By 4 pm Saturday, a smattering of curious onlookers and early check-ins for the huge Saturn Dealers of North America convention began filtering into the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on The Potomac in Oxon Hill, a skipping stone’s throw from the Old Town riverbank.
As workmen buffed and polished their way up the escalator and window washers hung like spiders from the top of the 18-story glass atrium, Gaylord Hotels Chief Operating Officer Jon Caparella quietly enjoyed a cup of coffee with a colleague, contentedly taking it all in.
“We’ve got over a million room nights booked, with some bookings all the way out to 2016, if you can believe it,” Caparella said, citing a number which is an industry first. “We’re not officially opening until April 25, but there were a lot of groups anxious to sample the resort… So we’ve got the Saturn dealers checking in, the Army Aviation Association coming and a few others…We’re still getting all the tweaks out, but we should be fully up to speed by the end of April.”
When I last saw Caparella a year ago this week the hotel was little more than a huge dust bowl. A bee hive of 1,800 construction workers — sucking up a daily payroll of $2.2 million — buzzed around the site with their jackhammers, cement mixers and electric power saws. It was an unruly tangle of cranes, steel girders and swirling dust, with Fairfax developer Milt Peterson — the visionary behind the $4 billion mixed-use development — tooling around the site in his muddy SUV.
On Saturday, the site was serene. Gaylord “Stars,” as hotel workers are called, went through their preliminary motions, dressed in crisp red-and-black uniforms, welcoming with hearty smiles the few early check-ins.
Nine-year-old Jennifer Owens of McLean, a veteran movie extra, showed up in the lobby with her tonal pink and polka-dotted suitcase (with price tag still attached), ready to go to work in a Gaylord promotional video being shot in the hotel’s massive 18-floor glass atrium. “Wow, this place is unreal,” she gasped.
The industrial video crew was scurrying about, putting lights and cameras into position and directing several extras it culled from neighboring Alexandria. Store clerks stocked shelves with terry cloth robes at the Pajama Party store in the main atrium. And high up on the 18th floor, technicians were putting the finishing touches on a $2 million sound and light system at Pose Ultra Lounge, a nightclub whose principal backer is Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher and which features a wrap-around balcony with views of the Alexandria skyline.
By Sunday, things began picking up, with the after-church brunch crowd arriving to sample the $22 pasta brunch buffet at Pienza Italian Market, and Final Four afficionados popping into the National Pastime Sports Bar & Grill for wings, cold brews and hoops action on the pub’s floor-to-ceiling HDTV monitors. The bar’s sentry is a lifesize statue of Babe Ruth, which took almost 800 hours for the artist to create.
Gaylord’s General Manager, Sheldon Shuga, appeared pleased with the hotel’s progress and despite some touches of paint needed here and there, was encouraging visitors — immediately. “We hope people from Alexandria come over and visit soon,” he said. “We’re finally ready.”
By Tuesday, it was Opening Day — and showtime for Gaylord’s Stars and Cast. By early afternoon, nearly every level of the five-story parking lot was filled with cars, mostly Saturns with out-of-state dealer plates. The Saturn National Retail Convention brought about 3,000 car dealers and their significant others from the United States and Canada to Gaylord’s Opening Day.
A few of the early reviews appeared to be thumbs-up. “The rooms are beautiful,” enthused Lesley Gazarek, a Saturn dealer from Pickering, Ontario. “They’ve got flat screen TVs, refrigerators and large safes big enough for a laptop,” said Gazarek, a veteran road warrior. “For a $10 daily surcharge, you get two bottles of Dasani water, Internet access and access to the fitness lounge…Heck, Marriotts charge $20 for all that.”
Wayne Carter, a Saturn manager from Oakville, Ontario said the only downside to the hotel was that he kept getting lost. “This place is just massive,” he said. “You almost need a compass to find your room.”
Wayne’s brother, Saturn manager Norm Carter of Missauga, Ontario, said that he had heard of Alexandria, but with all the company networking, break-out groups and receptions, he would probably not have the time to make the visit. “Next time,” he promised.
Saturn had organized for its conventioneers a “Saturn Boot Camp” exercise regimen, a Run/Walk at the National Mall and a Capitol City “Whirlwind Sightseeing Tour.” If anyone wanted to visit Alexandria, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association had placed a large sightseeing binder at the Conceirge Desk, and by Tuesday, it had been referenced multiple times, according to one of the conceirges.
Flags showcasing the names of 600 dealerships in the United States and 63 from Canada hung from nearly every ceiling, stairwells were emblazoned with images of the Saturn Sky and Astra 3- and 5-door models, and in the Potomac A&B Ballroom the announcer for that evening’s welcoming gala practiced her schtick.
“We’re going to look at our brand the same way the presidential candidates do,” the announcer said, as large images of Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama filled the screen behind her. “They build a platform of key tasks and set a positive tone. And so should we.”
The room was arranged like a national political convention, with big stand-up banners breaking it into regions of the United States and Canada. As the announcer made her introductions of the dealers, she said, “We’d most like to welcome our new retailers, from Charlottetown…Brampton…and from Alexandria, Virginia, Mr. Steve Niswander. They lead their teams exceptionally well.”
Outside the massive convention hall, a mixer of sorts of conventioneers — the Saturn dealers in their khakis and logo shirts, some Army soldiers in their fatigues and some pinstriped commercial real estate brokers from Equity Residential — marveled as a fountain shot colorful shards of water 25 feet into the air, while a singing harpsichordist filled the cavernous hall with rhythmic blues. “It’s growing up pretty well,” said Diego Robinson of the Dominican Republic, a manual laborer who was polishing the brass on the escalator. “This place is a big change for this area.”