The grandeur of its public buildings and top-tier restaurants and cultural attractions make Washington, DC, much more than a one-note government town. By Don Douloff, July/August 2008
Think of Washington, DC, and what leaps to mind is, “government town.” But while Washington is undoubtedly the U.S. seat of power, that image inaccurately pigeon-holes this metropolis and doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
Washington, DC, grew up along the banks of the Potomac River, in a central location chosen by George Washington to satisfy northern and southern interests. Using Paris as his inspiration, city designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant fashioned the capital city with boulevards and ceremonial spaces that lend a sweeping grandeur.
That grandeur is best, and most famously, represented by the landmarks clustered in and around the National Mall, which spans from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and also includes such iconic attractions as the soaring Washington Monument and the White House.
Moreover, that grandeur extends to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, whose vastness is animated by a $4-million permanent art collection that’s the largest in a DC public building outside of a museum. Located downtown, in the historic Shaw neighbourhood, the facility houses five exhibit halls totaling 703,000 sq. ft.; 66 meeting rooms covering 150,000 sq. ft.; another 36,000 sq. ft. of dedicated registration space; a 55,000-sq.-ft. ballroom and 65 loading docks (dcconvention.com).
“At 2.3-million sq. ft., the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is one of the largest on the East Coast and was built with ecologically friendly technology and materials, to help reduce both the carbon footprint of the structure and the conventions that are using the space,” says Chris Gieckel, international media relations manager at Destination DC, the city’s convention and tourism office (destinationdc.com).
Within three blocks are the Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel and the Grand Hyatt Washington, which often serve as headquarter hotels for large convention-centre shows. Other major properties within walking distance are the Embassy Suites Downtown Washington, DC, the Marriott at Metro Center and the Hampton Inn Washington, DC Convention Centre. A short cab ride away sits St. Gregory Luxury Hotel & Suites, housing 100 suites and 54 deluxe rooms and offering 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities accommodating up to 150. Two executive boardrooms are also available (stgregoryhotelwdc.com).
Next year, construction begins on the 1,115-room Marriott Marquis, to be located across Ninth Street NW from the convention centre and expected to open in early 2012.
In fact, there’s a hive of hotel activity. In late March, 2008, upscale Thompson Hotels unveiled Donovan House, a sleek boutique hotel on Thomas Circle. Two meeting rooms each accommodate about 40 (donovanhousedc.com).
On April 1, 2008, a 343-room, re-branded property, the Liaison Capitol Hill, An Affinia Hotel, opened after a $12-million-plus renovation, housing 10,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space among 10 rooms (affinia.com).
Following a $32-million refurbishment that added new designer interiors and furnishings, wireless Internet and 32-inch plasma TVs, the historic St. Regis Washington hotel re-opened in April, 2008 (stregis.com/dc).
Also undergoing a full-scale refurbishment is the Jefferson Hotel, whose makeover will include updated guestrooms, a new restaurant and new event and public spaces. It’s expected to re-open in mid-2009 (thejeffersonwashingtondc.com).
A top-to-bottom restoration, exceeding $100-million, is slated for the historic Hilton Washington. Plans include updated guestrooms and 110,000 sq. ft. of reconfigured meeting and event space. Targeted finish date: 2010 (washington.hilton.com).
In June, 2007, the Hilton hosted the PCMA Education Foundation Dinner celebrating professional achievement. Rick Naylor, president of Toronto-based Accucom Corporate Communications, worked on video production and live talent for that gala, held in the ballroom.
“CONNECTED TO HISTORY”
Naylor liked the Hilton because it is “very connected to history, to the White House and Washington pomp and ceremony. It has a real ‘nation’s capital’ feel.” He particularly liked the red-carpeted atrium and the unique, oval-shaped ballroom evoking the White House’s Oval Office.
Also full of praise for the city is Marie-Josée Talarico, director of operations for professional conference organizer JPdL Montreal. Last year, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) sub-contracted JPdL to assist with its annual conference, held in Washington in October, 2007, for 5,000 attendees, at the convention centre.
“The city is clean, easy to get around in; the food is excellent; the history, the culture, the things to do. It’s a great city,” enthuses Talarico. Moreover, the city’s tourism office provided “excellent co-operation” during the ASRM conference. “They assisted us in making appointments, recommending venues and restaurants and making sure the fit was good for the type of event we needed.”
She also applauds the variety of museums and noted that, on the whole, the city has much to offer conference attendees and strikes “a good balance between sophistication and pleasure.” In Naylor’s experience, Washington’s production houses are staffed by highly seasoned professionals who honed their craft by working the local political scene. Naylor, who’s held several events in DC, says he hasn’t run into big union problems, either – rare for a major city.
For a major city, Washington (population: just under 600,000) is remarkably compact, with many attractions, venues and hotels a manageable walk or a short cab or subway ride away.
And what’s on the other end of that walk, cab or subway ride? Attractions and distractions galore.
Opened April 11, 2008, near the White House and the Capitol Building, the Newseum houses 250,000 sq. ft. of display space blending five centuries of news history with current technology and hands-on exhibits. A conference centre houses 24,000 sq. ft. on two levels, while a flexible presentation space, the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater, seats 535 (newseum.org).
Launched Oct. 5, 2007, within walking distance of the National Mall, 27,000-sq.-ft. Madame Tussauds Washington, DC, allows visitors to touch, see and hear major historical events and wax figures of Hollywood celebrities and sports, historical and political figures. Unique to the DC branch is a replica of the White House’s Oval Office. Madame Tussauds can host 200 for standing receptions and 50 for seated meals (madametussaudsdc.com).
And do not miss the International Spy Museum. The world’s only museum dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage, it features just over 20,000 sq. ft. of exhibits displaying actual spy tools and objects (lipstick pistol! wristwatch camera!) worthy of James Bond. A special-events space accommodates up to 250 and the museum can be rented out for groups, for whom special activities, such as scavenger hunts, can be customized (spymuseum.org).
Most comprehensive of all is the Smithsonian Institution (si.edu), the world’s largest museum complex and research organization comprising 15 museums and the National Zoo, all free of charge (as are many of the city’s cultural attractions). Among the Smithsonian’s most popular draws is the National Air and Space Museum, housing the Wright Brothers’ pioneering airplane, the Wright Flyer, among many fascinating exhibits.
“From Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis to Chuck Yeager’s X-1, this museum is a virtual history book of flight and all kinds of artifacts relating to it,” says Gieckel.
Exploring the built world, the National Building Museum highlights achievements in architecture, design, engineering, urban planning and construction. Soaring 159 ft. and boasting 75-ft. Corinthian columns resembling giant redwoods, the stunning Great Hall is reception-ready and indeed, has hosted 16 presidential inaugural balls (nbm.org).
All told, the city boasts about 80 museums and galleries catering to a wide swath of tastes and interests.
Not surprisingly, given its world-capital status, Washington is home to 170 embassies, chancelleries and diplomatic residences, some of which, including the Canadian embassy, are available for special events. “You don’t have to think too hard to find good venues in Washington,” says Naylor.
Groups wishing to tour the White House must contact the Canadian embassy with their requests (canadianembassy.org). Allow up to six months lead time.
When attendees want to cut loose, Washington delivers, offering everything from jazz (clubs HR-57 and Twins Jazz), country and bluegrass (Madam’s Organ club) and everything in between (The 9:30 Club). About 50 entertainment venues can be rented out to groups.
Washington is also a theatre town, where, each season, about 65 metro-area companies mount more than 350 productions. Chief cultural venues include the National Theatre (nationaltheatre.org) and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (kennedy-center.org).
Heightening the city’s appeal are intriguing neighbourhoods such as cobblestoned Georgetown, home to boutiques and antique stores; cosmopolitan Dupont Circle, chock-a-block with trendy galleries; and, near the convention centre, revitalized Penn Quarter, abuzz with restaurants, bars, retail and an entertainment complex housing the Verizon Center arena, home to the Washington Capitals hockey team and Washington Wizards basketball franchise. In spring, 2008, the Washington Nationals pro baseball team christened brand-new Nationals Park, located on the Southeast waterfront.
For groups flying into DC, the city is served by three airports: Ronald Reagan National, about a 15-minute cab ride from downtown; Dulles International, 35 to 45 minutes away; and Baltimore Washington International, about 45 minutes away.
Naylor praises Reagan National because of its intimacy, proximity to downtown and connection to the city’s subway system.