News Column

DC Slow to Respond to 2nd Inauguration

Jan. 16, 2013

Tim Devaney

Obama

In Washington, even Democrats may find themselves wishing this weekend that they had voted for Mitt Romney -- considering the economic boost that comes from a fresh presidential inauguration compared with the lackluster redo planned for President Obama's second term.

"As far as Washington is concerned, electing a new president is always better than re-electing the incumbent," said Ric Edelman, chairman and CEO of Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax. "When you have a new president come to town, he brings with him new people to Washington. It's a big jolt to the local economy."

Mr. Obama hasn't been able to muster the level of excitement as he did for his first inauguration in 2009, but that is typical for most two-term presidents. Still, it's little comfort for some small businesses.

One Washington catering company recalls cooking for a party with 12,000 guests and another with 10,000 guests for Mr. Obama's first inauguration.

This time? The biggest party they are catering is for 1,500 people.

"The novelty has worn off," said Susan Lacz, owner of the Ridgewells Catering. "Four years ago, it was such a phenomenon that we had our first African-American president that everybody wanted a piece of it, everyone wanted to be part of history in the making. But we're certainly not at the same capacity as we were then."

Mr. Obama's legacy will forever live in the shadow of his first inauguration. Supporters came from around the world. They celebrated for days at the inaugural parade, extravagant balls and star-studded concerts. Then, crowds packed the Mall, from the steps of the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, to witness "change."

It was one of the biggest events in Washington's history, and it boosted the local economy. Hotels and restaurants were completely booked. It seemed that every local business -- particularly caterers, limousines and taxis -- profited from the historic event.

This time, many people are "scaling back" and the numbers couldn't be more underwhelming for local businesses.

"When he was first elected, there was elation and optimism and he ran on the notion of change," said Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com. "This time around, that sentiment certainly isn't as good as it was in 2009. They're trying to tout something in the face of general public dissatisfaction with the U.S. government right now."

Flights into Washington are down 9 percent from four years ago, and prices have dropped nearly $70 for a round-trip ticket, according to Hotwire, which tracks travel statistics. Hotels still have plenty of rooms available, and many are dropping their "minimum night stays" requirement, which is usually three or four nights during large events, so they can fill the empty rooms with tourists who might come for only a day.

"A first-time event is a first-time event, and there's a certain excitement that goes along with that," Mr. Bason said. "Anything 're,' whether a redo or re-election, is bound to be less popular than the first time around."

Businesses all over Washington are feeling this deflation in demand.

"The bookings were much more intense four years ago than they are today," said Richard P. Kane, president and CEO of International Limousine Service Inc. Sure, it will be better for business than a regular January, but "it's just not first-term material."

Mr. Kane compared it to a "typical inauguration."

International Limousine Service, based in the District, expects only about half as much business as four years ago. In 2009, Mr. Kane rented an additional 70 limousines to meet demand, but this time he is renting about 30 to 40 more vehicles.

"The same number of people aren't going to come," he said.

Robert Alexander, president and CEO of RMA Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation, expects about a 50 percent decrease in business for his Rockville-based limousine company.

"It's a good inauguration, but nothing crazy," he said. "The second inauguration is never as good for any president, but the first inauguration was just so much more monumental and historic than most others."

In 2009, "car after car after car" were booked, Mr. Alexander recalled, but this time around, "we expect our revenues will be significantly lower."

When it comes to tuxedo rentals and sales, Men's Wearhouse is also noticing a difference from 2009, as the company waits for business to pick up in the last few days before the inauguration. "The only thing I would attribute it to is maybe the historical significance of the last inauguration," said Dino Speranza, executive vice president of stores for Men's Wearhouse Inc.

That is not to say that business will be bad. Many companies are happy with the uptick in sales as a result of the second inauguration, even if it doesn't reach the level of 2009.

"I'm a rainy optimist," Mr. Alexander said. The bottom line is that tourists will need help getting around Washington, and that means more business than usual for limousines and taxis.

"When an event like this happens, there really is a need for transportation," said Diane Forgy, president of the National Limousine Association. "So, in some ways, people may curtail some of what they would have done four years ago, but they are still going to need transportation and the demand's going to be high."

Many restaurant have stopped taking reservations because they have been "bought out" for private parties, according to the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

Simply put: "If there was not an inauguration, we would have less business," said Ridgewells' Ms. Lacz. "A regular week in January is slow around here, but with an inauguration there's plenty of business to go around."

Melissa Zeligman, marketing director at the Catering Company of Washington, couldn't agree more.

"We're just getting past Christmas and New Year's, and once every four years it's like we get an extra holiday season," she said.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2013 The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


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