On an overcast February afternoon, Katherine Lo glides into the lobby of a building under renovation at 12th and K streets NW in downtown Washington. "This is my favorite part of the whole hotel," Lo says, referring to her soon-to-open business and gesturing toward a small room off the lobby entrance. The space will become a glass-walled digital radio station, she says, where local residents — not just hotel guests, mind you — will be able to record and broadcast their own podcasts.
“And AJ’s installation will be there,” she continues, pointing to the far end of the lobby, where documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack will build a multimedia art installation. “It’ll be one of the first things you see when you walk in — kind of a highlight for the guest experience, which also showcases our focus on politics.”
Wait. A focus on politics? In a hotel? Exactly. Lo’s hotel, Eaton DC, is billing itself as an avowedly liberal lodging. Virtually every element of the 209-room property, from restaurant menus to design details to public events, will be awash in progressive idealism, trumpeting the brand’s liberal leanings.
Take Schnack’s installation, which will feature a series of video screens, each looping a different docu-style vignette compiled from more than 700 hours of footage of the past three presidential campaigns. The purpose, according to Schnack, is to ask, “How did America get to the point where we saw these political rallies and dialogue change in a way that seemed very drastic to us?” (“Us,” in this case, apparently does not include conservatives who might have welcomed the change.)
Set to open in late July, the hotel, says Lo, will boast a 50-person cinema; a rooftop music venue with a “cutting-edge” sound system; a co-working space; a library; a meditation room and yoga studio; reiki, acupuncture, plant medicine and holistic services; and monthly events to draw in the public. There will also be an urban farm atop the building, and Lo has plans to install a mini wind turbine there. “It might not be able to power the whole hotel,” she says, “but it could be there for symbolism.”
Ah, yes, symbolism. At this particular point in American history, it’s the name of the game. In the era of Donald Trump, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” no longer merely designate opposing political ideologies. They represent full-blown branding opportunities. And Lo and her colleagues are seizing the moment — offering a space to customers who aren’t content merely to vote for progressive candidates or watch MSNBC, but who also want their choice of hotel to proclaim their political affiliation.
Just six blocks south of the Eaton site, at 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, sits the Trump International Hotel. When it was announced in 2012, it was going to be just another luxury lodging option in the nation's capital, replete with The Donald's signature opulent decor. But once Trump declared his candidacy, the venue took on a new political connotation. And since his election as president, it has assumed an accidental identity as the city's "conservative" hotel. As progressives refuse to frequent the place, it has become a bastion of Trump's populist ideology and a clubhouse for his supporters.
The night before my visit to the Eaton, I pop in to the Trump hotel to find out what drives people to make the pilgrimage there. In the restaurant, I come upon College Republicans Bobby Walker and Benjamin Sano. In town for the Conservative Political Action Conference, the two have decided to grab a bite at the president’s hotel and check it out.
“I think there’s symbolism here” (there’s that word again), explains Walker, who’s sporting a fire-engine red USA cap that’s part of Trump’s product line. “It was a driving point of Trump’s whole campaign — that whole mentality of him being able to renovate and build massive buildings like this and have it be under budget and ahead of schedule.” Sano sees the place a little differently. “More than a political feeling when I come in here, it’s more of a feeling of, like, high class and high society,” he says. “I feel like I’m part of a class that I normally wouldn’t be part of.”
It’s that very allure of material wealth and personal success associated with Trump that Eaton’s more socially conscious brand will at least in part strive to counteract. To be fair, though, Katherine Lo didn’t initially set out to open an anti-Trump hotel. In fact, the 36-year-old third-generation hotelier might seem an unusual person to spearhead an anti-Trump brand at all. Her uncle, Vincent Lo, a billionaire property magnate who has dabbled in reality television and whose messy personal life has been chronicled by the Hong Kong society pages, is often compared to Trump; the two even had a decade-long business partnership that ended — surprise — with Trump filing a $1 billion lawsuit against him. (It was thrown out; Vincent Lo is not affiliated with the Eaton brand.)
Born in Hong Kong, Katherine Lo enjoyed the privileged upbringing of a billionaire’s daughter. Her father is Ka Shui Lo, the chairman of Langham Hospitality Group, part of Great Eagle Holdings, the family real estate dynasty that’s considered one of China’s most prolific. She enjoyed a largely sheltered childhood — private school in Hong Kong, summers in Detroit with her Chinese American mother’s family — before being sent off at 14 to Phillips Exeter Academy, a private boarding school in New Hampshire. It was there, she says, that she first found herself trying to come to terms with her life of wealth and privilege. Her teachers were “radical and progressive,” she says. “I think that really influenced who I became and what I care about.”
As an undergrad at Yale, where she studied art and anthropology, she became a student delegate with Greenpeace. She also worked for the environmental group Green Corps, protesting a power plant in New Haven, Conn., that was polluting lower-income communities; completed a summer environmental studies internship with the International Society for Ecology and Culture in India’s Ladakh region; coordinated numerous events related to free trade; and participated in antiwar protests. She received an MFA in film production from the University of Southern California, where she made documentaries that explored social issues.
After finishing her degree, she moved back to Hong Kong to work in the film industry. But when her father mentioned that his company had bought a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building in Chicago to turn it into a hotel, her interest was piqued. Mies is one of her favorite architects, and she soon got involved with the property. “I entered the family business quite circuitously, through my love of design,” she says. She brought on Dirk Lohan, Mies’s grandson, to design the hotel’s lobby. “I found her to be a very sensitive person, obviously very artistic, I think more so than a business person,” says Lohan.
In 2014, Lo’s father asked her to help him come up with a hotel brand that would reflect the rapidly changing world. She began to research how she could bring her background as a socially conscious activist to bear on the branding of a hotel. Trips to the culture festival Burning Man and a stint at Esalen, a tony New Age retreat center in Big Sur, Calif., were especially inspiring, she says. She came up with a vision for a hotel founded in the spirit of a community center — the ultimate gathering place — that would promote progressive ideals.
At some level, this wasn’t a far-fetched idea. Hotels have long been public and political gathering places. When the British burned Washington in the War of 1812, Congress met for two years in the Union Public Hotel, the capital’s first full-fledged hotel. Major political assemblies and negotiations — think Bretton Woods or the Bilderberg Conference — have taken place at hotels throughout recent history.
But there’s a difference between acting as a neutral meeting ground for political conversation and enthusiastically promoting a political viewpoint. And the Eaton isn’t the only hotel stepping into this territory. Last year, the Standard hotel in Manhattan, for instance, installed a phone booth with a direct line to Capitol Hill outside its doors so that both guests and passersby could call their representatives and try to persuade them to pass the bipartisan Dream Act of 2017. All five of the hotel’s properties feature Capitol Hill numbers on speed dial in the guest rooms for the same purpose.
“After the election, I walked into the office — we have a lot of young people working for us — and there was a sense of dismay and helplessness and a feeling of not knowing what would happen next,” says Amar Lalvani, CEO and managing partner of Standard International. “I asked myself, ‘What’s the best tool to voice their desires and concerns?’ ”
More than 3,000 calls have been made to Congress since, says Lalvani, who sees no conflict in mixing politics with lodging. “Hotels care for people; you live with us for a period of time,” he says. “We try to connect with our guests through lifestyle and culture. What’s part of our culture now is this feeling, this drastic political environment.”
That’s Lo’s thinking precisely. Though she conceived the idea before the 2016 election, Trump’s presidency has caused her to ratchet up her brand’s ethos several notches. “When you are trying to create a positive community center in a positive time, it has less urgency,” she says. “When you are trying to create something positive in a time where everything around it is horrible and needs help, it gives it more urgency and purpose.”
The Eaton brand plans to open hotels in Hong Kong, Seattle and San Francisco as well as Washington. The name was Lo's father's choice — "One of the only things he insisted on," says Lo — a sentimental association with Montreal's grand Eaton Centre mall, which he first visited as a young medical student fresh out of Hong Kong.
Design-wise, the Washington property seems to be the antithesis of the lavish Trump International. “We took this building that was actually really ugly — it used to be the Four Points Sheraton — and we just painted the whole thing black,” Lo says during our walk-through. She strides through the lobby, coffee cup in hand, wearing light-wash jeans, black leather boots and an Acne Studios shearling fur coat, though she’s quick to tell me that she “stopped buying animal products this year.”
The hotel decor, she says, will feature “a lot of greenery and a lot of wood and textiles.” To avoid “the sterileness of technology,” there will be “a lot of good, old materials, reclaimed materials, things that are sustainable.”
But the building itself is only the beginning. The hotel has hired a director of culture: a Washington-based artist, community activist and former social worker named Sheldon Scott. Scott wants to go beyond Eaton-curated programming and provide free space for grass-roots organizations to host events. “We are interested in supporting conversations with people who are invested in making the world a better place for all people,” he says.
That night, after the tour, I attend the first event under the Eaton brand — a concert and panel discussion on race and the environment, organized by Scott and held at Halcyon House, a hip artistic incubator space in Georgetown. The 150 attendees sit transfixed as a musical performance by Tamar-kali’s Psychochamber Ensemble, a nine-woman Afropunk string and vocal outfit, gives way to short speeches by Lo and Scott about Eaton’s mission as a community center. “I want to subvert a commercial enterprise into a social enterprise,” Lo tells the crowd, then adds, borrowing a term from sociologist Ray Oldenburg, “I want Eaton to be seen as the ‘third place.’ ”
Next, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of Ocean Collectiv, a marine-life and social justice nonprofit, moderates an all-women-of-color panel. They speak about disaster capitalism, the interconnection of social justice and environmentalism, and the displacement of poor black and brown communities. (The subject of dislocation, as it happens, is not unfamiliar to Eaton’s parent company, Great Eagle Holdings, some of whose projects have allegedly displaced lower-income communities in Hong Kong. “There’s a lot that I can’t reconcile — both about my privilege and about the global financial system — but I’m not about to let that paralyze me and stop me from doing what I hope to be good,” emails Lo, when asked about this. “One in my position could sit back and do nothing. I am choosing to use my position and my resources to do what I believe is right and on the moral side of history.” Great Eagle declined to comment.)
The invitation-only event, with its sustainable hors d’oeuvres — locally sourced opah, a fish that’s normally discarded; organic beets with a stinging-nettle sauce — and five-ingredient cocktails, is the kind of thing that would probably never take place at the Trump hotel. Which is exactly what Lo is aiming for: a we-are-not-Trump vibe.
Whether that translates into business success remains, of course, to be seen. Lo acknowledges that the hotel’s free public offerings may make it hard for the midrange brand (rooms will start at $199 per night based on the season and availability) to turn a profit for a while. “I’m just going in on blind faith that it’s going to do well,” she says.
There’s reason to be skeptical: “Most hotels seek not to offend any potential customers,” says Sean Hennessey, assistant professor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. “So affiliating with any political cause would either be based on the preferences of the owner rather than the economics, or a calculation that affiliating with a political viewpoint would be a net benefit to the business.”
Even if that calculation ultimately pays off in business terms, there’s also the larger question of whether a political hotel brand is a good thing — for either Washington or the country. We already have red and blue states. Gerrymandered voting districts. Liberal and conservative cable TV networks. At a time of such deep national division, do we really want to start choosing things like hotels based on politics, too?
Lo says she wants people from all backgrounds to feel welcome at her hotel, but when I ask her specifically whether her concept might contribute to the political divide, she seems unperturbed. It's not Eaton's purpose, she says, to unite left and right. "With such extreme ideologies," she shrugs, "I don't know how you could ever meet in the middle."
Ian Frisch is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.