AN OBITUARY FOR WASHINGTON DC'S (OLD) JEFFERSON HOTEL

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A couple of months ago, I was in Washington DC for a series of meetings and interviews, researching a new book, and took a room at The Jefferson.

During the 1990s and just into the 2000s, I'd stayed there frequently and, at times, for long periods. One of those stays lasted three weeks. The hotel was, in those days, one of the world’s great hotels. And I don’t say that flippantly. It was extraordinarily beautiful and run by a staff who were trained to understand what a world class hotel is all about. They lived it and breathed it. Then it got sold. And the new owners, New York real estate people who apparently never owned a hotel before – and clearly, didn't and don’t understand that the hotel business is not the apartment house business – fixed something that wasn't broken. Okay, there were structural problems with the building that needed to be addressed. But the changes they made go far beyond steel, cement and paint. They destroyed the hotel’s DNA.

The Old Jefferson was world class. The New Jefferson is ordinary.

My disappointment was monumental.

Recently a friend emailed me to say he too had been hugely disappointed with The (new) Jefferson. Which prompted me to add this review here, as I'd already done on TripAdvisor.

To begin with, in the Old Jefferson, you walked through the front door to see a magnificent long hallway with a grand piano at the far end and fabulous flowers. Now you walk in and 20 feet in front of you there is an ugly black and gilded gate, that is shut and hidden behind six really bad potted palms. Making this even more awful, at times during the day, they add a tacky menu stand.

What was once “Wow,” has turned into “What a mess!”

It is really really bad. The gate and the potted palms put there to hide it, block the entrance (except on certain occasions) to the restaurant. It is not just an atrocious misuse of space, it is a blatant rejection of esthetics. Instead of emphasizing the superb, someone imposed his/her own second-rate taste level. Whoever approved and/or oversaw the renovations has the visual equivalent of a tin-ear.

The front desk is now two small desks off to the right, manned by young people who are certainly trying, but lack world class training. The hotel business is unique because hotels don't have clients. While doctors have “patients” and big box stores have “shoppers,” hotels have “guests” and the only other place where that term is used is at home. It’s as though no one ever bothered to mention that difference to the front desk staff. Yes, they were polite and friendly but they didn't stand up when I arrived to welcome me to their home. It sounds like a minor detail but the secret of world class hotels is attention to the minutest details. They lived and breathed that at the Old Jefferson. At the New Jefferson, they didn’t have a clue.

That comes down to training. And training comes down to management.

I then found out that the new owners committed an unpardonable sin. Not a rookie mistake, but a red-card sending off, banned for life, mistake. When they bought the place, they didn't buy, get, rent, copy or steal, the Old Jefferson’s guests files. In other words, they had no idea who their clientele used to be. They had no idea what the DNA of the place was, or needs to be again. Did I want them to say, “Welcome back, I see you once lived here for three weeks and used to bring your children with you, and how is your wife?” Yes. Not for my ego but that’s what world class hotels do. It proves that they know who their guests are and that they truly give a damn.

That the New Jefferson failed this test says just about everything you need to know.

Except it gets worse.

From check in, where once you walked down that magnificent hallway past the piano and the flowers to the elevators around the far corner, you now walk down a side-hallway past the concierge desk, which is simply plunked down there, as if no one knew where to put it, then along an even smaller hallway – which looks like some staff-only corridor in a department store - to the elevators.

Every morning, in that hallway, a table is set up with fresh coffee, to which guests can help themselves. And you drink it in paper cups. Perhaps the paper cups are there so people can take the coffee out. But I didn't see any lids. And anyway, this is not Starbucks. Truly great hotels don't use paper cups. (Attention to detail.)

The room I got was adequate and relatively well appointed. That said, there was a problem with the desks they put into all the rooms. Because they didn't bother to make access points easily accessible for laptops and phone recharging (attention to detail), the desks have a hidden drawer with access points. It’s to the left of the main drawer and is actually just a front that flips down, with the access points behind it. But once you plug in, you have to keep that front piece flipped down. There’s no way to shut it because the wires are there. And when it is flipped down, it gets in the way, making it difficult to sit at the desk. (Attention to detail.)

And then there is the problem with the Wifi. Bandwidth and speed is fine, but I have serious doubts that it’s secure. They say it is. But it doesn’t show secure, you know, with the little lock icon. You get the hotel’s front page and have to sign in and, because you sign in, they say, it’s secure. But it is absolutely not secure until you sign in, so if someone is targeting you, they have your sign in information. (Attention to detail.)

The reason this is important is because professional ID thieves are now targeting hotels in big numbers. Your information is available at several places in all hotels – check in, room service, housekeeping, back office, etc – and several of the nation’s largest chains have been hit, en masse, by ID thieves.

I’m not saying your personal information is not secure here, but I am saying that if the Wifi isn’t secure in your room, you’re vulnerable. Again, the person at the front desk assured me it is secure. With a lot of experience in this area, I think that answer is overly optimistic.

Now back to the room... to put it bluntly, the one I got should not be used, no matter what a guest is paying, unless there are no better rooms available. The reason is because there is no sunlight. There were two windows in the room, but they were half sized windows. One was hidden behind the wide screen television. The other, just as inaccessible, was behind the lamp on the desk. If the management’s excuse is, you get what you pay for, then the management doesn’t understand that while I was not paying for a view, everyone is paying for sunlight. If the management’s excuse is, some of the comfort in our rooms is restricted by the age and physical layout of the building, then the management is thinking “client” not “guest.” If there are better rooms available, the “guest” should have one of those instead of this one.

The next morning I mentioned it to one of the front desk people, saying, “Please tell the reservations manager that, next time, I’d like a room with windows.” At the Old Jefferson, that would have prompted an immediate, “Just a minute sir,” and a call to a manager. Here, I got a forced smile and a shrug. No one ever contacted me. Managers at the Old Jefferson were highly visible everywhere in the hotel and all the time. That’s the way it works at world class hotels. Managers at the New Jefferson were hiding. If the front desk clerk didn't pass along my message, it’s because no one properly trained that person. (Attention to detail.) If that person did, and the manager chose to ignore the comment, it’s because the manager doesn’t understand the difference between “client” and “guest.” It sounds like a minor thing, but in genuine world class hotels, they don't sweat the small stuff, they obsess about the small stuff.

It was much the same with room service. Too tired from a busy day to go out, I couldn't find an extension for room service. So I dialed O which got me to the front desk. The reason why truly great hotels put you in touch directly with the room service manager is so that he/she can take your order, which deliberately avoids having too many moving parts in the process. Why would I want to tell someone who then tells the person I should be speaking with what I want? I can tell the room service manager what I want because, in the end, it’s his job to help me. From a practical business point of view, it’s also his job to up-sell me. Try the home made ice cream, sir, it’s terrific. Etc.

Instead, the front desk person took my order. One Caesar salad with warm chicken and no anchovies. Twenty minutes later, when the plate came up, uncovered – which is a health issue (room service trays must always be covered... attention to detail) – what arrived was a Caesar salad with cold chicken and plenty of anchovies. (Attention to detail.) I phoned back to the front desk person who said right away, “But I told them exactly what you wanted”... maybe, maybe not... and twenty more minutes later, another salad arrived (again, uncovered). This time there were no anchovies, but the chicken (which was warmed) was not part of the salad but served as a side dish. Frustrated with such incompetence (and lack of attention to detail) I took the plate and the waiter left with the original tray. But, because there was no tray this time, it was just the uncovered plate, I didn't have any utensils.

This would never ever ever ever have happened at the Old Jefferson. It happened here because no one pays attention to detail. That tells me the owners and their management don't truly understand the hotel business.

The next day, at check out, I had to explain to the front desk person twice that I wanted a print out of my bill. “But we email you with the bill.” No. Print out please.

I was then asked, “Did you enjoy your stay?”

When I responded, “I can’t begin to tell you how disappointing this place is,” that person shrugged and forced a smile to say, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

And then did what?

Absolutely nothing.

At the Old Jefferson, where the staff was highly trained to care for their “guests,” there would have been a manager out of the back office within 30 seconds. At the New Jefferson, where you might as well be a “shopper,” the response was, “We hope to see you soon, again.”

My answer was, “Not going to happen.”

I don’t care what The Jefferson’s Trip Advisor rating is. It’s easy to fool the public. One of the world’s great hotels has been mediocritized. Maybe they need to call in Anthony Melchiorri – you know, Hotel Impossible – to teach them how to stop faking it. And to rip down that horrid gate and take away the ugly potted palms, to put gorgeous flower arrangements everywhere, and recreate a “Wow” factor.

If and when someone from the New Jefferson bothers to answer this, look for excuses. You’ll find them disguised as smarmy explanations. But in a business where no excuses are ever acceptable, you’ll understand why this place is not worth the time or money.

Washington DC is blessed with plenty of other hotels where the word “guest” actually means something.

At The New Jefferson, it doesn’t. I now see that the manager, David Bueno, answered my TripAdvisor criticism, and that answer is telling as it merely confirms and emphasizes my criticisms.

In short, he wrote, "I am sorry for the confusion with your in room dining order and the lack of response from the front office regarding your room preferences; I can assure you that these matters have been addressed with both our food and beverage and front office teams to ensure these instances do not happen again."

It's an especially pathetic answer seeing as how it deliberately ignores the majority of my complaints and the basis for my major disappointment.

The hotel business is all about attention to the minutest details. As my pal Anthony Melchiorri often says, "Don't sweat the small stuff, obsess about the small stuff."

Clearly Mr. Bueno has a lot to learn. Attention to details. Not being invisible. Knowing his guests. Training his staff properly to care about his guests. Understanding the difference between clients and guests.

The buck stops with him.

Excuses are not solutions, they are just excuses.

Playing the ostrich is always a fatal mistake for the ostrich.