Hoteliers are sometimes in unique positions to bear witness to key moments in human history. In the modern era, some of Beirut’s grandest such as the St Georges and Phoenicia were front and center during the “Battle of the Hotels” in 1975. The Caravelle in Saigon, the Al Rasheed in Baghdad and the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo are among those with legendary status as “war hotels.” The Hilton & Towers in Chicago was the backdrop for the bloody 1968 Democratic convention protests. Just last year, the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton served as a 5-star prison for Saudi royalty accused of corruption.
This past week, Hans Bruland, vice president and general manager of the luxury Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, D.C., just across the street from the White House, has had a front row seat to the Black Lives Matter protests.
Bruland called the moment “transformative.” The hotel has been closed since March 21 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but it serves as a front stoop to protests still ongoing – at first violent but mostly peaceful over the past week.
“It has been unlike any other time, including 9/11 when everyone banded together, and during a stressful global pandemic, social distancing and care for one’s own personal well-being,” Bruland told HOTELS earlier this week. “For a movement to be this powerful and emotional – and for an equally diverse community, especially the young, collectively embracing a common goal of justice and fairness for all is life changing. It is impressive and hopeful for me.”
Bruland said that some of the initial moments last week and the size of protests were “somewhat unreal.”
“And yet, you really ultimately learn or begin to understand how much anger there was below the surface. But what surprised me was the diversity of the population. It was just as white as it was black, quite frankly. And very youth-oriented.”
He added that the makeup of the crowds also served to give him a sense of hope that change is coming. “It may take some years still, but the new generation is there and is willing to accept the responsibility and the consequences. Reaching across the aisle and having the same sentiments, and the feeling and the passion was an eye opener – a pleasant one.”
When he leaves his office at night to walk home, Bruland said he is not afraid. “We are together in this and there has been no personal attack,” he said. “We saw some uprising and the police pushed back. But on a personal level, throughout this whole period, I never saw a fight break out. This was a village saying, ‘we’re going to have to make this work.’”
COVID bigger concern
Bruland, who lives only a short walk away, has been coming to his office every day and has kept a skeleton staff around for fire and safety watches. Each day has its level of stress, and last week, during the initial and more violent nights of protest last week, there was a minor skirmish at the hotel’s front door, resulting in some damage and broken glass. A fire that broke out in the alley behind the hotel when protesters lit up garbage dumpsters caused only minor damage to some scaffolding.
Since then, the hotel has been boarded up and the ongoing issue is with graffiti, which is removed daily with the help of chemicals provided by the city. The landscaping is another concern and will be resurrected once normalcy returns.
“The order of the day for us is to stay calm, stay focused and above all stay out of harm’s way and maintain social distance,” Bruland said. “While the majority of protesters are wearing face masks, there is no social distancing evident among these swarms of people. I am afraid that we will see a spike of infection in the weeks to come.”
At age 69, Bruland said he is very sensitive about being personally exposed to the masses. “On Saturday I had no escape because everything around us was locked in the back side,” he said. “I couldn’t go through the alley, as usual, so I jumped down into the grass where the Motion Picture building is and walked alongside the building because there were less people. Then I was at least distanced enough in some ways.”
Of course, he was not only worried about himself, but for his small team at the hotel. “Because oftentimes you just get caught up in the moment and you react. Did I have my mask on? Did I put my gloves on? Did I wash my hands when I came back in? Because so many things were happening. That was the more frightful portion. If the pandemic would not have been here, I think it probably would have been a much easier process to go through.”
The executive team has decided not to bring in extra security because the building is fairly secure. “We didn’t see the aggressiveness towards the building like we saw in other buildings,” Bruland said. “We don’t have much glass and we have our gates. We left the front drive open because, ultimately, people look for shade or a place to go if it’s raining.”
While the landscape is shot, Bruland said it is easy to replace and make it look nice again in two or three weeks. “That’s part of the losses,” he said. “Everybody’s suffered. It is just too many people.”
Bruland continues to make sure the hotel acts as a good citizen and is supporting the cause of the protesters. Next to the main entrance he has placed large Black Lives Matter posters with the Hay-Adams name attached. “As a good neighbor, I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.
With Lafayette Park, next to the White House, and the hotel now closed to the public, the makeshift shrine filled with messages about the Black Lives Matter movement sits right in front of the Hay-Adams, which is now even more exposed to the crowds.
To show further care for the community, Bruland and his team is bringing in a local African-American artist to create some bold art on the rest of the plywood-laden windows and the boarded-up front door.
“Just as a show of unity, and also in order to support the business improvement district that’s actually underwriting it all. But it is not a political statement. It is meant to beautify the territory because we have so much focus at the moment. And with the virus and the pandemic, people are off. So, every day we have a gathering of hundreds of people.”
Looking ahead, Bruland’s focus is on getting the union hotel open again, but not before mid- to late-August, he said, and whether D.C. goes into Phase Two of the opening due to COVID-19 is not as important as the travel industry returning. “You and I have to be comfortable enough in order to get back on a plane so we can entice you to come to my hotel and have the reason to do so,” he said.
Bruland points to a planned August 28 rally on the mall in D.C. as a potential moment to come back online. “We see a lot of reservation requests coming through for that,” he said.
At the end of the day, the Hay-Adams and its team has been tested and stressed, but Bruland continues to put it all into perspective.
“Well, this was a little bit of history in the making. And in some ways, you’re glad you’re a part of it. And now we have new signs on the street in front of the hotel at 16th and H Street that says, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”