Amid reports that security has been raised following the recent riots and acts of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, hoteliers are promoting their properties as safe for visitors who want to be in the nation’s capital for the historic presidential inauguration.
U.S. presidential inaugurations traditionally elevate the performance of Washington, D.C., hotels on the days surrounding the ceremony and events.
Presidential inaugurations in 2009 and 2017, marking the first terms of President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, resulted in room revenues “more than three times above normal” on days surrounding the ceremony, said M. Brian Riley, senior research analyst with STR’s market insights team. STR is a division of CoStar, which publishes Hotel News Now.
While the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to be starkly untraditional in comparison to others in modern history, D.C. hoteliers said there is still demand from guests who “want to be close to the action.”
Dave Walsh, director of sales and marketing at Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C., said the hotel received “a big uptick in reservations and interest” when Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election.
“There was initially a lot of interest,” he said. However, bookings dropped off and were canceled following announcements there would be limitations on inauguration attendance and a focus on “virtual” events, due to safety concerns around rising COVID-19 cases, he said.
With the announcement “discouraging people from congregating on the (National) Mall, that there will be no parade or inaugural ball, or other things that usually come with the inauguration, we did see that (demand) level off,” he said.
Another challenge to hotel demand in D.C. was posed by the Jan. 6 riots and acts of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by people disputing the results of the presidential election.
“The activity (last week) did have an effect and will have an effect on demand in the city certainly near-term and I think in the medium term,” Walsh said. “Until we get through the inauguration, I think there will be some trepidation from people coming into Washington. … What you see is something akin to the riots going on in Paris a couple of years ago, where people might sense some danger, but are not in danger, certainly not in our hotel.”
News outlets including The Washington Post have reported security has been heightened in the nation’s capital ahead of the presidential inauguration, and Walsh said the marketing focus of his hotel is to present itself and the city as safe for visitors.
“What we really struggle with now is, ‘What is the messaging after (the riots)?’ This has become a much more somber affair than an inauguration typically is,” he said.
“It’s a tricky situation, but there is something on Jan. 20 definitely worth celebrating, that should be marked by all Americans. People coming to witness history should be proud to be here. … We don’t know what circumstances will unfold between now and then, but the message is we’re open. You can come to the hotel and D.C., and you will be safe and well-served and comfortable.”
This week, Airbnb announced that it is cancelling all reservations at its properties listed in D.C., saying in a statement: “In response to various local, state and federal officials asking people not to travel to Washington, D.C., we are announcing that Airbnb will cancel reservations in the Washington, D.C. metro area during the inauguration week. Additionally, we will prevent any new reservations in the Washington, D.C., area from being booked during that time by blocking such reservations.”
Spokespeople for Hilton and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts told USA TODAY that D.C. properties under those brands are prioritizing the safety and security of guests and staff, but they discussed no specific plans or policies in response to the recent news.
“It won’t surprise you that our D.C. hotels continuously review their safety and security procedures," Nigel Glennie, spokesperson for Hilton, told the news outlet.
“We don’t get into the specifics of our security posture publicly, but the preparation is always well informed and mindful of current events,” Glennie said. “The teams at these hotels are very experienced and have a long history of successfully managing through major public events.”
Wyndham Hotels & Resorts spokesperson Rob Myers said: “We have provided our hotels with additional security measures to consider, and we are encouraging them to follow guidance from local authorities.”
As of this week, Walsh said his hotel hasn’t fielded a lot of concerns from booked guests over the riots.
“We haven’t seen a rush of cancellations from people that have already made reservations,” he said. “People committed to coming for the inauguration are still coming. They understood the atmosphere would be a little different.”
Something to Celebrate
Particularly worth celebrating, Walsh said, is the election of the nation’s first female vice president.
He noted hotel marketing included a package with a three-bedroom presidential suite “that was really about the celebration of the vice presidential inauguration, with the realization that there are a lot of people in the U.S. for which this historic swearing in of Kamala Harris would have special meaning.”
The Riggs Washington DC is marking its first presidential inauguration since opening in February 2020 and drawing guests with its First Ladies Suites, honoring the wives of past presidents, and ultra-luxury packages.
The boutique hotel, owned and operated by Lore Group and located in the former Riggs National Bank building, is offering a $40,000 inauguration package that includes three nights for four people in its Riggs Suite, a private inauguration party for up to 10 guests with a large screen to watch the ceremony and a private chef and bartender, limo service, a private butler for the entire stay and private tour of D.C. monuments. A portion of those proceeds will also be donated to the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter.
Daniel Pimentel, GM of Riggs Washington DC, said in an email that the hotel has “secured a solid amount of reservations for the inauguration.”
He noted there were “some cancellations following the announcement that a majority of the inauguration will be delivered virtually,” but “despite this, some guests still want to be ‘close to the action.’”
He added that “the remainder of winter is projected to be slow, mostly due to travel bans, people staying safe by remaining home, and the current ban on indoor dining in D.C.,” though the hotel has benefited from staycation demand from local residents.
Comparisons to Past Inaugurations
The Mandarin Oriental D.C.’s Walsh said this is his “third inauguration in the city,” and in his experience, the hotel “by this time would be totally sold out and with a wait list” for guests.
“Clearly that’s not the situation this year,” he said.
STR’s Riley said presidential inaugurations historically have had an effect on hotel demand similar to a large national convention or sports event.
“Those stellar numbers are even higher when Jan. 20 falls closer to a weekend. What we typically see is that the two to three days leading to the swearing-in ceremony have sizeable performance gains, followed by a rapid decline in indicators approaching what is more seasonally normal or even slightly below average for the market,” he said.
During the 2009 and 2017 presidential inauguration period, daily revenue per available room for hotels in the D.C. market “approached almost $350, inflation-adjusted,” Riley said.
“On both of those occasions, daily market occupancy peaked in the vicinity of 90%, which is notable considering that this market has roughly 100,000 rooms,” he said.
Cancellations and a slower booking pace for this year’s inauguration certainly have been reflected in pricing and expectations, Walsh said.
Also as a result, “from an operations standpoint, we are not doing some of the things we would typically do for an inauguration,” he said.
The hotel has cut back on in-house events for VIP guests, and staffing for that period around the inauguration also will be reduced.
“In years past, we would typically bring staff in from sister properties in Boston or New York and would borrow equipment. Those things aren’t happening. What we are doing is maximizing the equipment and staff we have here,” Walsh said.
He still expects the hotel will continue to book rooms up until the day of the inauguration.
“We hope people will feel more comfortable in the coming days about coming to Washington for this event,” he said.