Standing in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton hotel on M Street NW on Wednesday, Paul Westbrook watched on TV as Sen. John F. Kerry conceded his electoral defeat. Before Kerry finished, he turned around and marched downstairs to a conference room and went to work.
"Does everybody agree on the hat?" asked Westbrook, the hotel's general manager, inquiring whether his senior staff thought that having hotel staff wear Stetson cowboy hats with Ritz-Carlton pins on them during President Bush's inauguration week would be too kitschy. "Because I asked an employee today and they said they think it's a little much."
The votes are counted, mostly. The campaign signs have been torn down, and election night hangovers have dissipated. But for travel-related businesses in Washington, the campaign has just begun. The presidential inauguration is typically the most lucrative single week for the city's hospitality industry in any four-year span, said several veteran hotel executives. Businesses have begun an intense competition to get the most of the potential windfall -- and ensure they're ready when the time comes.
Hotels in the District had $26.9 million more revenue in January 2001, the last presidential inauguration, than in January 2000, a 51 percent increase, according to Smith Travel Research. Sales during inauguration week boost revenue figures for caterers, car services, florists and restaurants by tens of millions of dollars, say people in the hospitality business, though no reliable data are available. Spending tends to be concentrated in the District, but hotels and restaurants in close-in suburbs say they benefit as well. The strong business historically has continued through the spring, as Congress returns to session and lobbyists court the new political appointees.
In general, executives of travel-related businesses say that inaugurations tend to be less lavish in years when a president has been reelected and provide fewer new faces to schmooze in the months that follow.
"When there's a change in administration, there's a completely new round of lobbying and getting to know the players," said George Terpilowki, general manager of the Fairmont Hotel. "With a reelection, there are always changes in people in the administration, but not as much."
Still, hotel executives say all signs point to a boom for the inauguration and months after, as the city's tourism economy has been recovering for a solid year. One potential hang-up is the possibility of a labor dispute; 14 large D.C. hotels and their employees have been at an impasse over a new contract since Sept. 15, and hotel workers in San Francisco are locked out of their workplaces in a similar dispute.
For now, though, the region's hospitality businesses are getting ready for a party.
At Morton's, the Steakhouse on Connecticut Avenue NW, sales and marketing manager Tracy Yewell came to work Wednesday morning ready for a barrage of calls from clients looking to set up events during inauguration week; four years ago, the American Film Institute rented out the restaurant for all of Inauguration Day for an event with hundreds of attendees. Yewell also rented out private rooms for several smaller events during the week.
At first, the phones were silent Wednesday morning when there still seemed a distant possibility Kerry would prevail in Ohio on the strength of provisional ballots. When he conceded, several hours later, the onslaught began. "We have seven phone lines," said Yewell. "At any given time I have people calling about inauguration events on two or three of them."
At 3Citron Caterers in the District, which serves mainly large corporate events, the inauguration looms as a big time of year. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the company lost $750,000 worth of corporate business within 72 hours, Creative Director David Magsumbol said. He expects a series of concentrated events tied to the inauguration will give a 15 percent to 20 percent bump in annual sales. Already, he said, the firm has booked about a half-dozen events, serving between 400 and 1,000 people, generally big companies that want to entertain clients that week.
He feels relieved just to be able to make those detailed plans. For the Washington hospitality world, the 2000 election was a disaster.
"Last time it was confusing because no one knew what they were planning," Magsumbol said. "There's a limited amount of inaugural spaces. It was so much easier when the Clintons were in. They won, and it was easy, you just moved forward."
Underground at the Ritz-Carlton on Tuesday, a roomful of senior staffers sat around a long table and plotted their offerings for the weeks ahead. The employees went around the table, throwing in ideas of what the hotel should keep in mind as it readies for the big week. General manager Westbrook expects about 600 people to be interested in staying in the hotel's 300 rooms in the West End and 86 rooms in a location in Georgetown. Reservations will go only to those willing to prepay for their rooms, at the hotel's highest rates, and for a minimum of four days. Even then, the rooms will have to be parceled out to good customers, Westbrook said Tuesday, based on the constant ring in the hotel's sales office.
Tuesday, they were just brainstorming what guests might require when they arrive.
"Make sure we have lots of seamstresses on hand to fix popped buttons," said Vivian Deuschl, vice president of public relations for Ritz-Carlton nationally. And waiting on those parade routes in January can be long and cold. "What about having hand warmers in the minibars?" she said.
"We have to make sure that we can deliver all these things," Westbrook said. "Vivian had a great idea to have a photographer catch every guest going out the door to their balls, take a digital photograph, then have the photo waiting for them in a silver frame when they get back to the room that night. And it's a fantastic idea, but it's a logistical nightmare. I mean, how embarrassing would it be for someone to come to their room and there's the wrong picture waiting for them."
The ideas kept flowing, each written in turn on a paper easel and divvied up among the executives to work out the details. Westbrook guesses about half of them will ultimately be executed when the big day comes.
"This is our Oscars, our Emmys, our big celebration," said Deuschl, a longtime Ritz executive. "It's the one time that it's okay in Washington to show your exuberance."