Connie Sellecca, 3,700 omelets, 90 housekeepers, 35,000 dirty dishes, 1,100 pounds of potatoes O'Brien and the president of the United States-it was just another day at the Washington Hilton SEVEN HUNDRED PEOPLE ARE CHECKING INTO THE HOTEL. SEVEN Hundred people are checking out. Most of them seem to be in the lobby just now, snatching keys, haggling over bills and dodging the carts laden with luggage that rumble across the room. Through this pandemonium wanders a ravishing, if somewhat disoriented, young woman in blue jeans and a gray leather coat. For 20 minutes she has been standing at the registration desk, only to learn that she has no reservation. Now she awaits an assistant manager to inquire whether there has been some mistake and whether she has a place to sleep. "I've never seen anything like this," she says. There is a dazed look in the eyes that have shone from a thousand cosmetics advertisements. She seems more fragile in person than on television and vaguely less mature. Of course, this never would have happened to her on television. On television she was the Queen of ABC's "Hotel" and James Brolin was her King. Not once, in five seasons, were they forced to stand in line. But this, alas, is reality, and in the whirlwind that precedes a sellout, even Connie Sellecca has to bide her time. Welcome to the Washington Hilton. Convention season is in full flower, and the sleep-deprived staff is going cordially crazy. Beginning each January, just after Congress goes into session, until late spring, the hotel is flooded with huge numbers of hospital administrators, credit union managers and other practitioners of special interest. Their agendas are threefold: to meet, to eat and to lobby Congress. The Hilton makes its money by satisfying their non-legislative demands. There are a hundred other hotels in Washington, but the Hilton, the Sheraton-Washington, the Omni Shoreham, the Grand Hyatt and the J.W. Marriott dominate the $564 million meetings and convention market. Central to these hotels' appeal is their daunting vastness. The Hilton, a 10-story building (not counting a subterranean convention level and two basements) shaped like a slightly asymmetrical seagull in flight, boasts 1,150 guest rooms, the largest hotel ballroom in the city, a cavernous exhibition hall and 29 rooms that can be set for either meals or meetings. General manager William Edwards Jr. has compared the hotel to an aircraft carrier and likened his own job to being mayor of a small city. There is truth in these similes, but they don't do justice to this peculiar institution. What Edwards presides over is a benevolent dictatorship staffed by 1,100 people who speak 27 languages and earn anywhere from $17,000 to $70,000 a year. It is a businessperson's Disneyland, a rentable, self-contained and entirely fabricated environment that takes on whatever personality the conventioneers project. It is the backdrop for much of the high-level, ego-inflating, agenda-adjusting cocktail-party chitchat in town. And it hums with activity, most of it behind the scenes, from long before sunup until well after last call. 4 a.m. A QUICK SURVEY OF THE KITCHEN personnel reveals that no one is happy. Not Barry Higham, the sous-chef who has just blanched 100 pounds of potatoes. Not Jose Fletes, the restaurant kitchen supervisor, who is brewing 360 gallons of regular coffee and 110 gallons of decaf. Not Dave Wormsby, the assistant executive steward, who is trying to figure out where he and his staff will pour 111 gallons of orange juice. The president of the United States will be arriving in several hours along with several Cabinet members, a Supreme Court justice and a wide receiver. They will be joined by two busloads of senators and congressmen and roughly 3,600 others. The occasion is the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event at which Christians from many lands testify to the presence of God in their lives. At this particular moment in the kitchen, divine intervention would be most appreciated. Breakfast for 3,700 is no picnic, particularly on the heels of dinner for 2,000. By nightfall, executive chef Gordon Marsh and his kitchen staff will have served 9,300 meals in a 24-hour period, about four times their average. This is a strain, even with a kitchen as vast as the Hilton's. The red-tiled room with white sandstone walls cuts a curving 12,000 - square - foot swath along the spine of the International Ballroom and is alive with shiny silver equipment: 25 ovens, four mammoth tilting skillets, 100-gallon steam kettles and 80-quart mixing vats that stand 5 1/2 feet high. A special pastry kitchen is tucked in a rear alcove near the chef's office, and a kosher kitchen stands, caged and locked, in the middle of the room. Preparations for this morning's meal actually began 15 weeks earlier, when Becky Krantz, acting director of catering, met with representatives of the Prayer Breakfast to decide on a menu. What the Prayer Breakfast people chose was not particularly challenging from a culinary point of view: cheddar cheese omelets (purchased frozen), potatoes O'Brien and peach halves stuffed with chutney. It is Krantz's thesis that the lowly reputation of hotel kitchens stems largely from the cautious selections of event planners who make their mistakes on the side of blandness. She hates the phrase "rubber-chicken circuit" and thinks the image of her profession will improve dramatically once planners realize that people aren't afraid of "a nice little curry." Pre-breakfast preparations seem to be proceeding almost too smoothly when the doors to the International Ballroom swing open and Richard Andrekanic, the assistant banquet headwaiter, blows in. "I was told gold service for the head table. I wasn't told bone," he says and begins hunting up the proper plates. "Who put out the bone?" 5:10 a.m. JOSEPH BOYKINS IS SACKED out in the uniform room on the kitchen level of the hotel. His seat occupies one chair, his feet occupy another. The Hilton keeps 40 banquet waiters on its staff, and normally that's enough. But there's nothing normal about the Prayer Breakfast, so the Hospitality Industry Service Corp. is sending 206 men and women, such as Boykins, for the morning shift and 124 for lunch and dinner. They straggle down 19th Street NW in the dark and slip through the employees' entrance, where a large round clock surrounded by timecards hangs from the wall. At the security desk, a guard stands monitoring entrances, exits, stairwells and lobbies on six small television screens. The waiters sign in, turn the corner to the uniform room and, pulling off their overcoats, begin the search for a well-fitting service jacket emblazoned with the Hilton name. Then, chatting mostly in Spanish, they wait for their table assignments. "All my life I worked with machines and tools, but there's nothing around here like that," Boykins says. "That's why I do this kind of work." He is retired from the Air Force and collects Social Security and a small pension. "But it ain't enough. If I don't save nothing, then I don't have nothing. So I try to put something aside for the lean times." 6 a.m. A WELL-CHOREOGRAPHED MADNESS IS about to be unleashed in the kitchen. They call it the dish-up. In the next hour, 3,700 omelets and 1,100 pounds of potatoes must be pulled from ovens and skillets, hustled to "dish-up stations" and spooned onto plates. All this before the waiters even begin to think about serving anybody. If the dish-up goes badly, the meal gets cold or soggy or both. When the main course is once-frozen omelets, either malady is fatal. The exercise is made all the more difficult by the fact that Secret Service agents are now ensconced in the kitchen. At every doorway stands an agent with a hand-held magnetometer (metal detector). Every chef, cook and waiter has to be probed (or "magged," as the Secret Service says) whenever they enter or leave the kitchen and whenever they enter the ballroom. This makes for an enormous human traffic jam just several feet away from where the dish-up is about to begin. The central figures in this ritual are six three-person teams arrayed around a 52-foot-long stainless-steel table that stands in the center of the room. As though on cue, chef Marsh and his cooks hoist tubs of potatoes from the skillets and rush toward the table. On their heels come the tall, six-tiered aluminum carts called Queen Annes, each of them loaded with trays of plump yellow omelets. As soon as the trays clatter to the table, the dish-up teams begin plating-up (the verb derived from dish-up). The lead chef slides his spatula beneath an omelet and plops it onto the plate. His cohort counters with a serving-spoonful of potatoes and a quivering peach half. Their assistant clamps a silver lid on top of the finished product and sets it beside him on the table. When the stack of completed plates gets too high, the assistant whirls and thrusts it into a warming oven, which is basically an insulated chest on wheels. The stacked plates sit on shelves, looking like pagodas above cans of blue-flamed Sterno. The room, at this point, is nearly impassable. Chefs bearing food scuttle between ovens and dish-up, Queen Annes veer through tight spaces, and the already-magged waiters clog the only throughfare. At the far end of the dish-up line, beside a low table filled with glasses, 10 grown men leap up and down gesticulating wildly. It has the look of an interpretive dance, but actually they're just shaking up the orange juice. 7:35 a.m. THE PRESIDENT'S AR- rivals and departures are always touchy times for Al Fury, the Hilton's director of security. He was there on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley started shooting. "The limo wasn't at the door that day," he says. "They had it at an angle down in the driveway. If he'd gotten in the car at the door the way he had at the arrival, it probably never would have happened. In those days they cared more about public relations than they did about security." No longer. The police are blocking T Street between Connecticut Avenue and 19th Street, and all the hotel's guests are being kept inside the building. The Secret Service patrols the T Street entrance, and Fury stands at his post, the squat garage with bulletproof doors that the hotel built in the fall of 1985. It stands just up the driveway from where James Brady fell. "This is a dream, having this fort," Fury says. "You're talking about three and four feet thick of concrete and steel." He is re- sponsible for opening and closing the doors, a job that is harder than it sounds. One day he nearly took Larry Speakes' head off. "He was taking his good old time and the Secret Service are yelling, 'Bring the door down. Bring the door down.' I was caught between doing my job and almost beheading somebody." The president visits the Hilton so often that he's got a special hydraulic elevator to carry him down to his private waiting room. Fury thinks Bush is a regular guy because he often walks the single flight from the garage. The Reagans, "especially Mrs. Reagan," always took the elevator, he says. The "holding room," used only for presidential or vice presidential visits, is equipped with seven phone jacks, including a hot line to the White House. The furnishings are colonial, only more so. Prints of George Washington adorn the walls, and in the adjoining black-tiled bathroom hang towels bearing Bush's monogram. Despite the agents' familiarity with the hotel, the Secret Service has suffered some of its darker moments here, ranging from the trauma of the assassination attempt to the embarrassment of an unnecessary evacuation during a 1976 visit by President Gerald Ford. Twenty-eight hundred people were milling about in the International Ballroom that day when an agent spotted a paper bag labeled "Gerry" hidden in the rafters. The ballroom was emptied, the bag was seized. "A petrified sandwich," Bill Edwards remembers. "Some construction worker named Gerry left his lunch there when they were building the ballroom in 1965." This morning they have already "swept" the ballroom and the kitchen. They have set up airport-like metal detectors to examine all breakfast guests. They have taken up positions in every stairwell and doorway that leads to the ballroom, the kitchen or the long audio-visual booth that curves above the ballroom. "They are very nervous guys," Fury says. "One mistake can mean their career." At 7:40 the president's limousine glides up the driveway and into the garage. Fury lowers the door. The president steps from the car and into the hotel, where he is greeted by Stephen Opdyke, the hotel's resident manager, who is pinch-hitting for Edwards, his boss, who is in San Diego. Opdyke's wife, Maureen, is expecting their third child any moment now, and he's having a little trouble concentrating. Maybe that's why he calls John Sununu "Mr. Secretary." 8 a.m. SANDRA SMITH IS HAVING TROUBLE getting motivated. "For one thing, I didn't feel like coming to work today. For a second thing . . ." Her voice trails off. She and her fellow housekeepers are still recovering from yesterday when one huge convention (the Reserve Officers Association) checked out just hours before another huge convention (the National Prayer Breakfast, featuring Connie Sellecca) checked in. Generally, this kind of turnover precipitates a housekeeping disaster. Guest rooms are supposed to be ready by 3 p.m., but checkout time isn't until 1. So if every client in each of a housekeeper's 16 rooms checks out at 1, she's got only two hours to complete eight hours' worth of work. In every room the drill is the same: scrub the toilet, scrub the tub, scrub the sink; polish the chrome and clean the mirrors; replenish the soap, shampoo and hand lotion; strip the beds; make the beds; dust the drapes and windowsills; check for lost belongings and make sure that every room has eight hangers for each guest and two bags for laundry. "There's nothing hard about it, if you've got the time," says Smith, who came to the Hilton 10 months ago from another housekeeping job. "But if you have 16 checkouts, forget about it." Somehow yesterday, the 70-member housekeeping staff, with the aid of 20 temporary helpers, worked a minor miracle. Steve Opdyke and Ted Radcliffe, the hotel's third in command, have come to their morning meeting to extend congratulations. "It was perfect," Radcliffe says. "The front desk had so many rooms to sell that they didn't even notice." The two managers are the only white people in this room lined with the tools of a housekeeper's trade: towels, bedspreads, foldout cots, vacuums, draperies and boxes full of miniature Safeguard soaps. Like Smith, many of the housekeepers are black, others are Hispanic, still others Asian. They live primarily in Prince George's County, Southeast Washington and Hispanic enclaves in Adams-Morgan. In a service economy, the hotel business has become the first rung on the economic ladder for large numbers of immigrants and working poor. Just a look at the list of the hotel's Employees of the Month gives a sense of the staff's ethnic diversity: Pavlos Georgopoulos, Unnikrishnan Padinjarth, Hoan Tran, Shirley Owusu, Ana Gomerz, Damon Lowe. The staff consists so thoroughly of minorities that when a Japanese travel agent asked for a photo of a handsome, white, room-service waiter, the hotel had to recruit an assistant manager to model for the shot. The Hilton receives an average of 80 to 100 employment applications per week and hires about 30 people each month. Many of those who apply cannot prove they are in this country legally. Some don't speak enough English to take instruc- tions and can't be hired. Others need extensive training to handle a "hospitality" job like desk clerk or telephone operator. "The toughest question I get on our guest reply forms is, 'Why don't you hire people who speak English?' " Edwards says. "What I say is, 'First, they are all Americans. Second, they all speak English. And third, what's your problem? It's America. Your parents didn't speak English.' " Jean Talbott, director of human resources, says it is a mistake to stereotype the hotel's immigrant job applicants. "A lot of professional people from other countries, teachers and accountants, who can't get the certification they need to work in this country, come to us," she says. "If anything, they are overqualified, and they are very willing to work." Sandra Smith chose the Hilton because she was always fascinated by hotels, the different kinds of people, the constant comings and goings. It may seem to an outsider that a housekeeper wouldn't have much traffic with the hotel's more glamorous clientele, but Smith says it isn't true. "Once you get in the room and they start talking to you, they are liable to tell you anything." 9:17 a.m. THE HEAD TABLE (GOLD service, not bone) includes the following people and most of their spouses: Sen. Charles Grassley, Art Monk, Billy Graham, Secretary of State James Baker, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Rep. Bob Stump, the president, Sen. Alan Simpson, Marilyn Quayle, the premier of Nova Scotia, Sen. Paul Simon and Rep. Ike Skelton. The audience includes Sen. George Mitchell, Jack Kemp, Al and Tipper Gore, Ed Meese and Donna Rice. Donna Rice? The National Prayer Breakfast has been held at the Hilton for 23 years, lured here chiefly by the seating capacity of the Hilton's two ballrooms (3,100 in the International, 950 more in a separate seating in the Crystal). The breakfast is a somewhat cantankerous client, insisting on a brand of secrecy alien to the hotel industry, which thrives on publicity. Only two or three pool reporters are permitted at the breakfast, and a photographer with Secret Service clearance was permitted only 5 minutes' access to the audio-visual corridor. Exactly what must be kept secret is not at all clear. The only distinguishing physical characteristic of the Prayer Breakfast is a network of antennas that allows for simultaneous translation of the speeches and Scripture readings. The tone, while obviously religious, is Rotarian in its blandness. "There is no greater peace than that which comes from prayer," Bush says during his brief address. Perhaps, but knowing that the 35,000 pieces of china, flatware and glasses that you used at breakfast will be ready for lunch comes pretty close. Food and beverage director Tracy Marks' quest for that peace accounts for the clamor vaguely audible in the rear of the ballroom. In the kitchen, waiters dash about bearing trays heavy with plates and glasses. One group of stewards scrapes garbage into plastic containers while others separate silver from glass from china. The whole mess is arranged on a conveyor belt that sweeps it away to cleanliness. This is a deconstructionist's version of the dish-up. On the dais, Susan Baker leads the closing prayer. 10:05 a.m. THE CRYSTAL BALL- room is about to be "turned over." For those who don't speak hotel, to turn over a room means to dismantle and then reassemble it, to strike one set and put up another. What the dish-up is for the kitchen staff, the turn-over is for the housemen -- a test of speed, coordination and strength. The importance of "turning" a room quickly springs from the need to use every available inch of meeting space. As Prayer Breakfast guests stream out of the ballroom, four teams of 13 housemen cruise in ready to make it over. The Crystal's transformation is often the most radical in the building. Retractable walls that slide across the room break the long, curving space into four standard-size meeting spaces. In each of these newly created rooms stands a crew chief clutching a diagram of what the area should look like within the next 20 minutes. Round tables go rolling out one door as rectangular tables are lugged through another. Tall columns of chairs jut up from the ballroom floor. Carts loaded with collapsible furniture whiz across the room. Just to keep things lively, the housemen race against their own best times. "You get going where you're breathing hard and the sweat starts dripping and we look at each other and laugh," says John Wilson. At the moment, though, Wilson is not sweating at all. He's drawn one of the easier assignments in the Crystal turnover. With all the tables set, he is making sure every seminar participant has a complimentary pad and pencil. 11:15 a.m. MIKE MAIMONE, JACK Nichols and Victor Barahona are grabbing a smoke in the hallway outside the service elevator on the sixth floor. Mike is a painter. Jack is an electrician. Victor is a locksmith. Engineering is filled with specialists -- heating and air-conditioning specialists, mechanics, plumbers, TV repairmen, elevator repairmen and carpenters, not to mention a licensed commercial engineer who runs two 1,100-horsepower boilers, four electrical switchboards and two huge air-conditioning units with a capacity of 12 million BTUs. "If you pick up any stone, you see me under the stone," says Otkay Dikmen, the director of engineering and a man of no small self-confidence. Maimone and his crew are working today off what is known as the punch list, a sort of room-by-room job jar. In 6204, for instance, the entrance needs caulking and the sprinkler head is missing a cover. In 6205, the toilet won't stop running, and in 6206 some holes need patching where a picture was rehung. The hotel's infrastructure goes largely unnoticed unless something goes wrong, as it did on the morning of July 27, 1985. One of the hotel's electrical switchboards exploded into flames that burned for two hours. More than 3,800 guests had to be evacuated, and the hotel was closed for five weeks while all its switching apparatus was replaced. In less catastrophic times, the engineering department is simply charged with keeping the place together. This requires a certain diplomacy and a flexible schedule. "You can't make a lot of noise while the guests are still in their rooms," Maimone says. "So you got to take it easy in the morning and give it hell in the afternoon." The Mid-Morning Meeting space THE WASHINGTON HILTON HIERAR-chy includes a sales department, marketing department, conventions services department, food and beverage department, catering department, engineering department, human resources department, security department, housekeeping department, communications (phones) department, purchasing department and front office. The bureaucracy is broad, but necessary. Consider this morning's National Prayer Breakfast. After the sales department books the event, Curtis Brown of the front office, Becky Krantz of catering and Kitty O'Hearn of convention services swing into action. Brown needs to know when the bulk of the breakfast guests will be checking in, whether another group is checking out that day and, if so, what kind of womanpower problems that creates for Dorothy McCallum, director of housekeeping. Curtis also researches the Prayer Breakfast's 23-year history with the hotel. This tells him how many of those peo- ple who reserve rooms can be counted on to show up. He passes this on to his front desk staff, and they use it as a rough gauge of how many rooms they are likely to have available that night. Krantz devises menus and passes that information on to Tony Nieves, director of purchasing, and Tracy Marks, director of the food and beverage services, the person who confronts the logistical questions: Double shifts? Extra waiters? Bone china for the head table? Once menus have been chosen, Nieves breaks them down to their component parts and puts those ingredients out for bid to at least three suppliers. Since Nieves also buys for the Capitol and McLean Hiltons, he exerts substantial leverage on local vendors. "I insist that we get the lowest price they are offering," he says. His domain is a dark and somewhat chilly series of hallways, large storerooms and walk-in freezers. Aside from handling special orders, like the Prayer Breakfast, he maintains a steady, supermarket-size inventory that supplies the hotel's three bars, its two restaurants, the room-service kitchen and the employee cafeteria. Nieves also buys most of the hotel's kitchen equipment. One of his storerooms is filled with chafing dishes, serving trays and silver tea sets, giving it the look of a place where duplicate shower gifts have gone to die. For this morning's breakfast, he continued on page 54 leased extra china, flatware, glasses and linen, the Big Four of the banquet business. Meanwhile, O'Hearn, working with public space manager Herb Doyal, draws up a plan detailing where the group's meetings will be held, how each room will be set up and whether the exhibition hall will be needed. Since the Prayer Breakfast people are not bringing in an armored personnel carrier as the Reserve Officers Society did the week before, engineering won't need to shore up the floor. At the top of this hierarchy sits the general manager, William Edwards Jr., who was raised, quite literally, in the hotel business. His father, William Sr., met his wife, Peggy, while he was an assistant manager at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh and she was singing with a big band in the hotel lounge. "It was like a '40s movie," William Jr. says. "He sent her roses backstage." William Jr. grew up living in hotels like the Palmer House in Chicago and the Statler in Detroit as his father worked his way up the corporate ladder. After getting out of the Army in 1971, William Jr. also enlisted with Hilton, working at the Washington Hilton, the Capitol Hilton and the Omaha Hilton before becoming general manager of the San Diego Hilton in 1978. He returned to the Washington Hilton as general manager in 1984. "I like this town," he says. "I would like my kids to stabilize here." His father, meanwhile, lives atop the Beverly Hills Hilton, where he has just retired as vice chairman of the company. 12:19 p.m. space space THE EMPLOY- ee cafeteria looks like a school lunchroom. Valentine's Day decorations hung on walls and pillars give the place a kind of industrial homeyness. The specialty of the house today is tacos, and the crowd, swollen with the extra waiters, is so thick that people are eating on their feet. The cafeteria is the most democratic spot in the hotel. At one table sits Chuck Ashman and his marketing staff attired in suits and ties. Beside them sit a table of housemen, sleeves rolled up, the rags they use for grip or leverage hanging from their pockets. Almost every employee in the building will pass through this room in the course of the day. As a result, the cafeteria has become the emotional reinforcement center, the locus of management's attempts to convince the labor force that it understands and cares about them. The portraits and profiles of black achievers that hang on the wall are part of that effort, as are the Employee of the Month photographs that hang nearby. So, for that matter, is the entire cafeteria operation, which feeds each employee one free meal per shift. One of the ironies of the hotel business is that housekeepers, phone operators, waiters, desk clerks and assistant managers usually have a much greater impact on how guests perceive the hotel than do the highly educated and intensely ambitious members of the executive committee. "Generally speaking, in a hotel this size, the management staff is only as good as the line employees," Edwards says, "because they are the ones who are in the room with the guests, not me." To keep relations with employees cordial, the Hilton holds role-reversing quarterly luncheons, where management serves the employees, and sponsors the courtesy committee, an employee-elected group that organizes picnics and other special events for the staff. None of this succeeds quite as well as handing out raises and promotions. The hotel business is notoriously transient, especially at the management level, but the Washington Hilton boasts a raft of bottom-up success stories. Dorothy McCallum, director of housekeeping, was once a housekeeper herself. Convention services manager Willie Cromartie began as a houseman. Assistant director of food and beverage services Emmanuel Bully began as a dishwasher. And the process continues. John Wilson, who was handing out pads and pencils in the Crystal Ballroom this morning, has an interview with Al Fury this afternoon. He's interested in an opening in the security department. Wilson's plan is to work as a hotel security officer for a few years to build up his credentials and then apply for a job on the D.C. police force. 1:20 p.m. space space THE TOPIC IN the Georgetown West Room is auto loans. There are 21 people on the panel, and only 11 in the audience. They are saying things like "lack of cross-selling," "develop human resources," "May-June time frame." The Credit Union of North America has meetings all over the hotel today, and it is just getting warmed up. In 48 hours, after the rest of its 1,492-person delegation has checked in, the entire hotel will sound like this. The delegates are not without their humor, though. It was a credit union conventioneer who nicknamed the Hilton "Our Lady of the Perpetual Hallways" for its curving, block-long east wing. 3:30 p.m. space ONLY ONE 1,800-person dinner stands between the food and beverage staff and the completion of its 9,300-meal marathon, and the mood at its weekly meeting is one of semiconscious optimism. There have been a few minor slip-ups, of course. Tracy Marks forgot what a sober bunch these Prayer Breakfast folks are, so the liquor inventory is running a bit high. And the room-service manager contends that the stewards are misplacing creamers, which means waiters have to go search the kitchen for one every time somebody orders coffee. But, for the most part, the day has gone smoothly. Still, nobody had better think about taking tomorrow off. This weekend the Hilton is hosting a reception for students in the Howard University hotel management program. In closing the meeting, Marks says, "This Friday, for those of you who are still alive, there is a cocktail reception we are required to attend . . . and tell all those students what a wonderful life and what a great business this is." 4:25 p.m. space space DAVE GIGER IS preparing for a command performance. The Hilton's director of sales is about to conduct a tour of the hotel for Peter Turner of the American Society of Association Executives. The ASAE is looking for a place to hold its 1992 convention. The beauty of the ASAE account is that everyone who attends its convention is a convention planner. If only a quarter of them like the Hilton well enough to book an event, that's 750 new conventions. "This would be a real coup," Giger says. But Turner, who has seen most of the country's largest hotels, is not impressed by space alone. "I think service has become the determining factor," he says. "Especially because a lot of hotels are developing similar facilities. Similar even in color and wallpaper." "Mauve," Giger says and laughs. The tour begins in the Gazebo, the Hilton's outdoor lounge that sits beside its Olympic-size swimming pool. Giger leads the way through the racquet club and down to the "convention level," which holds the International Ballroom, the exhibit hall and the largest meeting rooms. "The beauty of the hotel is that for such a large hotel the layout is simple to commit to memory," Giger is saying as they disappear down the stairs. "On-site inspections," as these tours are called, are crucial to the Hilton's success because conventions make up roughly 70 percent of the hotel's business. Some groups have already booked events in the 21st century, but business is cyclical, and the sales staff has had to learn to diversify. One of the most lucrative secondary markets is the SMERF trade. SMERF is an acronym for Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal. These groups hold large yearly meetings but can't afford to pay as much as a business or professional association. SMERFs hunt for bargains and are not averse to holding their meetings around the holidays, a perennially difficult time for convention hotels. Another slow-season strategy calls for "plugging in" small conventions, small in this case meaning groups that book fewer than 250 sleeping rooms. Groups of that size often avoid large hotels, feeling they lack the financial leverage to merit first-class attention. But the Hilton has developed a "conference center" team -- a group of sales people and meeting planners -- to cater specifically to this market. When all else fails, the hotel turns to tourists, though not usually to American ones. The Hilton does brisk business with international tour groups, particularly Japanese ones. A weak dollar has been good for business, says Candy Ascher, who spearheads this effort. On the wall near her phone hangs a helpful list: Nan shitsu? How many rooms? Nan paku? How many nights? Moichido ittekudasai. Please say it once more. 5:05 p.m. space space BANQUET manager Annie Adams is prowling the floor in the International Ballroom, always in search of the flawed detail. On one table, the salad forks are set too high. On another, the handles of the coffee cups point to 6, not 4, o'clock. "This is embarrassing to have a guest sit down here," she says, pointing at a chair that has somehow been covered by a pouffed-out tablecloth. She seems partly agitated, partly relaxed. Her 14-hour workday is almost over. "I'm not planning to stay around here for the cleanup," she says. "I have to be here at 7 a.m." 6 p.m. space space A CALM DESCENDS ON the hotel just before dinner. After a long day, guests are returning to their rooms to dress for the evening or are calling home to check on their families. When Steve Opdyke wants to look in on his family, he simply climbs into an elevator and rides up a few floors. He, Maureen and their two children live in the hotel. Hilton requires one of the top two managers at each property to live in the hotel so there is an executive on call 24 hours a day. In 1987 Opdyke moved in when Bill Edwards moved out. Edwards grew up in hotels, so he never considered it an imposition, but it is a tricky place to raise kids, he admits. "You can't let them get used to room service," he says. Or rides in the hotel limousine or letting the housekeepers make their beds. They also have to get used to not having neighbors or a backyard. The Opdyke kids are still adjusting to that, while their father is adjusting to living in two very demanding worlds at once. "I used to have an hour commute when I would stop thinking about work and start thinking about home," he says. "Now I've got about two minutes." 7:40 p.m. space space BEN WATROUS is all alone in the Godiva Chocolate shop that opens onto the lobby, just beside the front desk. Watrous took over the operation two days ago when the previous manager walked out. He hasn't had a chance to hire any staff yet, so he's putting in 13-hour days, working the register and trying to decorate the place for the Valentine's Day rush. The Hilton leases four shops on its lobby level and one on the terrace level to outside vendors. The rule of thumb in awarding these contracts seems to be that only the hotel gift shop can sell anything useful -- those framed autographs of Rutherford B. Hayes, for instance. Godiva does a thriving truffles business but specializes in novelty items -- chocolate golf balls, for instance. Business is best in the mornings. "After breakfast is a good time because people would like a little sweet with their coffee," Watrous says, and every item can be purchased by the piece. 9:45 p.m. space space A HOTEL IS not really a hotel without a lounge act. "We're going to do something by Whitney Houston," says Lee Marquette, the blonde lead singer for Impact, which has worked Ashby's Club on the lobby level five nights a week for the past year. "If anybody feels they want to dance, you better come up now and get your spot before the rush," she says. But there is no rush, just a quiet conversational hum as Larry Taylor taps on his drums and Bob Kaufmann works the keyboards. The Prayer Breakfast crowd is not much for dancing, although later in the evening a balding gentleman in a bow tie does sweep his wife onto the floor for an elegant fox trot. The bars and lounges in a convention hotel serve a different purpose than the bars and lounges in hotels that cater to business travelers. Fewer people sit by themselves. Fewer people hit on the waitresses. The Hilton posts a security guard at the lobby door, so if there are any prostitutes on the premises they are inconspicuous to the point of being irrelevant. The bartenders serve about 1,000 drinks in the course of a normal night. The Credit Union people are a bit more boisterous than the Prayer Breakfast people, not all of whom are teetotalers. midnight space space DINNER has been over for hours, and the ballroom is deserted when the boys from the Prayer Breakfast sneak down to the stage. They come in two groups, one from Baylor University and one from the University of Texas. The four boys from Baylor had never met the pair from UT until they were moved, at roughly the same time, "to come down here just to sing and worship the Lord," as one of them puts it. Now they are clustered around a baby grand Yamaha piano urging the Lord to "Create in Me a Pure Heart." They sing beautifully together, their melodies broken by the occasional whispered prayer "Praise you, Lord Jesus." Meanwhile, in the lobby, a new day is beginning. Richard Adams, the night manager, is already deep into his shift. He's worked this shift for six years and didn't like it much at first. Now he sees it as his opportunity to "make a contribution." His is a world peopled by newspaper deliverymen, cab drivers on the graveyard shift and security people with walkie-talkies. "You sort of help to keep the peace," he says. "People think the first thing you do is go to sleep. Well, I'd like to have you spend a night with me." Later, when the night auditors are done, he'll copy their final figures into his log book and then make the place ready for a new day. When the new day dawns, the lobby will look much like it did the day before when Connie Sellecca drifted through. Three hundred and forty members of the National Prayer Breakfast will check out, and 417 delegates to the CUNA convention will check in. :: Jim Naughton writes for the Style section of The Post and is the author of My Brother Stealing Second, a novel for young adults published this month.