Don't be fooled by the soothing piano music or the semblance of serenity in the lobbies of Washington's luxury hotels. Behind the oversize arrangements of flowers and exotic branches, international fiascos are narrowly being averted.
Take June 2004, when six heads of state descended on the Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C., at 22nd and M streets, to attend President Ronald Reagan's funeral. There are three flagpoles at the front of the building, but only two are available for the flags of visiting foreign dignitaries.
So each time a president arrived, a rented crane -- parked around the corner -- was moved to the entrance and a worker was lifted to switch the flags.
"It is about adapting to different people without changing your standards and really keeping a level of consistency," said Alice Lehimdjian, sales manager at the Mandarin Oriental, the newest luxury hotel on the Potomac.
An evolving strategy for handling foreign leaders and gaining their trust, patronage and unending appreciation is taking shape in the corridors of Washington's finest hotels. After all, statesmanship is nurtured through empathy and understanding. Agility of body and mind are just two of the prerequisites for dealing with large groups of people of different ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds.
The Four Seasons Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue has introduced protocol training for its staff. Sessions are held to teach employees how to pronounce names and recognize faces. Before a VIP arrives, general managers quiz bellboys and waiters: "So, who is arriving today?" To avoid disasters, everything is rehearsed.
"No two visits are alike, which makes this line of business so fascinating," said Kate Macinnis, area director of diplomatic and international sales at the Georgetown and D.C. Ritz-Carltons.
But not every need can be anticipated. Imagine the surprise of porters at another luxury hotel when the baggage of King Abdullah of Jordan included a vintage 1945 motorcycle with a sidecar.
"Diplomatic happenings and delegations are a work in progress, ever-changing, and you learn to adapt to this market," said Macinnis, who is no novice to such drama, having worked for several years in the office of Vice President Cheney when he was defense secretary and at the State Department under James A. Baker III. "You get to see moments in history. . . . Relations develop with countries that previously had no ties to the United States."
Paul Westbrook, vice president and area general manager at the D.C. Ritz-Carlton, conceded with a smile: "The strife in the world today has brought more diplomatic business."
Westbrook said the relationships developed with embassies around town, security details and the State Department were important in ensuring clients' loyalty. "Once they feel comfortable, they come back," he said. "It's all about security."
Comfort, of course, is relative.
Because the feet of Thai royals are never supposed to touch the ground, the presidential suite at the Mandarin Oriental was deemed not quite ready for Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol, despite its crimson silk furniture covers, lush cushions, marble-tiled bathrooms and a published rate of $8,000 a night. Lehimdjian's staff covered the bathroom floors with mats and matching towels.
On another occasion, the team had to buy 50 prayer rugs from area mosques just before a Qatari delegation arrived. Yet a third group, arriving late after a long journey, demanded a special hamburger concoction at 2 a.m. The chef had to be woken.
"We work with the customer, we make it happen. We don't say no, we just offer options," Lehimdjian said of the difficult last-minute demands, such as the request by a head of state for exclusive use of the spa area. "If we don't have it, we buy it."
The consequences of not meeting expectations can be costly.
"I've had wives of heads of state send embassy personnel to measure the width of doorways, our bathroom fixtures," noted Neeru Dhawan, group sales manager at the Four Seasons Hotel. For one queen, who was planning a stay of 10 days with an entourage requiring 70 rooms, the length of the luxury bathtub fell short and the booking was canceled at the last minute.
"I wanted to commit suicide," Dhawan recalled. "It was the slip between the cup and the lip. It was so close I could taste it."
She has hosted major heads of state, such as French President Jacques Chirac, and some who have since died, such as King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel.
"The longevity of the staff is important," she said. "We value old-timers."
The Four Seasons' head concierge, Javier T. Loureiro, has been with the hotel since it opened in 1979. He recalls the young princes arriving to study at Georgetown University who went on to become kings and crown princes.
Loureiro has bought Hummers and Jeeps on his credit card to satisfy shopping lists sent ahead of time. He has also made trips to the emergency room in the middle of the night and helped adolescents get out of jail after traffic mishaps.
"When parents leave their children in college, they feel uneasy. You need someone in the city you can call," said Loureiro, a member of Les Clefs d'Or USA, a select fraternity of his profession.
The sons of certain VIPs, graduate students staying at the hotel, have on occasion asked him to arrange for someone to type up their notes.
Without giving names, he shrugged: "We are a full-service hotel."