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Luxury Is There. But Where Are The Takers?

Deluxe hotel packages lose appeal

Carol Wolf, Bloomberg News Service  Jan 20, 2009

WASHINGTON — The presidential suite, private jet and personal concierge are still available to anyone who can afford $440,000 for the "44th Commander in Chief" presidential inauguration package at Washington's luxury Omni Shoreham Hotel.

A $2,000-per-person "Yes We Can 2009 Inauguration Cruise," meanwhile, was canceled for lack of passengers, and the Hilton Washington got no takers for its $44,000, four-night "Behind the Inaugural Bash" package.

Barack Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, during a four-day whirl of black-tie balls and exclusive soirees, will bring thousands of wealthy visitors and millions of dollars to Washington's hotels, restaurants and nightspots. In a sign of tough times, the recession and Wall Street's collapse have eroded demand for the most ostentatious offerings.

"The person who would normally take these luxury packages is someone working for Bear Stearns — they don't exist anymore; Lehman Brothers — they don't exist anymore; or Merrill Lynch, which is a shadow of its former self," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York retail consultant and investment bank. "These folks aren't buying anything."

With unprecedented interest in Obama's inauguration — crowd estimates range from at least 1 million to as many as 4 million people — hotel rates in general are soaring.

More than 28,000 of the capital's 29,000 rooms were booked as of Jan. 12 at average rates of $550 to $600 per night, says Rebecca Pawlowski, a spokeswoman for the Destination DC tourism and convention office. Hotel rates peaked at about $340 during George W. Bush's 2005 inaugural, she says.

"With these rates and the interest we are getting, it doesn't appear the economy has hurt hotel occupancy," Pawlowski says. "People are very excited."

Still, Obama's fans are shunning some of the flashiest accommodations.

The Mandarin Oriental in Southwest Washington offered a $200,000 package that would have included four nights in its 14-room presidential suite, use of a chauffeured Maserati Quattroporte, 24-hour butler service, and Ralph Lauren attire to wear at an inaugural ball. Instead, the hotel has booked the 3,500-square-foot suite for $10,000 per night without the accoutrements.

New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel offered his Castleton, Va., estate, which can accommodate up to 50 people, for $50,000 a night, with proceeds to go to charity.

"We had people call back over and over again, but we've had no takers," says Laura Gross, a spokeswoman for Maazel. "We really don't know why."

In headier times, investment bankers, hedge-fund managers and other well-paid Wall Street executives would have snatched up high-end inaugural packages, Davidowitz says. "The financial industry is in a depression," he says.

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed history's biggest bankruptcy in September. Bear Stearns Cos. and Merrill Lynch & Co. were sold. Among the survivors, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. shares have lost almost two-thirds of their value since the beginning of 2008.

Amid economic carnage, sales of all sorts of top-flight items have suffered. "The worst category in this economy is luxury," Davidowitz says. "Luxury, in all of its dimensions, is decimated, utterly decimated." Tiffany & Co. reported last week that holiday sales fell 35 percent at U.S. stories open at least a year. Saks Inc., the luxury clothing chain, said yesterday it will cut about 1,100 jobs, about 9 percent of its total workforce.

less luxury spending
The Omni Shoreham's $440,000 package, which can still be booked, includes roundtrip private-jet service to Washington, a private performance by political satirist Mark Russell, a $44,000 shopping spree, and a later trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, hotel spokeswoman Catherine Taylor says.

HotelBlox, a Chicago travel agency, canceled its seven-day "Yes We Can" cruise on Imperial Majesty Cruise Line's Regal Empress, which would have sailed from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore, with a stop in the Bahamas. "It just didn't sell the way we thought it would," HotelBlox spokeswoman Martha Anderson says.

The Hilton Washington's $44,000 package included a behind-the-scenes tour of high-security holding rooms reserved for use by U.S. presidents when they attend events at the hotel.

The hotel canceled the offer when nobody booked the package before the deadline for a required background check, spokeswoman Lisa Cole says.

Employees and political action committees from the finance, insurance and real estate industries gave almost $35 million to Obama's campaign, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

"Obama got a huge amount of donations from Wall Street and did tremendously with the super-rich," Davidowitz said. "But those folks aren't super-rich anymore."

Deluxe hotel packages lose appeal
$440,000 Omni Shoreham Hotel "44th Commander in Chief" package? No takers. / Image

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