Birth Of A Hotel: What’s New?

Our “Birth of a Hotel” feature property has many new exciting developments in store this holiday season, including the unveiling of a model guest room and the naming of the hotel’s restaurant, The Grill Room. The property is, for all intensive purposes, trucking along nicely towards opening, suffering no major setbacks as a result of weather or construction delays. That said, Capella Washington D.C., Georgetown has confirmed exclusively to “Birth of a Hotel” reporter McLean Robbins that the hotel will not open in time for the 57th presidential inauguration as planned.

“The four days of great revenue would be nice, but we only have one chance to do it right,” says Alex Obertop, the hotel’s general manager seen in the video above.

He confirmed that after meeting with Capella CEO Horst Schulze and Castleton Holdings, LLC, the hotel’s ownership group, that the property would delay its opening to ensure that the property is fully functional and 100% ready to service their guests according to the Capella mission and vision.

Given that this inaugural takes place not only on a holiday weekend but for a president’s second term, it isn’t nearly the disappointment it could have been.

As of press time, the hotel is scheduled to open on or around Valentine’s Day, just a few weeks after its originally predicted opening date.

Stay tuned for many other exciting developments in coming weeks, including a deep dive into hotel design trends as well as a bigger picture look at service and training.

Building A Community: Engaging Locals During Hotel Development And Opening

When managing partner Bruce Bradley envisions his soon-to-open Capella hotel, he speaks of a space where guests and locals alike can gather over food and cocktails, a luxuriously private space where he and his wife can entertain client and business associates.
Bradley, a longtime fixture on Washington’s business and social circuits, is known to spend much of his time in Washington’s luxury hotels – in fact, his first meeting with the author took place at The Four Seasons, just blocks from his construction site.

But how will he and his new staff go about getting community buy-in? The tricky process of designing a hotel meant not just for guests but for locals as well is one where Capella has succeeded remarkably in an area where many others have failed. But it all comes down to a few simple points:

Fit the Location
Have you ever seen a modernist building smack dab in the middle of a group of historic townhomes and wondered, “How the heck did that get there?” That’s exactly the concern that Capella hoped to avoid.

Nick Demas, a partner at Castleton Holdings LLC, the hotel’s ownership group, told DC real estate blog DC Mud that by restricting the redesign primarily to the building’s interior, developers avoided many headaches and the “community backlash that often follows these sorts of projects.” Of the community, he commented, “We are thrilled that our plan was so well received by our neighbors, the ANC and the Old Georgetown Board.”

Mud called the project a “hugfest” and ANC2E Commissioner Tom Birch called the process “turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”
This is a stark contrast to another proposed hotel project in Washington. Developer Brian Friedman has spent nearly a decade trying to turn Adams Morgans’ former First Church of Christ into an upscale boutique hotel. The property was once planned to become an Edition, part of the Marriott brand, and will now be run by the same New York group that developed the Ace and NoMad properties. The hotel, which has not yet begun construction, has faced significant opposition from locals who fear that the luxury property will not fit in with the neighborhood’s less affluent residents and more casual culture.

Capella, by contrast, is an ultraluxury property in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood, sandwiched between a Four Seasons and a Ritz-Carlton, two of the world’s leading luxury hotel brands.

“This is a hotel that’s meant to be very quiet and unassuming with the character of guests that would be here, but still very elegant and tasteful,” Capella architect Michael Winstanley told the Georgetown Dish.

So far, the Capella design hasn’t ruffled any feathers, even with the notoriously difficult Georgetown ANC. District commissioner Bill Starrels says that Capella has “done a very nice job with their building,” calling the relationship “one of the better ones [the ANC] has had.”
The key, Starrels says, was that the hotel’s ownership and developers met early on with the ANC to air their concerns. Since then, construction managers have been only a cellphone call away. When we brought up the contrast to the notoriously controversial Apple store that entered the neighborhood several years back, Starrels demurred, saying that stories of controversy surrounding the design were largely exaggerated.

Still, he points to open communication from both ends and minimal disruption to surrounding area as keys to success. Even the construction and potential added traffic to the street shouldn’t be an issue – a “hotel of this caliber” will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

While the Adams Morgan property has had ongoing pre-construction issues, it is important to note that no final deals have been signed. There is a chance that these concerns will be resolved before ground is broken, although there is also the likelihood that this project will become a hugely unpopular addition to the neighborhood. It is too soon to say whether or not the Friedman hotel will, like Capella, sail smoothly towards opening or whether they will ever even break ground.

Which leads us to our next point …

Foster Strategic Relationships
It’s a simple enough concept, and one that has certainly been written repeatedly in business texts: you are only as good as the people who work for you.

Capella, as much or more so than their other brand counterparts, hires carefully, selectively, discerningly, particularly with their key employees. General managers are often recruited from other properties, and hires are most often made with word of mouth recommendations. The end result? A staff that is not only dedicated to the brand tenets, but to each other, bonded by the process of hand-selection.

Staff comes on board early, often nearly a year out, to help guide all aspects of the opening process. They study carefully – not only the brand, but the location and their place in the community, working to form strategic relationships within both the hotel itself and with the community.

Erin Hosler, general manager of the soon-to-open B South Beach hotel, knows how important it is to foster the right community relationships. Like Capella’s Georgetown neighborhood, South Beach is notoriously insular, and having the right community relationships is critical. Hosler, who returned to South Beach after several years working for clients in other cities, says that re-connecting with key people within the city, from the hotel and motel association to the CVB and City Hall has been critical to helping establish the hotel’s pre-opening presence.

Larry Auth, area director of sales and marketing at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, says that this process is necessary, and that relationships should be selected carefully to match the hotel’s target clientele. For example, his property has relationships not only with an area museum but with a luxury boot maker famous in Texas. “In each city it’s different and unique.” Post opening, he says, it’s important to continue engaging with the local community – his properties have special local rates as well as special Texas-themed events at the hotel specifically designed to cater to the local community.

For Capella, much of this job has fallen to Director of Sales and Marketing Pegah Ghoushbeigui, whose impressive resume boasts stints at other luxury hotels in the Washington market including the Park Hyatt and The Jefferson. Since late summer, Ghoushbeigui has been networking both within the community and outside of the D.C. area, visiting cities like New York for regional media tours as well as Cannes, France, for the International Luxury Travel Market, where she met with more than 60 travel agencies and key media to help boost the hotel’s visibility in the marketplace.

She has also worked hard to establish relationships within the Washington community, creating unique guest partnerships with the Washington Ballet, where guests will have exclusive access to performances, classes and behind-the-scenes tours as well as with celebrity hair stylist Luigi Parasmo.

“We are thrilled to partner with an establishment who values customer service, commitment and professionalism as much as we do,” Parasmo says. The Capella Hotel team demonstrates integrity, passion and commitment, and as a professional in the industry, I have a major appreciation for that.”

Know Thy Clientele
Capella has spent significant effort to understand its guest profile. CEO Horst Schulze explained recently to CNBC that his target guest was one who used to stay in a suite or on a hotel’s executive floor and is now craving a more intimate, personalized guest experience.

Shulze’s background with the Ritz-Carlton company is one that he undoubtedly carries with him as he seeks to develop the next generation of luxury.

One such way he hopes to achieve this is through the hotel’s Personal Assistant program, where dedicated concierge staff will take care of guests on a more individualized basis.

Capella Washington’s lead personal assistant, Luis Colmenares, is eager to take up the challenge. The veteran concierge holds not only a quarter-century of hospitality experience but also the highest membership honor in the concierge world, Les Clefs d’Or, as well as the title of president of the Washington Area Concierge Association. To what does he account his signature success? “I’m a people person … I like to watch people … I like to make them happy.”

Hostler, a Ritz alum and former “hotel historian,” agrees. “One of the biggest lessons I carry with me is the Ritz-Carlton experience, “she says. “It’s important to understand why someone is loyal to specific hotels … what are their likes and dislikes.” At her new property, she aspires to create a similar environment to the one Capella is working with, albeit at a slightly lower price point.

“I don’t know why hotels haven’t been doing this all along,” she says. “I think the reason why hotels are doing this is that they’re finally starting to understand that to keep someone loyal you do have to treat them like a family member.”

And it’s that family mentality Capella is hoping to achieve. We’ll see how well they achieve this when the hotel opens in early February.

[Image Credit: McLean Robbins]

So, How Did You Get The Job, Luis Colmenares, Lead Personal Assistant At Capella Washington DC?

Luis Colmenares, shown above, is standing just outside the hotel’s construction site at 31st and South Streets in Georgetown.

Meet Luis Colmenares, president of the Washington Area Concierge Association, member of Les Clefs D’Or and new lead personal assistant at Capella Washington, D.C., Georgetown. The 54-year-old Colmenares has spent 24 years at the city’s finest hotels, most recently at Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco, where he served for the past eight years as lead concierge before taking the position with Capella in late November.

The always-smiling Colmenares sat with us over lunch, a cheery argyle sweater brightening up his somber jacket-and-tie uniform, to discuss just what he hopes to achieve when he takes over Washington’s first hotel with a dedicated personal assistant program in February.

Nearly a quarter century ago, Colmenares moved to Washington from his native Venezuela on a “whim.” He had visited on a week-long vacation and fell in love with the “great European feel” of the city. After spending nearly a decade as a travel consultant, he applied on a lark to the Capital Hilton after a friend suggested he’d make a good concierge.
He got the job, spending a year as a member of the concierge team at one of Washington’s largest hotels before moving to open the Ritz-Carlton on 22nd and M in 2001, a property that has deep roots in the Washington community.

It is also where he first met Alex Obertop, who was then the property’s director of rooms. Here, he worked as part of a team of six at his first luxury hotel, serving as both a butler to visiting VIPs as well as performing more personalized concierge duties on the hotel’s private Club floor.

An outgoing and self-described “people person,” Colmenares also spent a year at one of the city’s ultraluxury properties, The Mandarin Oriental, before moving to spend eight years at Hotel Monaco, a boutique property in the heart of Penn Quarter.

Here, he earned admittance into Les Clefs d’Or USA, the industry’s most competitive membership organization and rose to become president of the Washington Area Concierge Association, where he was honored with the title of “Concierge of the Year” by Where magazine.

Colmenares tells numerous stories of his days as a luxury concierge, although, ever discreet, he won’t name names. There was the notoriously temperamental opera singer who insisted that he join her for tea, the eccentric businessman who ordered a Hummer delivered to the hotel and would only purchase the vehicle after Colmenares accompanied him on the test drive and approved of the purchase. These are but a handful of loyal clients whom he says he’s had the pleasure of serving. He grins as he tells each story, his eyes crinkling at the corners, making him seem decades younger than his salt and pepper hair suggests.

When asked if he ever wants to leave DC, he shakes his head. “My roots are here.”
But Colmenares yearned for a return to luxury – he missed the fast pace, the one-to-one service ratio, and the guest relationships that developed over repeat visits. In fact, he craved the very attitude that Capella CEO Horst Schulze, a former Ritz-Carlton man, described recently to CNBC when he answered that Capella staffers would do anything for a guest, so long as it was “legal, moral and ethical.”

“Everything [at Capella] is about service,” Colmenares says. “We really want to know the guest, but not be invasive.”

Such knowledge is what sets Capella apart from its peers, and its staff are what make it possible, says Obertop. Assistants will begin by calling guests two weeks prior to arrival, making sure that basic needs like dinner reservations and food preferences or allergies are noted. Upon arrival, a dedicated assistant will greet each guest, doubling as front staff agents as they escort the guest directly to their hotel room for check-in. The process will run like a well-oiled machine, he hopes, the team of seven working shifts to ensure an individualized relationship with guests in each of the hotel’s 49 rooms. As of early December, two of the assistants in addition to Colmenares have been hired – one, a former colleague of his at Hotel Monaco and another who has personal assistant experience but who has never before worked in hospitality. It will be a tight ship, but there’s no one better than Colmenares to run the show.

See D.C. Like a Local: Visit Lead Personal Assistant Luis Colmenares’ Favorite Spots
• The National Gallery of Art … “my favorite on the mall.”
• Hillwood … “a great private space.”
• The Kreeger Museum … “for the architecture.”
• The Spanish Steps … “to sit and enjoy a spring or summer day.”
• Montrose Park … “for picnics.”
• The Key Bridge … “at sunset, there’s nothing better.”
• The Lincoln Memorial … “sit on the back to watch planes take off and land.”

[Image Credit: McLean Robbins]

Birth Of A Hotel: The Rise Of UltraLuxury

Above, Capella CEO Horst Schulze discusses the rise of the ultraluxury sector across the world on CNBC.

What is ultraluxury or ultra-luxury, you ask? The guest he describes is one who used to stay in a suite or on a club level of a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons, and now opts for a smaller, more personalized guest experience.

What do they get? “Anything they want … so long as it’s legal, moral and ethical,” Shulze says.

Examples of ultraluxury include hotel brands like Rosewood, Aman and Ritz-Carlton reserve as well as some select boutique properties. These hotels are typically quite small, often less than 100 rooms, and many have rates starting at well over $1,000 per night.

Sign us up.

Birth Of A Hotel: Creating Private Spaces For VIP Guests

Earlier this year, USA Today writer Barb DeLollis toured the Capella construction site and commented on the fact that the hotel has not one, but two private spaces reserved for guests, the library and rooftop deck.

Capella won’t be the only hotel in the region to have a private area just for guests. The Jefferson hotel, arguably the city’s only other ultraluxury property, also has a private library reserved only for guest use.

What are your thoughts on reserving spaces for guests only? Does this add a great private space to a hotel or does it alienate potential local guests?

We also have an exclusive glimpse at Capella’s private roof deck, shown above. It will be the only hotel in the Georgetown neighborhood to offer a rooftop pool.

[Image Credit: Renderings courtesy of Capella Washington]