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Preparing for a Presidential Stay

So how exactly do hotels such as the renowned Waldorf=Astoria prepare for when a U.S. president stays? Here’s the story.

Monday, November 02, 2009
David Wilkening
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The Waldorf=Astoria Hotel

Despite wide rumors, the U.S. government does not supply a taster to check for poison when a president stays at a hotel. But President Obama’s recent stay at New York’s Waldorf=Astoria raises a variety of questions about when a president stays at a hotel.

Every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed at the Waldorf. Hoover in fact gave a welcoming address at the hotel’s 1931 opening. After leaving office, he moved into the hotel.

No one seems to know why he made that move, but Obama’s recent visit raises questions such as: Why the Waldorf=Astoria? What special preparations have to be made for a U.S. president? What hotels have hosted presidents? As well as other questions, such as why are often the best rooms called presidential suites?

“The whole object is freeing the president to do the things they like to do,” says William Seale, a White House historian commenting on U.S. presidents’ use of hotels. “So if they like a certain kind of pillow, they (hotels) make sure they have it.”

Actually, Obama had one of the Waldorf=Astoria’s three presidential suites -- a four-bedroom unit on the hotel’s 35th floor.

Presidents often stay there for several reasons. The suite is designed to meet the particular needs of a U.S. president. For example, even the telephones are set up to identically match the White House phones. If the second button on the left in the White House calls the first lady, so will the same button at the president’s suite.

In addition to the practical reasons of having the familiar around them, presidents undoubtedly like the aesthetic touches that make them feel at home. Whenever the president or first lady are here, personally monogrammed towels are placed in the master bedroom.

Here, Obama could work on the personal desk of General Douglas MacArthur, donated by MacArthur’s window, Jean. Nearby is one of President John F. Kennedy’s rocking chairs. Reagan donated the gold oval mirror and eagle-based table at the entrance. Former President Jimmy Carter provided another eagle desk. The eagle wall sconces were a gift from President Richard Nixon.

All of the paintings in the four rooms were donated by American artists.

Why else is the Waldorf=Astoria chosen?

“Some say it has to do with the experience of the staff; others say it is because of the hotel’s unique design,” speculates ABC News.

The location is certainly convenient. The Waldorf=Astoria is housed in two historic buildings on Park Avenue.

But there may be other practical and security-minded reasons. The Waldorf=Astoria is one of the few New York hotels to have a driveway that goes under the building, where the Secret Service typically puts up a tent. The driveway adds security.

Some of these details came out despite the Waldorf’s refusal to talk about the suite.

“We take pride in the fact that every United States president since Herbert Hoover has called the Waldorf=Astoria home when in New York City. Yet in keeping with our long-standing tradition of discretion, we will have no comment on particular presidential visits,” says Matt Zolbe, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.

If you think presidents do get special treatment here, you’re right. If a president wants the suite, it is his, no matter what. If someone else has already booked the room, the hotel will find them another suite, though perhaps not as presidential.

The usual charge for Obama’s room is $7,000 a night but the government usually gets discounts, though no one at the Waldorf=Astoria would confirm how much.

Presidential visits also make food providers take notice of particular tastes.

Chefs work with the U.S. State Department to determine what foods the president likes or dislikes. The State Department then reviews a series of menus for any meetings or public dinners the president has at the hotel. Obama’s preferences are not known, but President Ronald Reagan had to avoid spices and nuts (allergies).

Despite no official taster in the kitchen, Secret Service men hang around while meals are being prepared, says John Doherty, who oversees food operations.

President George H. W. Bush may not have liked broccoli but he loved talking about food, Doherty recalled.

“Everybody made a big deal of him not liking broccoli but he was a real foodie. He loved everything and wanted to talk about the food and what was in it and how it was prepared,” Doherty says.

Where else have presidents stayed? A wide variety of places:
  • The Presidential Suite at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa has also hosted every president since Hoover. At 1680-square-feet, the suite is large enough to hold up to 30 people.
  • The Carlyle Hotel in New York has also hosted every American president since Hoover.
  • President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy officially opened the Madison in Washington in 1963, and it has hosted every U.S. President since (though not the Obamas).
  • The Jefferson Hotel in Washington has also hosted presidents and displays some original documents signed by Thomas Jefferson.
  • Ulysses S. Grant and Woodrow Wilson were both guests of The Battle House in Mobile, Alabama. The grand hotel was built in 1852, closed for a while and re-opened in 2007.
  • Presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford both stayed at the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa in Wailea, Hawaii.
  • George H. W. Bush also made regular stops for fishing trips at the Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln and her sons spent summers at The Equinox in Manchester Village, Vermont. Their last family vacation was cancelled due to President Lincoln’s assassination. It’s commonly believed his ghost haunts the hotel.
  • An also-ran was the Renaissance Mayflower in Washington, where President Calvin Coolidge intended to stay in 1925 but stayed home instead because of his son’s untimely death. He is also said to haunt the hotel.

Obama himself is no stranger to hotels. After being elected, his wife and two daughters checked into two suites at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel. They stayed there for almost two weeks before January 15, when they would move to the Blair House, the traditional home for president-elects.

The 145-room Hay-Adams also has a perfect location right across the street from the White House. The Obama’s living room overlooked the White House and Lafayette Park. Suites run about $3,200 a night.

And where does the term presidential suite come from? Actually, it’s believed to have originated in the European tradition of “Royal Suite,” but of course there are no royals here so “president” is substituted.

David Wilkening    David Wilkening
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: David Wilkening is a writer specializing in travel and business-real estate writing. His work has appeared in dozens of publications and dot coms. He never met a trip he didn't like. He is a former newspaperman who worked in Chicago, Detroit, Orlando and Washington, DC, where he was a writer and editor covering a wide variety of subjects ranging from politics to feature stories.
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