Coming soon to Washington: An anti-Trump hotel for liberals

WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST) - The first thing you'll see when you walk into Eaton Workshop, a hotel opening in late spring 2018 in Washington, is a custom-commissioned video art installation by AJ Schnack, shown on a series of vintage-style television screens.

All day long, it'll broadcast a montage of footage from the presidential elections of 2012 and 2016 that's built around one pointed question: How did the country get where it is today? It's not a subtle statement, and it's not meant to be.

In Mr Donald Trump's Washington, Eaton is planting a clear flag as a haven for Democrats. It's the world's first politically motivated hotel, the flagship for a global brand that's built around social activism and community engagement. And it comes with a pedigree: As the daughter of Mr Ka Shui Lo, the creator and executive chairman of Hong Kong-based Langham Hospitality Group, founder Katherine Lo knows a thing or two about luxury hotels and world-class service.

In Ms Lo's view, hotels ought to be catalysts for good. In a world where we can be conscious consumers-of everything from clothing to food to baby products - she argued there's a place for conscious hotels, too.

This isn't a revolutionary idea: Already, 1 Hotels has built a small collection of luxury properties entirely around the idea of sustainability, and Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts has made a significant, brand-wide commitment to bolster community programming for disadvantaged children in all of its destinations. It's one of many five-star brands that have a conscious ethos but choose not to flaunt it.

Eaton Workshop is different. With a premise that's built around liberal activism and civic engagement, the brand will weave a liberal philosophy into every aspect of the guest experience, some more obvious than others.

Among the subtler points is the significance of the company's name: a nod to the high-end shopping mall of that name in Montreal that captured the fascination of Mr Ka Shui Lo when he fled the Cultural Revolution in China. The mall, Ms Katherine Lo said, was a beacon of freedom to her father-and when she found an archival photo bearing its old motto, "Progress and better living," the two Eatons became forever intertwined.

The Washington hotel, with 209 rooms just north of the National Mall, will be the brand's flagship, with a second location opening in Hong Kong in 2018 and new construction set to rise in San Francisco and Seattle no sooner than 2019.

Among the Washington location's programming signatures will be a sort of TED talk series driven by the liberal agenda, consisting of fireside chats and rooftop lectures that Lo sees are being free, open to the public and streamable as Eaton-branded podcasts. Then comes the art programme, which-aside from the political statement piece at check-in-will include commissions from at least a half-dozen up-and-coming local artists and a street-facing exhibition window curated in partnership with local museums and institutions. A co-working space will prioritise memberships for progressive startups, activists, and artists, while a wellness program will offer "inner-health-focused treatments" such as Reiki and sound baths, rather than facials and massages.

Partners and staff will be chosen for both for their skills in the food and beverage worlds and their activist track records. For instance, Ms Lo saw the cocktail director of the famed Columbia Room, Mr Derek Brown, as a perfect fit to be the hotel's beverage director-not just because he's won such awards as Imbibe magazine's Bartender of the Year but because he "cares deeply about social justice." Mr Brown actively champions policies that fight sexual harassment in the bartending industry and acts as chief spirit advisor for the National Archives.

Similarly, "amazing life story" of house chef Tim Ma "perfectly expresses our brand ethos," Ms Lo said. The Chinese-American culinary up-and-comer was an engineer at the National Security Agency before discovering his true passion in food. Mr Ma plans a menu focusing on vegetables from an on-site garden.

A guest who does nothing other than check in, sleep atop Eaton's organic mattresses, and check out will still have a sense of the hotel's mission, Ms Lo said. "We plan to have new ideas in the minibar-an activist toolkit, for example, that includes sheets with information to help you call your congresspeople. And if we'd been open during this year's Women's March, I could have seen us putting poster boards and markers in the rooms!"

Political statements such as these will be tailored to each property. In Hong Kong, for instance, Ms Lo said she'd like to replace Bibles in the nightstand drawers with copies of the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights.

Eaton Workshop isn't for everyone. "Self-selection is definitely one of our strategies," she said. "We wanted to emphasise that it's a place for people who are thinking outside the box and want to effect a change in the world."

Though she speaks of fostering diversity and inclusion, Ms Lo also said that "the goal isn't to bring together left and right." Instead, she wants to create "a diversity of fields and backgrounds as well as gender and ethnicity," representing the antithesis of the Trump hotel just a few blocks away.

This is partisan politics playing out on the city's hotel scene; whether that will hurt or help Ms Lo's bottom line remains to be seen. But if the Trump Hotel is any indication, Ms Lo may be poised for big success. The Washington Post reported that the president's hotel brought in US$1.97 million (S$1.46 million) in profits during the first four months of the year, despite business projections that had forecast a loss of US$2.1 million.

Ms Lo sees her enterprise as a means to a philanthropic end, and hopes to use hotel profits to fund community arts initiatives in the brand's respective destinations. Each location will have a radio station, cinema, and music venue so local talent can produce or showcase work in a state-of-the-art space at low or no cost. The Washington building's history as a printing venue inspired Ms Lo to create a writer's residency where investigative reporters can be hosted on site for several months while pursuing important stories.

Artists will be invited to create short films, podcasts, or other types of content under the emblem of Eaton's in-house multimedia studio; the results will be available for guests to stream on personal devices, and each piece will feature a clear activist message and a call to action.

"We're hoping that our hotel revenues will propel our creative projects," said Ms Lo, who likened the hotel to "a non-profit, but better." Still, room rates won't be extravagant; prices in Washington are likely to hover in the upper US$200s. Thankfully, for members of both political parties-who are, no doubt, tired of dropping Benjamins for vodka drinks at the Trump International-the price of a martini should be less radical.

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