Selling a Hotel That Isn’t There

Sitting at lunch with Bill Wallace, director of sales and marketing for the new Washington Marriott Marquis that's going up across the street from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, I was reminded a little bit of Don Draper, the creative ad genius on TV's 'Mad Men.'

It was a week or two ago, the day of ASAE’s Springtime Expo, and Bill had invited Convene to take a little time away from the show floor and join him for an exclusive hard-hat tour of his new property.

The building is slated to open in May 2014, still very much a work in progress, and that’s where “Mad Men” came in. Possibly the show’s most iconic moment is this pitch, which Don Draper gives to executives from Kodak about the camera company’s then-new slide projector. “This device isn’t a spaceship,” Don tells them, advancing photo after photo of his own family. “It’s a time machine. It goes backwards. Forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” He sells them as much on what the projector represents, what it conveys, as on what it is or what it does. Much like Bill’s approach to selling the Washington Marriott Marquis.

Bill Wallace, behind the scenes at the Washington Marriott Marquis, opening in May 2014.

It’s going to be a beautiful property — 1,175 guest rooms, more than 100,000 square feet of event space, a soaring atrium, floor-to-ceiling windows and natural light and original artwork everywhere. But as we sat over lunch, before the hard-hat tour, Bill didn’t mention any of that. His job is to sell a building that doesn’t actually exist yet (a process that Convene has written about before), and to do that he told a story that began more than 15 years ago. In December 1997, the MCI Center sports arena (today called the Verizon Center) opened in a previously blighted neighborhood in downtown Washington, D.C., spurring a tidal wave of development — restaurants, shops, apartments and condos, hotels — that included Walter E. Washington in 2003 and that is only now cresting with the 10-acre CityCenterDC neighborhood complex and the new Marriott Marquis.

When Bill finally got around to the hotel itself, he started outside, with the view that someone would have as they first stepped into the lobby — a peek at the bottom of the 55-foot original metal sculpture that will dominate the atrium, drawing them further inside and inviting them to explore the space. He talked about how the names of the meeting rooms are tied to specific D.C. neighborhoods. How the new property will incorporate the historic AFL-CIO headquarters building that sits on the site. The history and context in which the Washington Marriott Marquis was developed, is being built, and will welcome guests, Bill said, is as important as the size of its meeting rooms and the quality of its F&B (although those will be top-shelf), and attendees will find that they’ve come to a city as much as to a hotel, and to an experience as much as to a meeting.

Bill communicated all that before we put on our hard hats and walked through the very active construction site. And while the tour was interesting and fun, I felt like I’d already been there. Such is the power of a good story and a good storyteller.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.