The outcome of the election is still up in the air, but Washington hotels are already looking ahead to the next president’s inauguration.
For half a million dollars, the Trump International Hotel is offering four nights in a suite with gold-encrusted bathrooms, dinner for 24 and an on-call car service.
At the W Hotel, $500,000 will get you a three-night stay and unlimited Veuve Clicquot during January’s inaugural celebrations. Meanwhile, for that price, the Fairmont will provide round-trip travel on a private jet, a closetful of clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue and home-cooked meals for your dog.
Not extravagant enough?
The JW Marriott’s $2.5 million inauguration package — so far the city’s priciest — includes four presidential suites, 325 guest rooms and $400,000 worth of food and drink over four or five nights. You’ll also get professional photos, a bourbon-tasting and a viewing party on the 12th floor of the hotel, which is on the parade route.
Will anybody actually cough up that much for the privilege and pageantry?
“Well, of course, we hope so,” said Kristen Garcia, director of sales and marketing at the JW Marriott Washington, D.C.
But, the truth is, it hardly ever happens. And when it does, the hotel often scrambles to deliver on the lavish promises.
Instead, the over-the-top amenities have become a means to drum up buzz and show off a flurry of rooms, restaurants and lobbies renovated in time for the festivities.
“The name of the game is publicity,” said Vivian Deuschl, a former public relations executive for Ritz-Carlton. “There’s a whole new administration in town, with all-new players. You’re trying to position your hotel as the new power place to be.”
At the Ritz-Carlton Washington, the $150,000 inaugural package includes a four-night stay, as well as a three-carat sapphire necklace, pillowcases monogrammed with the presidential seal and a back-of-the-house tour with security personnel to see how heads of state arrive and exit the 300-room property.
The Jefferson Hotel’s package includes a four-night stay during the celebrations, as well as three more two-night stays at other times during the year. Other amenities include a private dinner for 10, spa party for four and a zip-lining adventure for two. Cost: $80,000.
“We tried to come up with a price that actually made sense,” said Philip Wood, the hotel’s general manager. “The chances of selling a $2.5 million package are, frankly, well, none.”
During the 2013 inauguration, for President Obama’s second term, the JW Marriott was hawking a $2.7 million package. There weren’t any takers.
Nobody bought the $100,000 package at the Fairmont Washington, D.C., either, or the $57,000 option at the Park Hyatt that came with a couples’ massage and fresh-baked apple pie.
“It was a very testy year,” said Wood of the Jefferson. “The government was close to shutting down. There were economic woes. I don’t think any hotels actually sold out during that period at all. Consequently we just said: ‘These are our prices. Here’s what you get.’ We didn’t end up doing anything over the top. It just wasn’t in tune with the environment in the country at that time.”
This year, though, hotel promotions are back in full force. Regardless of who wins, hoteliers say there will be fervent supporters looking to celebrate.
Among the packages on offer:
• The Stay Like a President package at the Willard InterContinental includes a Neiman Marcus shopping spree, lunch with Larry King and round-trip flights on a private jet. Price: $450,000.
• The Kimpton Morrison House, across the Potomac in Alexandria, Va., is offering up all 45 rooms for four nights. Guests will also receive dance lessons and an opportunity to dine with the hotel’s chef. Price: $200,000.
• At the Four Seasons, guests can reserve a five-night stay in the Royal Suite, protected by bulletproof glass and closed-circuit surveillance. The package also includes stationery made with 23-karat gold and unlimited shoe shines. Price: $100,000.
• The Park Hyatt has a package that includes a VIP tour of Mount Vernon, a wool blanket bearing the American flag and a bottle of rye whiskey made using George Washington’s original recipe. Price: $45,000.
• The St. Regis’s inaugural package comes with personalized stationery, a set of Christofle flatware and a personal butler to pack and unpack your luggage. Price: $85,000.
“People are not looking for over-the-top,” said Douglas Camp, director of sales and marketing for the St. Regis. “It’s subdued luxury. It’s exclusive yet affordable.”
For all of its lavish promises, the inauguration package, as a concept, got its start in a bankrupt hotel.
Twenty-eight years ago, mired in a sea of bad press, the Ritz-Carlton on Massachusetts Avenue (now the Fairfax at Embassy Row) introduced a $15,000 package for George H.W. Bush’s inauguration. The four-night stay included a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, dinner for 12 and daily servings of Champagne and caviar.
“It was an idea that came out of a certain amount of desperation,” said Deuschl, then regional director of public relations at Ritz-Carlton. “The hotel was bankrupt, and it had gotten a tremendous amount of bad press. I was new on the job, and I thought, ‘What could I possibly do to turn this around?’ ”
She didn’t have high hopes for the package: “I didn’t seriously think anyone would buy it,” she said.
But the media were enamored of it. Soon Deuschl was doing interviews on the “Today” show and fielding requests from television stations abroad. There were rumors that Donald Trump had bought the package. (He hadn’t; Henry Kravis, a private-equity billionaire, had.)
“All of a sudden, everyone was talking about it,” Deuschl said. “People just thought it was such an outrageous idea. What an unreal place Washington was, this Disneyland on the Potomac.”
For the next presidential inauguration, in 1993, the hotel upped the price to $24,000 and added such perks as breakfast in bed and four dozen roses. A couple from Fort Worth sprang for the deal.
“Then every four years, this thing would take on a life of its own,” she said. “Everybody kind of has fun with it. Nobody takes it too seriously, but if you’re a hotel that needs a boost of attention, then this is your moment.”
In 2009, for Obama’s first inauguration, Fairfax County philanthropist Earl W. Stafford paid $1 million to buy out the JW Marriott. He organized the “People’s Inaugural Ball” and invited the country’s most disadvantaged people — including those who were homeless, terminally ill or disabled — to participate in the festivities.
But for the most part, inaugural packages go unpurchased. When people do book suites, they tend to do so at much lower, negotiated rates, according tohoteliers.
“The packages are more for, well, publicity purposes,” said Colleen Evans, a former public relations executive for Ritz-Carlton who now represents the St. Regis Washington D.C. “My biggest fear was always that someone would actually buy it.”
It’s easy to make lavish promises, she said. Delivering on them can be difficult.
“If you promise VIP seats to the parade or tickets to the inaugural ball, you’ve got to have the contacts to back that up,” Evans said. “As soon as a buyer is interested, it’s scramble time.”
Take, for instance, the time a Nigerian couple bought the $50,000 package at the Ritz-Carlton Washington. The hotel had promised a number of costly amenities for Obama’s first inauguration, including a 24-hour chauffeur, a ruby-encrusted pendant and front-row seats to the inaugural parade, which typically are limited to top donors.
“Those aren’t really something you can buy,” Evans said. “There might be tickets on Craigslist or eBay, but can you get what you’ve promised?”
(Back in 2009, a friend of Evans’s who was a top fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee agreed to hand over her parade tickets to the hotel guests. And she did.)
Hotel managers say they’re prepared to fulfill their promises. But for now it’s mostly on hold.
“The majority of people are waiting to book,” said Camp, of the St. Regis. “People aren’t very confident about who will win.”
The hotel has been receiving three or four inaugural inquiries a week, he said, adding that the hotel plans to staff its reservation desk round-the-clock beginning on election night.
It’s a similar story at the Fairmont.
“The minute the new president is announced, the floodgates open,” said the Fairmont’s general manager, Shane Krige, adding that the hotel has renovated all 413guest rooms, as well as the courtyard, lounge and lobby, in anticipation of next year’s inaugural. “By January, we will have spent nearly 500 days preparing for this one-day event.”