A Biden bounce for D.C. hotels? Covid may have a say in it

The 55-room Rosewood Washington D.C. expects to be full in the days surrounding President-elect Biden's inauguration.
The 55-room Rosewood Washington D.C. expects to be full in the days surrounding President-elect Biden's inauguration.

Washington hotels are enjoying a bounce in business ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20, though some properties report that bookings have slowed in recent weeks as Covid-19 cases continue to spike across the U.S.

Elliott Ferguson
Elliott Ferguson

"Hotels are realizing decent pace in terms of occupancy, but I wouldn't necessarily say that they're selling out," said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC and national chair of the U.S. Travel Association. "The big reason for that is because the inauguration this year could be a hit or miss. Due to concern for health and safety, the president-elect could be cautious in terms of people physically gathering, and things could be significantly different."

Austin Phillips, director of marketing for the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC, expressed a similar sentiment, calling plans for the inauguration proceedings "anyone's best guess."

"The Saturday the election was called for Biden (Nov. 7), we saw a surge of reservations over the weekend, both at our hotel and across the district," said Phillips. "But then it kind of paused, and it's remained somewhat paused since then. People are holding off a bit to book."

Still, even a scaled-down version of inaugural events will create a much-needed boost for D.C.'s tourism and hospitality sectors, Phillips said.

"There are certainly premium rates, and we've seen the suites book up," he added. "News stations are still reserving their blocks, and the high-level people who traditionally come in every four years will still be coming in."

According to Gabor Vida, managing director of the Rosewood Washington D.C., the 55-room property expects to be full during the Inauguration Day period, even against the backdrop of Covid-19.

Just ahead of the event, the Rosewood property unveiled six 1,100-square foot residential-style townhouse accommodations. As of late November, a three-night townhouse stay booked as part of the property's An Intimate Inaugural Ball package -- which includes an in-room screening of the inaugural ceremony and dinner for six -- was priced at $4,000 a night, before taxes and fees.

"We're forecasting to sell out," Vida confirmed. "It appears that despite the pandemic, individuals are still looking to experience the momentous day in person."

The Riggs Washington DC, which   opened in February, the month before the pandemic was declared, has "secured a solid amount of reservations thus far," reported Louie Oliver, director of operations for the D.C. region at the Lore Group, the hotel's owner. The Riggs' inauguration bookings require either a two-day or three-day minimum stay, depending on arrival date.

The lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Washington D.C.
The lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Washington D.C.

Likewise, Torsten van Dullemen, general manager and area vice president of operations for the Mandarin Oriental Washington D.C., called excitement around the historic inauguration -- which will see vice president-elect Kamala Harris become the country's first woman and first Black and Asian American vice president -- "encouraging."

"It is just what D.C. needs right now," added van Dullemen. "With every new administration comes a newfound interest in the city, and we are already seeing that with President elect-Biden."

The anticipated boom in business will come on the heels of a sluggish summer and fall, with STR data indicating that Washington D.C. occupancy was down roughly 50% on the year prior for both August and September, hovering at around 36%. Although it rose to 37% in October, that slight increase actually represented a 51% drop from the previous October.

RevPAR for those months was down approximately 62%, 71% and 74%, respectively.

According to the Lore Group's Oliver, the city is bracing for the start of a "slow" winter period, due to ongoing travel bans and "a possible reversal for D.C. mandates regarding hospitality regulations."

As Covid-19 case counts rise, the city has already started to reclose some popular attractions. The Smithsonian museums temporarily shut down on Nov. 23, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has extended cancellation of all performances through April.

Other institutions announcing late-November closures include the National Gallery of Art's West Building, the Glenstone Museum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the Planet Word language arts museum. 

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that by the beginning of the year, the museums will be at a point of reconsidering and reopening," said Destination DC's Ferguson. "Because monuments, memorials, museums -- that's what D.C. does well."

The city's high concentration of sites and attractions as well as their relative affordability will play a key role in D.C.'s post-pandemic recovery, Ferguson predicted.

"It'll be a slow recovery because of the economics," he said. "People won't have as much money, but that's where we come in handy as a destination, because you [can do so much] for free. I'm being optimistic, but in a best-case scenario, by March or April, a vaccine will be in place. And with that will come tourism and, eventually, the return of conventions and meetings." 


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