Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

It was a good week after a bad year.

Although no urban hoteliers have had it easy these past 15 months, for those in Washington, the pandemic was but the first in a series of unexpected challenges and complications. The streets of the capital are no strangers to protests, but those in 2020 were particularly intense. Museums, a large draw for tourists, were closed. Election years (and the subsequent inauguration) are typically good for business, but this year saw upheaval, then insurrection and heavy security. The inauguration crowds who typically buy up the city's room inventory were told to stay home. And the city's rules on indoor dining have been more restrictive than even New York -- and its vaccine rollout slower.

And now: Cue the cicadas.

But despite its location in the cicada zone (the first buzzing has already been heard), Joel Freyberg, general manager of the Dupont Circle Hotel, was happy when I spoke to him earlier this week. Part of the reason was personal: He had gotten his second vaccination the day before ("I feel so liberated"). But a big part of it was professional: He had just found out that indoor restaurants and bars, currently restricted to 25% capacity, will be going to 50% for bars on May 31 and then 100% on June 11. Dining restrictions would be lifted completely on June 21.

And the buzz he was hearing wasn't just from the cicadas. The hotel had recently won a slew of recognitions from Departures. Its bar, the Doyle, was included on the magazine's list of "11 Perfectly Instagrammable Hotel Bars in the U.S.," and the hotel was also listed in "11 Truly Over-the-Top Hotel Suites in the U.S." and "The Best Newly Completed Hotel Renovations in the U.S."

A Penthouse Suite at the Dupont Circle Hotel.
A Penthouse Suite at the Dupont Circle Hotel. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Dupont Circle Hotel

I had had dinner at the hotel's Pembroke restaurant on March 9, 2020, two days before the pandemic was declared, and thought that the hotel, freshly repositioned, was likely to have a great year.

But the hotel managed to stay open only until the 22nd of that month. It reopened Oct. 12, but after Washington's mayor suspended all indoor dining, it closed again on Dec. 23. On April 14, it once more began receiving guests.

The Dupont Circle is part of the Doyle Collection, and Freyberg described it as "comfortable elegance." I revisited last weekend and felt its refurbishment combined the best elements of lifestyle hotels -- a very contemporary look, but without hitting you over the head with how hip it is -- and luxury, without a trace of stuffiness in decor or service.

The bar's vibe, from the bartenders' uniforms to the lighting, succeeds in projecting a "Mad Men" atmosphere, complemented with a creative cocktail menu that includes updated spins on classics.

The exterior of the building and lobby are more contemporary, with midcentury touches, than grand. "You don't need a crystal chandelier to know you're in a luxury hotel," Freyberg explained. "But I want to compete with the top hotels on service."

Freyberg, who had previously worked at the Carlyle and opened the Chatwal, both in New York, wants to especially channel some of the Carlyle's attributes. "I love the fact that it's the hub of the Upper East Side," he said. "You'd see residents there -- they'd put their family there -- and it was where power hitters had breakfast." Likewise, his goal for Dupont Circle is to "be the hub for embassies and media, an extension of the neighborhood."

Indeed, I had found out about its reopening from a friend of mine who lives down the block and was excited to see it come back to life.

When Freyberg was at the Chatwal, he had told me "travel agents created this hotel," and I asked whether his distribution strategy included advisors at the Dupont Circle, as well. 

"Of course," he said, noting that he was preferred in both Virtuoso and Signature. He's even soliciting advice from former advisors. When repositioning the hotel, he called Priscilla Alexander, the retired founder of Protravel International.

"She's a real straight shooter and really thinks outside the box," he said. "She mentioned the importance of a great concierge, more than ever before, which goes together with capitalizing on the neighborhood and knowing what may be just steps away. And she said it was important to talk about how we're in the Doyle Collection. That's better known in Europe, but it's known for Irish hospitality, and she felt it was important to emphasize that a woman [Bernadette Gallagher] leads the company."

Now that capacity restrictions are lifting and museums are reopening, "people can start planning, and that's key to a visit to Washington," Freyberg said. "I'm starting to see the light." He paused. "Until the cicadas come." 

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