By Caroline Shively Sucher
Photos by Jeff Heeney
Elizabeth Della Ratta has a certain philosophy about the hospitality industry.
“You either love it or you shouldn’t be in it. There’s no middle of the road.”
And how does she personally feel about it?
“I love every single minute. It’s like meeting new friends every single day.”
Della Ratta is the general manager and part owner of the Harborside Hotel in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Countless couples have had their weddings there since the hotel was built 36 year ago, including two generations of some families.
A favorite part of the family-owned hotel for many bridal parties and their guests is the location – just a five-minute drive from the waterfront of the National Harbor, and 15 minutes south of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
“Guests from out of town enjoy that our hotel is located in the metropolitan area,” Marketing and Media Manager Fatima Chase says. “You can go to National Harbor, which is a destination, you can go to Old Town Alexandria which is another destination. It’s very convenient to many popular destinations in the area and many of our out-of-town guests like it because you get a two-for-one vacation. You can come for a wedding and stay for a vacation.”
The hotel also offers guests a shuttle around the National Harbor area where they can find more than 40 restaurants, plus shopping opportunities from outlets to haute couture. There are also entertainment spots that range from theater to gambling to a giant Ferris wheel that can take you 180 feet above the Potomac River.
The river and harbor are also ideal for those all-important wedding photos, says Nina Salahadin, Director of Catering at the Harborside Hotel.
“Since we’re so close to the water, a lot of the brides like to go over to the waterfront and take pictures then share them with us,” she says.
There’s another thing that the owners and staff say makes the hotel special. It’s independently owned, not part of a chain, so if a bride or groom has a special request, they don’t have to look at a corporate rulebook.
“I can make a decision on the spot. I have no corporate I have to get back to and ask if I can do something,” Della Ratta says.
That can be especially important with a wedding.
“I’ve heard [brides] say, ‘We went to another venue, and we couldn’t do this, and we couldn’t do that,’” says DaVon Jones, Assistant Sales Manager. “We win people over because we are independent and other hotels have to go to corporate and have to go through other channels, but we don’t.”
The Harborside caters to a wide range of wedding sizes, from an intimate ceremony of 50 people to a blow-out bash of 400. The large weddings can be held in the full 6,100-square-foot Grand Ballroom, or the room can be separated into three separate spaces for smaller events. The ballroom also has the option to be divided between an area for the wedding and one for the reception.
Those smaller weddings also have an event space with natural light. In all of the indoor locations, the wedding party can have up to four hours to decorate before the big event, a much longer time than many venues. That can help in the larger weddings that have elaborate decorations and flowers, but also the smaller events.
“Because we have a family environment and extended set-up hours, many times we find that smaller weddings will appreciate that when they have do-it-yourself decorations. There’s been many times when our own staff even down to security has helped guests set up. For those that didn’t have event planners or had a limited budget, we helped them still create that special day without having that stress,” Fatima says.
Whatever the size or budget, or whether the bride and groom have a wedding coordinator or just themselves, Harborside staff members say they have a specialized approach to putting on an event.
According to Hannah Beall, Marketing Coordinator at the hotel, “They work one-on-one with these couples when they come in. They spend so much time, going over the details of what this couple is envisioning to make their day magical, and I’ve seen them bend over backwards to make their dreams into a reality.”
Della Ratta explains it this way: “By us being able to deliver intimate, hand-holding, one-on-one, especially for a wedding, that makes a difference. [The wedding party] needs to know that they can call your cellphone, if they need something different, that I can go out and get it for them.”
Hotel staffers say they don’t only focus on the bridal party, they also like to please the people attending the wedding. Two things that make their lives easy are the complimentary, on-site parking, a rarity in the DC area, and the fact that it’s an easy drive from DC, Virginia, other parts of Maryland and beyond.
“They can park for free and there is very easy access off of I-95, 295 and 495,” Della Ratta says. “It’s an ideal location.”
The Harborside Hotel can also make a special menu specific to each wedding reception. Executive Chef Moustafa Elakel worked for some of the leading hotels and resorts in the U.S. before settling in Maryland.
Della Ratta describes him this way: “He’s absolutely incredible, there’s nothing that man can’t do.”
Chef Elakel is originally from Egypt and can cook a Mediterranean reception menu or a thoroughly American one. That’s one of the worldly touches of the hotel that often brings in international wedding celebrations that can last for two or three days.
Those weddings fit with Della Ratta’s own heritage. “I’m Italian so I love to feed people and take care of them.”
That’s exactly how she wants her brides and grooms to feel on their wedding day – taken care of.
Oxon Hill, MD