2013 Inauguration a Challenge for Washington-Area Hotels

It’s still too soon to tell whether the inaugural weekend will provide the big profits hotels and restaurants are hoping for.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Will the 57th presidential inauguration be as robust as the historic 56th, four years ago, when Barack Obama became the first African-American sworn in as President? Almost everyone—from official planners to the hotel and tourist industry—agrees it will be a smaller turnout of visitors on inauguration day, possibly half of the 1.8 million who crowded the city in 2009. Will the overall four-day extravaganza produce big profits for hotels, restaurants, and other area attractions? It depends on whom you talk to and when you talk to them. During the winter holiday, a chain hotel executive, assessing reservations at that time, told us, “Everyone’s dying on this one. Reservations are not coming in.” After New Year’s, asked to go on the record with that statement, the same person backed down on the dire prediction.

Still, there’s a sense that hotels—a number of them with a three- or four-day minimum stay requirement, and some offering lavish package deals—may have overreached. There’s no getting around two factors that can’t help but impact turnout: It is a second inauguration for Obama, and most Americans are watching their wallets at a time of continued economic challenges and low confidence in government solutions.

A room at the Willard Hotel, for example, which is on the inaugural parade route, will set you back $1,149 per night—before taxes, meals, balls, transportation, and so on—and there’s a four-night minimum, beginning with check-in on Friday, January 18. We made a call to the sales office today and were told, “Yes, we still have rooms available.” Later, reservations manager Seiko Kondo said in an e-mail: “We can place a request on our waitlist for [a] shorter stay.”

On the other hand, the Jefferson Hotel, on 16th Street and about half a mile from the White House, has already nixed its four-day minimum and will now accept two-night reservations. According to Meaghan Donohoe, a spokesperson for the Jefferson, “Rates are currently starting at $799 for a three-day minimum and $1,185 for a two-day minimum. Due to low reservations, these listed rates are reduced from the initial starting rate of $950 per night for a four-night minimum stay.”

The director of public relations for the Marriott-owned Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Washington, Colleen Evans, says, “We are a little over 60 percent right now at both hotels,” which are the Ritz-Carlton West End and the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, though the “over-the-top” packages at both hotels haven’t yet sold. She considers the Ritz to be “holding its own” but says, “I do think some hotels are struggling.”

The so-called “over-the-top” packages may be the hardest to sell this time around. The Park Hyatt has a $57,000 package that includes four nights in the hotel’s presidential suite with a “bath butler,” a magnum of wine, a cheese tasting for 12, warm apple pie at bedtime, personal shopping assistance from Saks Fifth Avenue, breakfast in bed, and airport transportation, among other amenities. Renee Sharrow, the Park Hyatt’s public relations director, says the package is still available. We wondered: Will the hotel leave the presidential suite empty in the event that the package doesn’t sell? Sharrow says that when it gets closer to the date, if the package hasn’t sold and “we get a serious inquiry to book the suite without the package, we may do that.” On a normal, non-inauguration weekend night, the suite goes for $8,000.

At the Ritz-Carlton hotels, both of their lavish packages are still looking for takers. At the West End hotel the price tag is $100,000 and includes four nights in a luxury suite, two first-class round-trip domestic air tickets, admission to the inaugural parade party at the Newseum (an event that’s reportedly sold out), a “back of the house” tour of the hotel, a private cupcake decorating party at Georgetown Cupcake, dinners, personal shopping, and a unique piece of jewelry from local designer Ann Hand. The Ritz Georgetown package, at $201,300, also includes a piece of jewelry from local jeweler Dina Mackney, five suites on two floors, a 24-hour butler, the opportunity to host a private “ball” for up to 75 people in the hotel’s large upstairs dining room, a private VIP entrance, and a $20,000 “shopping spree” at Bloomingdale’s.

According to a weekend story in the Wall Street Journal, the Hay-Adams, just across Lafayette Square from the White House, still had 34 rooms available. Rates there, according to the Journal, begin at $850. The report quoted the hotel’s general manager, Hans Bruland: “I’m hesitant to say it’s a crisis, but people are rightfully nervous, because at this time we should have had a much better response.”

Kate Gibbs of Destination DC, a not-for-profit group that works directly with the city to support the hospitality industry, believes area hotels are still in a “sweet spot,” at least until the mid to end of this week. “I can tell you most people book trips to DC in three weeks or less,” she says. Perhaps this year people are waiting until the last minute, to see if they have the budget to make the trip and to wait out the hotels for possible better deals. Gibbs thinks they are waiting to see their next paycheck, with whatever adjustments the New Year has brought, and will then decide if the inauguration is “scalable.” She points out there are affordable rates at hotels outside the city center. We checked Priceline for the three days of January 19 through 21 and found a $273 nightly rate at the Holiday Inn in Rosslyn, a $219 rate at the Comfort Inn on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, and a $156 rate at the Sheraton Reston.

People may also be waiting until the last minute to book restaurant reservations, if a perusal of OpenTable is any indication. We found lots of restaurants with tables for two on the nights of Saturday, January 19, and Sunday, January 20, including some local favorites: Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, Ris in West End, the Capital Grille on Capitol Hill, Central and Proof in Penn Quarter, and Tosca and the Source downtown. The 21st also shows many openings, even for larger parties. Arguably, if people are planning to attend one of the dozens of inaugural balls that are happening over the weekend and inauguration night—official and unofficial—they may be less likely to also spend dollars on dinner out. While balls don’t necessarily include food, they can be expensive when adding up the cost of tickets, attire, and transportation.

On the positive side for this inauguration: It falls on a federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which may make it an easier getaway for a lot of people. It may be Obama’s second inauguration, but it’s also his last and possibly the last inauguration of a black President for the near term. The extended forecast projects a slight chance of precipitation and cold temperatures but not as cold as four years ago. And finally, for those who wanted to come four years ago but who couldn’t get a room, well, there are rooms to be gotten, and maybe waiting for another few days or a week will result in better terms. In other words, for visitors it’s an opportunity, and for the hospitality industry it may not be 2009 but will still surpass the same week in a non-inauguration year.