From the Waldorf to the Hampton Inn: Inside the elaborate, surprisingly unglamorous world of presidential hotel stays

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·Chief Washington Correspondent
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  • Barack Obama
    Barack Obama
    44th president of the United States

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel from his hotel suite in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2012. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama has visited scores of foreign countries in his six years in the White House, conducting high-stakes diplomacy amid high-priced luxury at some of the world’s poshest destinations, sometimes coming in for attacks over what critics call taxpayer-funded junketry.

Not quite one week ago, the president enjoyed an overnight stay at the swank InterContinental in Los Angeles. The small pool of reporters travelling with him did not see Obama check out of the luxury hotel, settling instead for a furtive glimpse of “Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis. (“He was wearing a suit and eating a banana,” according to a March 13 pool report.)

What the world doesn’t know is that Obama’s experience at hotels around the world isn’t all five-diamond presidential suites, and that the red carpet is usually metaphorical. Instead, the first thing the president of the United States often sees — and smells — when his bulletproof limousine rolls up is garbage.

“No matter how nice the hotel is — five stars or whatever — we usually come in the service entrance, by the dumpster, next to the back kitchen,” according to a White House aide who has traveled extensively with the president. “It doesn’t always smell great.”


Obama walks to the presidential limousine prior to departing Suntory Hall en route to the Hotel Okura in Tokyo in 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Nor do all those upper-floor rooms with spectacular views that hotels bill as presidential suites actually accommodate the leader of the free world when he travels. Any place a hotel guest can see out is also a sightline in, and thus a security risk.

“The president never has a view from his hotel room,” said the aide. For security reasons, even when his room faces away from the street, “the blinds are always closed.”

Presidents frequently complain about the “bubble” — the protective and sometimes smothering layer of aides, advisers and security personnel who insulate them from the outside world. The bubble follows the president virtually everywhere he goes. A news media cohort trails him to parent-teacher conferences, the security detail clears a path for impromptu burger runs — and that vast retinue joins him when he leaves Washington and stays at the home-away-from-home that is a hotel.

SLIDESHOW: Presidential hotel stays »

Yahoo News set out to pull back the curtain on the president’s day-to-day experiences with hotels after some readers noted that he spent the night recently at a Holiday Inn, and wondered why Obama, arguably the most powerful man in the world, would stay in a chain hotel better known for hosting vacationing families. The unsung heroes of the presidential logistics team may lack the glamour of the diplomats and military officials who travel with him — but their job, of keeping the leader of the free world comfortable and safe wherever he goes, has its own challenges and rewards. Here are some stories from inside the bubble.

Booking space for the bubble’s inhabitants is no easy job. A hotel that can accompany the president and a vast entourage that can number into the hundreds has to be conveniently located, and must be able to be secured by the Secret Service. And the process starts with a very basic question that any traveler has to ask.


A member of an Indian “rapid response” team at the Hotel ITC Maurya in New Delhi ahead of Obama’s January 2015 stay (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

“It starts with ‘Who’s got availability?’” according to a former Obama administration official, who, like other individuals interviewed by Yahoo News for this piece, requested anonymity in discussing the sensitive mechanics of taking the president on the road.

“We’re looking for hotels long before we’re able to announce that we’re going to a location. Sometimes we hold hotel rooms just thinking that we’re going to go somewhere,” the official said.

The White House usually doesn’t have to phone up individual establishments, much less search for rooms on consumer travel websites.

Instead, officials in charge of presidential travel logistics will reach out to a network, assembled over decades, of global and national sales representatives for major hotel chains. “They check inventory very discreetly,” the former aide explained.

But sometimes the right location isn’t available. When the White House reaches outside this trusted circle, “We tell the sales rep that we are representing a government group that is looking to host a large, overnight conference, and that we’re going to need this type of room, this footprint and this type of meeting room,” the former official said.

To make sure the place is up to presidential standards, the White House’s “advance” operation, as the logistics group is called, will typically “send a team of about 40 people six days before he gets there — that’s even if he’s not sleeping over,” the source said. “If he’s overnighting, it’s even more resources and a bigger footprint.” The advance team scouts the hotel facilities and assesses security needs — and also makes sure that there will be enough parking for the presidential motorcade, which can consist of up to 40 cars. (There’s no valet for parking for these vehicles, some of which may look slick, but have military-grade armor.)


Obama meets with Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 2009.   (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

One of the most complex trips of Obama’s time in office was a visit to the Gulf Coast during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The president didn’t even stay overnight, but his decision to go see the disaster in person meant canceling a long-scheduled international trip and booking a new one on short notice. Even just finding rooms for the advance team sent to Louisiana required scouring a combination of rental homes and sleeping spaces in military bases, “because the media and BP had kind of squatted all of the available hotel rooms within 90 minutes’ drive from anywhere around the spill,” a former aide explained.

Some hotels that regularly host U.S. presidents will bump other guests to make room for the chief executive. The Waldorf Astoria, which has hosted every sitting president since Herbert Hoover, notably during the annual U.N. General Assembly, will gently boot other guests from the 35th floor near the presidential suite when the administration calls.

Hotels in other countries have similar arrangements. One former Obama aide described “a Nelson Mandela policy” by South African officials before the anti-apartheid leader died in 2013. “Basically, they said, ‘If Madiba passes away, we reserve the right to take your reservation away from you,’” to accommodate the parade of world leaders sure to attend his funeral, the aide said, using Mandela’s clan name.

What about the president’s personal preferences?

Several current and former aides said they knew of only two Obama must-haves: ESPN in the room — “Because: ‘SportsCenter’” — and a gym where he can go to work out. “If there isn’t one, we’re going to drive somewhere,” one former aide said.

George W. Bush’s preferences were much the same, according to several aides. He needed ESPN in the room and preferred to have a gym in the facility.


The Obamas at a family dinner atop their hotel in Moscow, overlooking the Kremlin, in 2009 (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

“It’s not that he did not [want to] work out by himself. He didn’t want to spend the extra money to move the treadmill into the room,” a former Bush aide said, explaining that some hotels charge more than $1,000 for that service. “He wasn’t into that.”

One big difference between Bush and Obama: The Democrat’s team tries to stay at hotels serviced by labor unions “whenever possible,” an aide said. “That’s definitely a priority.” And while a building’s environmental and energy standards aren’t generally at the top of the presidential list when it comes to hotels, sometimes a presidential stay can double as a green endorsement .

There are other considerations. Obama is unlikely to book himself into a property owned by GOP super-donor Sheldon Adelson. Mitt Romney stayed in Marriott hotels whenever possible during his presidential runs; he was on the chain’s board and is named after hotelier Willard Marriott, who was friends with his father, George Romney.

Current and former staffers underlined Obama’s fondness for the Hampton Inn near the airport in Des Moines, Iowa. “He stayed there in ’07, ’08… sees it as a little bit good luck,” one former aide said. Obama stayed there for so many nights during that campaign that hotel staff “had it down to a science,” putting the future president in a room near an exit so that his comings and goings wouldn’t bother other guests, a current adviser said.

When Obama visited Lawrence, Kan., in late January to talk about economic policies aimed at helping the middle class, the Holiday Inn on McDonald Drive in Lawrence had “less than a week” to prepare, general manager Stephen Horton told Yahoo News. “We knew we had a group coming in, and then we found out who the group was.”

The first challenge for the hotel management, even before they knew they would be hosting Obama, was making sure they had enough rooms, he said. “The numbers that they gave us were pretty aggressive — they wanted most of the hotel.”


People wave to Obama at a hotel in Accra, Ghana, in 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Horton, a native of Manchester, England, said it took a couple of days before word started to spread among hotel staff. The White House “requested that ‘Please, nobody ask for selfies, nobody ask for autographs,’” he added. “Our staff were very professional.”

While a quick Internet search shows regular rooms available at the Holiday Inn for $80.33, Obama stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite. “It’s the equivalent to three hotel rooms in size” and includes a sitting area and dining space, Horton said.

Asked whether Obama paid the regular rate, roughly $200, he diplomatically demurred. “When the government comes in, the government is always requesting the prevailing government rate,” he said with a laugh. That usually means a lower-than-market rate, as the federal government’s roughly 3.3 million employees give it some major group-rate bargaining power.

It’s not just about saving taxpayer dollars. Back in 2012, Obama made a political virtue out of staying at no-frills hotels when he was a kid.

“I remember my favorite vacation when I was 11 years old, traveling the country with my grandmother and my mom and my sister,” he said on the stump. “Sometimes we’d take the train and stay at Howard Johnson’s. And as long as there was a little puddle of a pool, I’d be happy. And you’d go to the ice machine and the vending machine and buy a soda and get the ice, and you were really excited about it.”

A few years earlier, though, he marveled during a stop in Las Vegas at the upgrade from candidate to president.

“I was telling people, I am back in Caesars. That was the hotel where we stayed at when we were campaigning here in Nevada,” he said. “I thought I had a pretty nice room. But now that I’m president, they upgraded me. I got the upgrade. And it’s a really nice room now. Man.”


Obama confers with senior adviser David Axelrod, center, and press secretary Robert Gibbs at their hotel in Moscow, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

There’s no guarantee that a president will get the four-star treatment, although hotel managers often try to spruce up their property when they find out who’s coming.

“It’s not uncommon to be walking around a hotel where the president is about to stay and smelling an odor of fresh paint,” one former Obama aide said.

Sometimes, though, managers need a nudge. And sometimes, as George W. Bush learned on a July 2003 trip to Nigeria, even the president’s hotel is BYOB — Bring Your Own Bed.

“The hotel was not a good hotel. And so when we went and did the walk-through, we had a chat with the manager,” said a veteran of advance work for several presidents.

“So they re-carpeted the room. They repainted it. But we brought a bed. We put it on, I believe it was the car plane” that carried the presidential limousine to Africa, the aide recalled. “It was the bed, the linens, the bedding, the pillows. And then we took it home again.”

On that occasion, the pre-trip memo to senior Bush aides declared, “You will need the right clothes for a black-tie event. You will need to keep your head covered at this other place. You should probably bring a sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner. Don’t use the water in the sink to brush your teeth,” the aide said. “Staff were told to bring disposable flip-flops to wear in the shower. I left my flip-flops there.”

The official shuddered as she recalled the pillow in her bed. “It looked like something out of a cartoon, where a woman had laid her face on the side of it and left the perfect outline of make-up — lipstick and mascara.”

“But the president never saw any of that, I think, because that’s the job of advance,” she said.

So what does the president see?

Presidents usually arrive near side or rear entrances under heavy security, with the armored limo driving into a large white tent designed to hide them for the short walk into the hotel. They generally use service elevators to get to their floor. The government books the entire floor for the traveling staff, and sometimes reserves the floors above and below the president’s for security reasons. “You own as much of the space above, below, and around him as possible,” a former Obama aide said. The president’s room will be open upon arrival. “No, he doesn’t key card into his own room.”


Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, 2013 (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

At some large international summits, which increasingly take place at remote resorts, the president will take over a separate facility if possible. At the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, for example, Obama stayed in one of the swank “hunter lodges” at the Celtic Manor Resort.

No matter where he is, there will be a room nearby set aside for secure communications and briefings, generally a regular hotel room stripped of all furniture and outfitted with what several current and former officials called “the tent” — a specially designed room-within-a-room meant to keep out prying eyes and ears, and to thwart electronic surveillance.

White House and military aides will have separate secure phones and secure office space. “You never know what’s going to happen, so you need to make sure all communications are there for the military and the (Secret) Service to do their job,” a former Obama aide said.

Overseas intelligence agencies often target the advance team.

“When you’re abroad, you always need to be in the mindset that people are going to try to spy on you. They will listen to [staff] conversations in the lobby, on your cell phone,” the former Obama aide said. “You have to be mindful of how you handle papers in your room, keep your electronics under your control at all times. We’re also warned about the hotel bar and housekeeping staff.”

Ahead of one Obama trip to Russia, the former aide said, “I came back to my room and found that all my clothes had been tossed around. They wanted me to know that they were there.”

In the days just before and during the president’s stay, all of the other hotel guests will go through metal detectors and be subject to security sweeps.

There are also less sophisticated concerns. Like puzzling over modern shower controls, whose of array of forms and functions can flummox senior staff.

“It is not an unusual sight to see some pretty powerful, smart, influential people — not the president, or vice president, or their wives, I should say — confused by the showers in the more boutique-y hotels, step out in the hallway in their robe to ask for staff assistance,” the former Obama aide said.

Appearing in the hallway in a robe may not be a no-no for advisers on the president’s hotel floor, but don’t try to order room service.

“If I ordered room service on a secure floor, I would have to go and get it,” said one veteran of the Ronald Reagan administration and 12 years of presidents named Bush. “And if [the president] ordered food, aides would not call from the presidential suite.”

The 1981 assassination attempt against Reagan as he exited a Hilton hotel on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., led to tighter security across the board. After that, a U.S. Navy steward would be the one to prepare food for the president in hotel kitchens. Sometimes, in banquet settings, a steward would also put on the livery of the hotel and serve the president. George H.W. Bush cut back a bit, but still had officials watching the food preparation and monitoring the waiter assigned to serve him.

And Obama? “The Navy mess generally handles all of the president’s meals,” the former aide said. That includes “date night,” when someone from the Navy observes the preparation of the food to be served for the president and the first lady at any given restaurant they choose to go to.


Chef John Doherty with then-President Ronald Reagan at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York (The White House)

Perhaps no one knows more about the president’s room service than John Doherty, the executive chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for three decades.

“There is not an official taster that tastes things,” Doherty, now a restaurateur, told Yahoo News. “Anybody that comes in contact with the president’s food goes under a security check,” he said, underlining that “only one or two people” are cleared for the task.

Doherty would plan out the menus with the State Department, keeping presidential preferences and food allergies in mind.

However, he explained: “You have to take so much more into account than the president’s personal preferences. It’s also who he’s dining with, what their preferences are, security issues, etc.

“There’s his personal meals, and those of his personal staff. You want to really make sure that you’re offering a selection of foods that the president really likes, so he feels like he’s home away from home. Then there are official dinners, which are more formal, more stately.”


Doherty recalls two particularly momentous meals. The first was a dinner Reagan hosted in his Waldorf Astoria suite in 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the United Nations. He welcomed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada, and President François Mitterrand of France.

“Who knows what was discussed and what came out of that? But being a part — a small part — of that was significant,” he said.

The second was when Reagan welcomed Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev for his second state visit to the United States in 1988. The White House arranged a meal on Governors Island, off Manhattan, in New York Harbor.

“So myself and my team prepped at the hotel, got the food into a van, drove down to the ferry, the van got on the ferry, there were security checkpoints every step of the way,” he recalled. “We got onto the island: more security checkpoints.

“And finally, on this little island, in this little house, we found the U.S. Secret Service on the left side of the house. On the right side was the Russian secret service. We were surrounded by security boats, military boats, there are helicopters flying overhead. We’re getting the food ready in this home kitchen, while in the next room the table is set for the leaders of Russia and the United States, and we’re watching all of this on TV as we prep,” he said. “It’s surreal.”


The 1985 Heads of State Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria (The White House)

Doherty’s perspective is especially valuable given the consensus across the years and from presidents of different parties that the Waldorf Astoria ranks the best in the world at handling presidential stays.

Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has stayed in the presidential suite on the 35th floor of the Waldorf, which typically costs $4,000 to $6,000 per night, according to the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, Matt Zolbe.

“The suite itself rates a ‘fine,’ but the hotel has everything — parking for the motorcade, an underground arrival that makes security easier, a private elevator, the works,” said a former Clinton aide.

“They know what they’re doing when it comes to having a POTUS” (president of the United States), said a former aide to George H.W. Bush. “It’s set up for minimal disruption to the other guests at hotel. They can shut things down, cordon things off for the president, and the hotel is still attractive and functional for the other guests.”

At one time, the hotel collected the Social Security numbers of nonpresidential guests even visiting the presidential suite, and prohibited taking photos, according to Zolbe. But the hotel has since put a high-definition virtual tour online, suggesting that it’s no longer necessary to keep it such a secret.

FDR would arrive at that hotel via an underground rail station that linked Grand Central Terminal to the hotel. From there, the suite is a private elevator ride away. Today, presidents “limo right in (to the underground parking area), go right in the door, right up the elevator,” said the former aide to the elder Bush.

The library in the suite includes the complete “Sherlock Holmes” stories, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” and Grimms’ “Fairy Tales.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s desk sits in the master bedroom. A rocking chair donated by John F. Kennedy is in the living room. There is bulletproof glass in the windows.

The elder Bush loved the hotel, in part because that’s where he lived during his two years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the former aide said. “People took such good care of him,” she added.

Hotels overseas sometimes take better care of the president than even American ambassadors are able to.

When George W. Bush headed to Peru in March 2002, the plan called for him to stay at the residence of the ambassador, a Clinton appointee. But the ambassador and his wife “were worried that their 15-plus-year-old cat with half a tail would not survive a canine sweep,” one of the most basic security precautions, a former Bush aide told Yahoo News. Instead, the diplomat suggested putting the president in the spare room, “which was just scary and sad,” despite a new carpet, new bed and a fresh coat of paint.

When a bomb went off near the embassy, Bush got a reprieve. “We decided to keep POTUS in the Marriott.”

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