After a $150 million restoration that includes a new exhibition hall, an in-house conference center, and expanded meeting rooms, the Washington Hilton was reintroduced to meeting planners and customers with a star-studded grand reopening celebration on May 25.
The star was Earvin “Magic” Johnson, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers. Johnson’s private equity firm now owns the iconic 45-year-old hotel, which has hosted presidents, inaugural balls, and meetings for 45 years. Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds bought the hotel three years ago and committed to a complete overhaul of the property. The basketball legend turned entrepreneur was on hand for the red-carpet reopening on along with Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty and others.
The entire hotel was renovated, including all 1,070 guest rooms, restaurants, lobby areas, infrastructure, amenities, and meeting space, with a major focus on revamping the meeting and exhibition space. “There’s been a huge emphasis on increasing the functionality and flexibility of the meeting space,” said Frank Passanante, regional director, sales and marketing, at the hotel. While the amount of meeting and event space remains the same at 110,000 square feet, the layout is different with new functional spaces replacing old inflexible rooms.
The big change eliminated the non-divisible 45,000-square-foot exhibition hall and replaced it with Columbia Hall and The Heights Executive Meeting Center. Columbia Hall is a 30,000-square-foot multi-purpose exhibit hall that can be divided into 12 meeting spaces. It was built on the Terrace Level over a space that used to be an outdoor patio. The hall is connected to nine meeting rooms, called the Terrace Meeting Suites. As part of the project, the hall was widened and nine breakout rooms were doubled in size to total about 5,000 square feet and were updated with whiteboards, screens, and other enhancements.
An 11,000-square-foot outdoor patio and garden with views of the city was built on the roof of Columbia Hall, complete with a fountain, fire pits, seating areas, and plenty of space for events or receptions. The patio is accessible from the Lobby Level, located right off The District Line restaurant and bar. The Professional Convention Management Association was one of the first groups to use the new space when it held its annual professional achievement dinner at the property in May.
The other new enhancement was the creation of The Heights Executive Conference Center. This facility was built on the Lobby Level in a wing that used to have guest rooms. The guest rooms were blown out and replaced with nine state-of-the-art conference rooms totaling 11,000 square feet. While the Heights is not International Association of Conference Centers–certified, it was built to meet IACC standards, explains Passanante, and is in a dedicated part of the hotel, separate from guest rooms and the rest of the meeting space. While the conference center can be used in conjunction with the rest of the meeting space for larger meetings, it is designed as a standalone facility to cater to corporate meetings, board meetings, and retreats. The space is being sold with or without rooms, meaning it is available for day meeting packages. The rooms have ergonomic chairs, tables, whiteboards, screens, and projectors, and look out over the rooftop patio.
What hasn’t changed is the famed International Ballroom on the Concourse Level. The 35,000-square-foot ballroom is the largest in the city, and has been the site of presidential inaugural balls and the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, among other high-profile events. The seven meeting rooms along the Crystal Corridor, totaling 12,000 square feet, were also renovated. Connecting the International Ballroom to the Crystal Corridor is 7,000 square feet of pre-function space.
While the hotel remained open throughout the restoration project, except for three weeks last Christmas, it was closed to meeting groups for much of last year. In the summer and fall of 2009, when heavy construction was taking place, about 100,000 group room nights had to be relocated to other properties. The hotel began taking some group reservations starting in January of this year, but it didn’t fully reopen for meetings until the grand reopening in May.