August can be a lazy, laid-back month for any Washingtonians left in town and for hotels bereft of conventions and Congress.
Not this week.
Monday, delegations from 51 African nations begin a three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, a high-level event hosted by President Obama that has many downtown hotels jammed and some African embassies detailing their guest rooms. Locals, meanwhile, are rearranging commutes to cope with all the security, rolling street closures and motorcade gridlock.
Billed by the White House as “the largest event any U.S. President has held with African heads of state and government,” it is focused on trade and investment, and it has the theme “Investing in the Next Generation.” About 5,400 people are credentialed to participate, primarily African delegates, government officials and business leaders, plus more than 1,200 journalists, according to Will Stevens, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. Events will be held throughout the city, at the State Department and Kennedy Center in Foggy Bottom, on Capitol Hill and at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest. The African summit’s size and security implications are being compared with that of the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, which brought more than 40 delegations and many world leaders here.
Tuesday evening, the Obamas are hosting a White House dinner for African heads of state and government and other guests.
For Peter Selfridge, who took over as chief of protocol in May, and his staff of 80, it’s “trial by fire,” he says. His office is in charge of making sure the foreign heads of the delegations and those traveling with them are made to feel comfortable and welcomed, and to facilitate their movements.
“We have the same protocol whether it’s one leader or 51 delegations,” Selfridge says. “We strive to throw out the red carpet, both literally and figuratively, from their arrival point at the airport to the end of the summit. Just multiply everything by fifty.”
So where is everyone going to stay?
Blair House, the president’s official guest house for visiting heads of state, has just reopened for business after being closed for a year for refurbishment as well as repair from earthquake damage. But the historic guest house with its antiques, fine porcelains and paintings will not be used for the summit, although it has 14 perfectly appointed guest rooms. “It’s the Protocol Office’s crown jewel,” Selfridge says. “How would we pick one or two out of 51 delegations to stay there?”
Delegations made their own lodging arrangements. A handful are bunking in at their local embassies, but the majority have booked rooms primarily in the city’s upscale hotels that are equipped to handle VIPs. For security reasons, hotels can’t confirm who is staying where. However, it’s safe to say that city’s impressive stock of presidential suites (plus the even posher royal suites) have been fluffed up for a possible influx of presidents, prime ministers and one scheduled royal: King Mswati III of Swaziland. Amenities including mahogany dining tables for 10, 500-thread-count sheets, 24-hour butler service, marble bathrooms with spa showers and working fireplaces (should it turn chilly) awaited those delegations that booked early and wanted something more than the standard double with coffee maker.
The Four Seasons in Georgetown is sold out for the dates of the summit, including its six luxury suites. Four Seasons spokeswoman Liliana Baldassari confirms there are guests at the hotel who are attending the summit, but she says their numbers and names are “extremely confidential.” No word on who is occupying the hotel’s poshest digs: the 4,000-square-foot Royal Suite, which has a private entrance, closed-captioned security system, bullet-resistant glass, media room, personal fitness center, private terrace with fire pit, and an entrance foyer glittering with Swarovski crystals. Posted rate: $18,500 a night.
There are nine delegations staying at six high-end Marriott properties in downtown Washington. Although there are a total of 14 presidential suites available at these hotels, Marriott spokesman Mark Indre says they aren’t allowed to reveal who is coming or what rooms they have booked. All the presidential suites, appropriately, come with king-size beds. At the Mayflower Renaissance, the suite can have a foyer decorated with seals of the original 13 colonies; at the JW Marriott, views of the Capitol and Washington Monument.
Several delegations are booked into the Fairmont Washington, according to Mark Andrew, the general manager. The hotel has three presidential suites. “While Blair House has been closed, our hotel and other high-end hotels have had additional inquiries for rooms for heads of state,” Andrew says.
The timing of the summit makes it especially noteworthy. According to Kate Gibbs, spokeswoman for Destination DC, the city’s visitor and tourism bureau, “The size of this meeting is highly unusual for the beginning of August. We usually see visitation drop off, because Congress is not in session, it’s so hot here and people go to the beach.”
Gibbs added, “While Washingtonians will have to take a deep breath during their commute as traffic is slowed, seeing a motorcade is part of the Washington experience. Fifty motorcades? That might be really exciting.”