The Washington Ritz-Carlton held a pep rally Thursday afternoon to pump up its staff for the inauguration, and, truly, it was more high school homecoming than elite corporate affair: The lights were dimmed, the music pounded, and cheering managers and head staffers formed two lines on either side of a make-shift red carpet stretching into one of the hotel's ballrooms. When the doors swung open, a voice boomed over a loudspeaker, "LET'S HEAR IT FOR HOUSEKEEPING"--and down the carpet jogged several women in aprons, gleefully waving American flags and a large, homemade Obama poster. Soon after came the finance and purchasing departments, as well as the culinary crew, boasting chef's hats and banging pots and pans nabbed from the hotel's kitchen. After the various groups settled into rows of chairs, a portly woman at the front of the room grabbed a microphone and yelled, "What do your signs say?"
"Yes we can!" the crowd replied.
"Can we do this?" cried the woman, the hotel's area general manager.
"Yes we can!"
"Who's the best?"
Management felt compelled to put on this show because, to put it mildly, the inauguration is logistical hell for the hotel. All 300 rooms are booked, Saks Fifth Avenue is setting up a store in the lobby, the kitchen has already baked 6,000 of Michelle Obama's special-recipe shortbread cookies, and chefs estimate that they will serve about 7,000 meals to guests that include, according to a p.r. rep, "celebrities, dignitaries--all sorts of people." (She wouldn't divulge any names.) The DSCC and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are both hosting swanky parties that will draw several hundred extra people to the hotel's ballrooms. "We'll be parking a lot of cars," one staff member told the room. "There will be no sleeping going on," a cook leaning on a table muttered to me.
Staff showed up at the pep rally with a mix of genuine excitement (more for the hour off of work and free t-shirts than for the inspiration) and cynical amusement. Before the grand entrance, a staffer standing near me glanced knowingly at a fellow desk attendant who'd opted out of wearing the event's "Yes We Can ... and We DID" shirt and instead tied it around his shoulders. "I don't blame you," she said. Nathan, one of the hotel's paymasters, explained to me that participants had been asked earlier to answer a sheet of trivia questions about Barack Obama. Those who'd gotten the queries correct were in the running to win prizes, determined by drawings at the end of the rally. I asked if the surprise might be a day off work--perhaps on January 20. "That'd be nice. I'd take that," Nathan said.
Rally leaders showed two company videos about how superior the Ritz-Carlton is to every other hotel and offered speeches that conveyed two key messages: be nice to guests, and make money from them. Like an over-caffeinated kindergarten teacher, each speaker offered at least one call-and-response line: "Say it with me! I am Ritz-Carlton!"; "Are you excited?"; "And who knows what type of cookies they are? That's right, Michelle Obama's!"
When the time finally came to announce the winners of the super-secret trivia prizes, the area manager dipped her hand into a cardboard box and drew out a crumpled answer sheet. "Nathan from finance!" she yelled. Four more winners' name and a bastardized variation of a Teddy Roosevelt quote later--"This is our arena, this is our hotel, this is our time"--the staff trailed out of the salon, a few stopping to watch a bow-tying demonstration, others to grab a free cupcake. I caught up with my buddy Nathan to see what he'd won: an Obama mug full of chocolates and a Starbucks gift card.
I asked if it was all he'd ever hoped for. "Absolutely," he replied.
(Photo: Directed by p.r. reps, staff members prepare to rally in the ballroom.)