Party like it's presidential inauguration 2009

Don't waste time quizzing presidential candidates about whether change is good. It's the managers of hotels and convention halls in Washington, D.C., who have the proof.

The presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, is still a year away, and the guest of honor is unknown, but the hospitality industry already is gearing up for landslide business.

Interest in the official balls and the hundreds of related events spikes any time a new set of players takes office, and this year's extra-long and historic primary season has ratcheted expectations further and faster.

"We're pushing ahead a little earlier than normal," says Colleen Evans of Marriott International's two Ritz-Carlton hotels in the District. "Whichever party wins, it will bring in people who probably have not been your regular customers in the past. So it's a great opportunity for a hotel to become the place to be."

Says Ed Rudzinski, general manager of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, "All bets are off as far as the amount of business you will do."

He already has sold all 1,340 rooms during the four-day inaugural period at $350 to $400 a night, and he has booked a pre-inaugural bash for 2,000 revelers.

"This will be my fourth inauguration, and I don't think there has been this much excitement and activity since Clinton's first inauguration," says John Rish, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn. First inquiries about the inauguration came in October, and the hotel has sold about a third of its 300 rooms.

The inaugurations in 2001 and 2005 boosted January hotel room revenue in the District by about 30%, "and we're anticipating even more significant increases in 2009," says Bill Hanbury, CEO of Washington, D.C., Convention & Tourism Corp.

The District will have slightly more than 28,000 rooms ready for occupancy by next January, including 126 under construction and 1,000 being renovated at the St. Regis, Donovan House, Liaison and Jefferson hotels, he says.

The major addition in the area will be the 2,000-room, 300-acre Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, located eight miles south of the city along the Potomac River in Maryland. It will open in April, and its 470,000 square feet of convention space already has been booked for a Jan. 19 gala for 15,000.

"People think mostly of the huge inaugural balls, but there are hundreds and hundreds of special events and special-event venues, and they're already getting interest from around the world," Hanbury says. "Usually they don't have anything until the summer."

Even though expectations are grand, at least one hotel group is tailoring its special packages to reflect concerns about the economy and the environment. The Ritz-Carlton Washington is offering a Politically Correct package that includes four nights in the presidential suite; use of a hybrid limo, organic toiletries and linens; a gourmet all-organic dinner for two; and an outing for 20 people to serve dinner at a shelter for homeless women. A portion of the approximate price tag of $50,000 will be donated to charity.

"We're trying to keep it special but clearly manageable in terms of the price," Evans says.

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