauguration Day

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 2, 1996; Page F05

Colleen Evans, public relations director at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, is so excited she can't quite contain her enthusiasm.

"Oh yeah, it's going to be something else," she says breathlessly, talking so close to the receiver at her Connecticut Avenue beauty parlor that she worries her hair dye will smudge the phone.

"We're bringing in Irene the DNC Donkey," she said. "And she's holding her own press conference during the inauguration outside the hotel."

That's all very well, but at the Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City, spokeswoman Vivian Deuschl said the Socks Suite already is under construction. Complete with a little red presidential hot line. A full designer wardrobe of inaugural kitty wear. Videos from Arkansas in case Socks gets homesick. Heaps of gourmet cat food. And the piece de resistance: music from the Broadway musical "Cats" on the stereo.

"It's going to be absolutely incredible," Deuschl gushes.

Meanwhile, the Grand Hyatt is lavishly promoting its $53,000 guest package, which includes a Lear jet ride to Washington for the 53rd presidential inauguration, a Jackie O-inspired inaugural gown, the hotel's top suite, a limo and a catered party for 30 of your closest friends.

Says Nancie McFaul, Grand Hyatt spin doctor: "This is big."

Or is it?

"Oh please, it's obvious the Grand Hyatt is in it just for the PR," said a public relations executive for a rival District hotel who asked not to be named. "They'll never sell it. It's just a gimmick to get some publicity."

So go the inauguration wars at Washington's hotels, vicious battles of chocolates depicting the First Couple and cocktails with names such as the "Socks Tail" that erupt like clockwork every four years in the nation's capital as participants vie for center stage during the inevitable media blitz.

"Inauguration is something that nobody else has, it's the one thing that happens in this city that never happens anywhere else," said Emily Vetter, president of the Washington D.C. Hotel Association. "It's a way to steal a piece of the limelight, a chance to get some national press."

Although local hoteliers' attempts at one-upsmanship date back decades, many versed in the arts of Washington public relations said one-upsmanship escalated in the 1980s, when the Ritz-Carlton at Dupont Circle began putting little chocolate doves on guests' pillows during the Reagan-Gorbachev peace talks. By so doing, the Ritz threw down the proverbial gauntlet, and the town's hotel public relations directors were more than happy to pick it up.

Yet if hotels generally are booked to the gills with guests during the inauguration anyway, why do they feel compelled to put on such a gaudy show?

Think of it as a gaggle of grandees and grande dames at an elegant ball. Of course everyone is invited, but who will be the best dressed?

"During the inauguration, it's show time for Washington hotels," Deuschl said. "It's your chance to say, `Hey, look at us, we're the best hotel in town, and we'll prove it by getting the most media attention.' . . . But it's also a way to impress your guests. With a little luck, if they find these gimmicks at all amusing, they'll come back or recommend the hotel to their friends."

This year, the Ritz-Carlton at Dupont Circle will be knee-deep in promotions. The hotel is developing a mold for a chocolate bridge emblematic of President Clinton's new theme of a building a bridge to the next millennium. It has begun a trivia training course for its employees, teaching them minutia such as Clinton's favorite fast food and the name of Vice President Gore's high school.

The Ritz also is pushing its third Presidential Package. For $30,000, guests will receive four nights in the 1,685-square-foot Presidential Suite, Cristal Champagne and Beluga caviar served daily, and a gourmet dinner for 12 in the suite's private dining room.

Sound like the lavish package being offered this year for the first time by the Grand Hyatt?

"Hmmm, well," Deuschl said. "Let's just say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

If the Ritz and Grand Hyatt's extravaganzas are too rich for your blood, there's always the poor man's presidential package at the Washington Hilton. For $10,000, guests will receive four nights in the hotel's top suite, a four-course private dinner for 12, tickets to the Phillips Collection and the Hilton's inaugural ball, and more.

Frank Passanante, the Hilton's director of sales and marketing, admits the truth behind his inauguration special. "I know it probably won't sell, [nor will the packages offered] by the other hotels," he said. "We're doing it mostly for the ink. We were in the Wall Street Journal last week."

Passanante said, "But we are offering this other promotion. If you pay full price for a suite [from $475 to $1,220], then we'll give you a coupon to stay in that suite again for free later in the year. Would you please print that? That's the one we really think is going to sell, not the other thing."

At the Loew's L'Enfant Plaza, inaugural cocktails are designed to whet the appetite of inaugural guests -- and of course, the press. At the hotel's bar, Loew's will be serving up the Tennessee Sipper (Tennessee sour mash, ginger ale and orange juice) in deference to Gore, as well as the aforementioned Socks Tail (scotch, Kahlua, cream) as a bow to the first feline.

But Loew's won't stop there. At turn-down each night, guests will discover a chocolate chip cookie, made from Hillary Clinton's special recipe, bottled Tennessee and Arkansas water and a poem that poses no threat to Maya Angelou:

For those midnight munchies the answer is here
Hillary's Cookies for you and your dear.
Now, drink your Tennessee and Arkansas water.
And then I'll bet your bottom dollar
If you drink it all down
You'll become a Rhodes scholar.

Somehow standing above it all is the Sheraton Washington, where inauguration more or less will be promotion-free.

"I think everybody is vying for the spotlight, and, well, we're simply not interested in that," said Kathleen Keenan at the hotel, with 1,343 rooms one of the area's largest. "We just don't feel like we need to come up with gimmicks. Even though we know that in Washington, that's the thing to do during the inauguration."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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