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Eaton DC: Inside the world's first 'activist' hotel

The newest hotel in Washington DC is getting political

Shivani Ashoka
Monday 19 November 2018 14:30 GMT
Welcome to the world’s first activist hotel
Welcome to the world’s first activist hotel

“Today feels like victory,” declares Gabrielle Tayac, an elder of Washington DC’s indigenous Piscataway tribe, to a cheering room.

Her audience is a mix of multigenerational Native Americans, frustrated oldschool DC residents and sage-burning influencers, whose sharp elbows in pursuit of an Instagram story seem decidedly unspiritual. It’s the opening weekend of the 209-room Eaton DC, billed as “the world’s first activist hotel”, and they’re here to honour the tribal land on which the hotel was built.

Given we’re in Washington DC, a district built on neutrality – DC residents have no representation in the Senate – opening an overtly political hotel might seem a strange move.

But then, the hotel’s owner can afford to take risks. Katherine Lo, 36, is real estate royalty: her father is Lo Ka Shui, the billionaire owner of Great Eagle Holdings, the umbrella company for swish hotel group Langham Hotels. He asked his daughter, who has no professional background in hospitality, to create a new line of hotels that would “disrupt” the industry; both a tall order and a well worn concept.

Elegantly designed bedrooms at Eaton DC 

In recent years, hoteliers have introduced co-working spaces, reworked room service, removed rarely used services like bellhops and concierges and decreased room sizes and rates for the millennial generation, in the name of “disruption”. Eaton is styled in the same vein: there’s a 300-seat co-working space, staff in jeans and bomber jackets, in-room record players and vinyls, black-and-white family photos sourced from vintage shops and brushed metal fixtures and crystals repurposed as lighting features. Lo certainly isn’t the first to try it, but she may just be the canniest. The conscious hipster details – the rooftop bar Wild Days serves California-style tacos and the latest vegan fad, Impossible Foods nachos, alongside a $250 (£195) fine for smoking outdoors – belie an underlying fearlessness.

Which makes sense: the hotel itself is funding the nonprofit Eaton Workshop, described as a “purpose-driven company at the intersection of culture, media, hospitality, wellness and progressive social change”.

Lo tells me she got into environmental activism in her late teens, but that it came to fruition during her time at Yale University when another divisive president took office. “George W Bush became president in my sophomore year,” she says. “The war in Iraq started, so I just became really active in those kinds of movements.”

Progressive books stocked in the bedrooms

The wider Eaton Workshop – built around the hotel as its hub – is physically and digitally dedicated to three concepts. The first, amplifying the media, is led by an onsite radio station that supports artists and grassroots activists discussing anything from “fake news and America’s role in the anti-media” to important intersectional dialogue; and underground musicians rotating between pirate-style DJ sets and acoustic performances. Crucially, this isn’t just live-streamed into the hotel, but directly onto the internet: there are plans for podcasts and an almost 24/7 operation. It’s supported by a Radical Library, which loans free-thinking works by category, ranging from race-inclusive narratives to modern wellness and sport to women’s rights and feminist works. There’s also an art deco cinema screening Eaton’s own commissions – as well as films calling for change.

The second pillar is social and environmental impact which, heavy with PR spin, wants to remind the local hospitality industry of its role in historical revolutions and not just in $20 cocktails. (Impressively, the hotel has abandoned an in-room Bible for the UN Declaration of Human Rights.) Lastly comes new-age wellness, which appears to vary between a robust programme of holistic practises to rather reverently presenting guests with charged crystals upon check-in.

Crystals in the room at Eaton DC 

Unsurprisingly the marked distinctions drawn between Lo and another American hotel heiress with little discernible experience for a job her father gave her, coupled with Eaton’s proximity to the White House itself, immediately saw Eaton DC billed as “the anti-Trump hotel” – about which Lo herself is vocal. “I think because we stand for inclusivity and diversity and women’s rights and the environment, that I would be very proud to be called something that’s in opposition to those things.”

It’s about time to listen, then. With work already underway on Eaton openings in Hong Kong, Seattle and San Francisco, this noise is only going to get louder.

Doubles from £156, room only

Four other Washington DC hotels

The Embassy Row Hotel

Don’t let the drab exterior fool you: this is one of the best little hotels in Dupont Circle. While the interiors are newly refurbished, the hotel’s calling card is its rooftop pool on the ninth floor – if you’re not swimming or lounging next to it, you can try one of the hotel’s free rooftop yoga classes. Helpful, after a night out at the local bars.

From £133, room only

The first indication that a younger, cooler side to DC truly existed, The Line opened its doors – those of a former church, naturally – in party district Adams Morgan, and has been packed ever since. Expect clean, bright decor that nods to the building’s heritage, as well as two smart restaurants and a buzzy bar.

From £166, room only

Forget what you think you know about chain hotels – this feels a bit like staying in a stylish mate’s place downtown. Little wonder, then, that it’s a converted block of flats. It’s all plush, textured fabrics, eclectic art and comfortable armchairs; but with sprawling public areas (order a beer at the hotel’s chilled out rooftop bar).

From £143, room only

The Watergate

This DC institution may have had a facelift in 2016, but it’s held onto the past for TV tourism; not only by getting the costume designer for Scandal, Lyn Paolo, to redesign the most infamous room in the house à la Olivia Pope, but employing Mad Men’s costume designer, Janie Bryant, to design staff uniforms.

From £343, room only

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