By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 1998; Page D01
It barely passed for conversation, but then again this is no time to be chatty at the elegant Hay-Adams Hotel. No sooner had doorman Jose Vasquez politely announced the surprising news -- "Sorry, the hotel is private now" -- than a sedan pulled up with its princely cargo.
"Which number?" a security man, telephone in hand, said in accented English. The cryptic reference was either to the unpretentious car or to the presumed royal occupant or possibly to both, though none of the busy functionaries fluttering around the entrance was prepared to share even this tiny detail.
"Number 3!" came the reply.
Out from the car emerged a very elegant man in a brown flowing robe with gold trim. If only through his proprietary bearing, he proved what no one at the Hay-Adams was prepared to say publicly yesterday: The 143-room landmark hotel on 16th Street NW, across the street from Lafayette Square and with a view of the White House, has been rented in its entirety for 10 days by Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia and his significant entourage, including the anonymous royal dignitary in car No. 3.
Hotels of this caliber pride themselves on being discreet to a fault, and acknowledging who is a guest -- gilded royalty or well-heeled commoner -- is viewed as the height of bad manners. Security, always a concern with high-profile guests, is even more of an issue with Crown Prince Abdullah because he has governed as regent of the wealthy desert kingdom since his half brother, King Fahd, fell ill in 1995.
But the trappings and restrictions associated with becoming the temporary home for the House of Saud were impossible to ignore, even for the prudent hotel staff. Along with the building, the hotel's well-known restaurant, the Lafayette, and its popular bar, Off the Record, are closed until Oct. 1.
Evidence of the import of the guests abounds. There is a metal detector in the lobby. Luggage was delivered in U-Haul trucks. Motorcades and security details are now part of the landscape on 16th Street. Though the few clues were not very telling -- the Saudi flag fluttered above the entrance, and inside Limo 40 two men read Arabic newspapers -- it was clear something unusual was afoot.
"We're somewhat in a pickle about this," said the hotel's general manager, Pelagia Vincent, reluctantly acknowledging that the hubbub meant something had to be acknowledged. "Our hotel has been sequestered and taken as a whole, for a royal visit," she explained very carefully. "We're just not at liberty to give specifics as to whom."
Even the publicist was almost rendered mute. Asked what details she could provide, Mariana Field Hoppin said: "Not a lot. I'm forbidden by the same rule. Unfortunately."
The silence extended to hoteliers who were not remotely associated with the Saudi visit yet were still reluctant to discuss what such a guest pool does to even the best hotel. King Hussein of Jordan prefers the Four Seasons and has been there many times, but the discretion associated with his royal visits doesn't end with the royal departure. "That's the reason they stay with us -- we don't comment on what it's like," said Stan Bromley, the general manager of the Four Seasons. "We're their away-from-home palace."
The courtesy, he pointed out, is not limited to princes and their attendant lords. "At these price levels," Bromley said, "our regular guests are royalty, too."
The Saudi encampment at the Hay-Adams is quite a coup in a very competitive market. One hotel industry insider said the Hay-Adams probably charged the "rack rate," or top price, for each of the 111 rooms, which is $310. There are 32 suites that rent for as much as $2,500 a night. But the Hay-Adams will also be rewarded with the cachet of having rented the entire premises to the House of Saud, which is currency of a different sort in the hospitality industry.
News that this was even possible took some by surprise. Royalty has been known to rent out several floors of a hotel, even if the guests are occupying only several rooms. But no one could remember anyone taking over a place. "The whole hotel? Really?" said Emily Vetter, president of the Hotel Association of Washington D.C. "Lucky them!"
Prince Abdullah, known as a pious ascetic, met with President Clinton on Thursday for what was described as a working lunch. The 77-year-old heir to the throne is in the middle of a worldwide tour that has taken him to London and Paris and will include visits to China, Japan, South Korea and Pakistan. Yesterday, he spent most of the day at official functions, meeting legislators on Capitol Hill and lunching with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
The royal comings and goings did not seem to ruffle the staff at the hotel, at least those whose work was visible from the street. The hotel had quietly advised some people that the premises would be off-limits -- "loyal guests were made aware," is how general manager Vincent put it -- so few surprise visitors had to be turned away.
Though the royal presence made it clear, Vincent explained, "we're not a walk-up hotel."