The Howard Inn would just as soon you forget Harambee House.
The African motif is gone, replaced by neo-art nouveau. The Kilimanjaro Room is now the Langston Room (after poet Langston Hughes) and the Haramba Supper Club is the Joplin (after composer Scott Joplin).
"Total change--we've got to sell that," said Ellis D. Norman, general manager of the hotel at 2225 Georgia Avenue NW. Norman, hired away from the University of California at Los Angeles to take over the hotel's operations, is reluctant to criticize previous owner Edward Murphy but aware of a certain image problem.
"Everybody has a horror story to tell about when they stayed at Harambee House," Norman said.
One of the horror stories about Harambee House was the federal government's. The Economic Development Administration, after 10 years of propping up the problem-plagued minority enterprise venture, sold the hotel to Howard University in March 1981 for $1.3 million. EDA estimated it lost $10 million during its years of grants and debt-forgiving.
It had been planned as the nation's largest black-owned hotel, a luxurious facility catering to black professionals that would revitalize a rundown part of the city. Instead, it was a mess.
Howard University, which dominates the neighborhood where the hotel is located, bought the hotel to use as a teaching aid in a new course of study in hotel-motel management in its School of Business and Public Administration.
Since Howard took over the hotel, the building has been renovated extensively at a cost of about $500,000, new staff has been added and old staff retrained. While that process was under way, no efforts were made to sell people on using the hotel, and occupancy fell slightly to approximately 50 percent. Now Norman and his sales staff plan an aggressive marketing campaign.
In looks, the hotel compares favorably to major downtown hotels. Fresh flowers decorate the lobby and the restaurant. The Stacks bar is upholstered in dusty rose, softly illuminated by frosted glass Tiffany-type light fixtures and features a travertine marble bar.
The hotel's 150 rooms are attractive and moderately priced--$50 to $60. Except on the ninth floor, where $10 more a night buys you a newspaper and coffee in the morning and the bed turned back at night, or where you may rent a more expensive suite with kitchen and balcony. In addition, the hotel has a spa--with exercise equipment and saunas--and a pool.
Part of the renovation included adding meeting rooms to the hotel. When Harambee House was built, it was designed like a resort hotel with few facilities to accommodate business meetings and conferences. In the hotel's new incarnation, 10 rooms on the third floor have been turned into soundproof meeting space that can be reconfigured to meet the needs of different groups.
Other changes include using Howard University's security staff to provide security for the hotel and its parking garage about a half block away. Howard's book store also runs the hotel's gift shop.
"We didn't go out with a marketing program to increase occupancy right away," Norman said. "We took a more conservative approach, renovating it to make it look like a first-class place."
What Norman envisions is a fine hotel that takes advantage of both the fact that it is owned by a black institution and the fact that it is associated with a major university to appeal to an integrated, professional audience. "We're really competing for the same customers as the other hotels," Norman said.
The hotel has targeted four markets. One is university-related business--parents, alumni at homecoming, visiting faculty and people attending seminars. People who need to stay near Howard University Hospital are another part of that market.
The hotel also hopes to sell its services to groups, professional people who are visiting Washington and vacationers. Norman said that the hotel is promoting Eastern seaboard tours through Amtrak and its advertising agency, Abramson Associates. The hotel recently started advertising in national newspapers and magazines, including Essence and Black Enterprise.
One disadvantage still confronting the Howard Inn is location. No Metro station will be built nearby and the neighborhood has a worn out, industrial look.
But the worst eyesore in the neighborhood--a junkyard across the street from the hotel that was famous as part of its view--is moving. A court order about two months ago finally solved the long-standing problem for the hotel, and junk and debris are being removed. Howard University has purchased the land and will pave it for parking.
In the fall, Howard University's School of Business and Public Administration will offer, for the first time, a bachelor's degree in business administration with a specialty in hotel-motel management. The curriculum has been designed by Gadis Nowell, chairman of the school's department of management with the help of an advisory council that includes the Marriott Corp., the Shoreham, Sheraton and Hilton hotels here and Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union Local 25.
The other hotels have offered their facilities to be used for on-the-job training in addition to the Howard Inn, Nowell said. "Our long-run goal is to spread the program's management internships out, not only in the states but also in the Caribbean," he said.
The course will require students to have 61 hours of general education, approximately 47 hours of basic business education and 21 hours of courses specifically about hotel-motel managment. In addition, the course will require "several hundred" hours of actual work experience.
Nowell said that many of the prospective students who have contacted the school are from Northern Virginia Community College, which has courses in hotel-motel administration. In the long run, the school hopes to coordinate its curriculum with both NOVA and Montgomery County Community College, another two-year school that might feed into the Howard program.
"The program has great promise--that's why we're excited about it," Nowell said.
Other schools have similar programs, including Cornell and Michigan State University, which also have hotels associated with the programs. Norman is a Michigan graduate who unsuccessfully applied for about 100 jobs after he finished his courses. At the time, hotels were not hiring blacks in visible positions.
So far the hotel is running at a loss. Local banks supplied financing for the purchase and renovations and carrying costs, according to Caspar Harris, Howard University vice president for business and fiscal affairs. But "we're going to recover it all," he said.
Harris said that the Howard Inn is a wholly owned subsidiary of Howard University, as is its radio station WHUR. The hotel is a commercial enterprise, paying taxes like any other commercial enterprise. When the hotel begins to generate a profit, most will probably go to the business school to be used in the hotel-motel training program, he said. The decision will be up to the university's board of trustees.
The hotel operates the restaurant, the bars, the spas and other operations as separate profit centers.
But when will it make money?
"We're shooting for after another year," Norman said. "Our projections are that we will be profitable in three to five years, but inside, we feel we should be able to do it after our second year."