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Waterfront Businesses Are Zooming Ahead Of The Recovery Pack

As the summer weather and vaccinations are bringing people back to hotels and restaurants, neighborhoods that have large open spaces along the water are benefiting the most. 

D.C.-area waterfronts such as The Wharf, Capitol Riverfront, Georgetown, National Harbor and Old Town Alexandria have all experienced a surge in activity this spring and early summer. Developers, restaurateurs and economic development leaders from each of these areas, speaking Wednesday on Bisnow's Waterfronts: Leading The Washington Region's Recovery event, shared what they are seeing in their respective neighborhoods. 

The Washington Monument and The Wharf Phase 1, photographed in June from East Potomac Park.

Knead Hospitality + Design founder and principal Jason Berry owns several restaurants on the waterfront: Mi Vida and The Grill at The Wharf, Succotash at National Harbor and new Capitol Riverfront restaurants Mah-Ze-Dahr and The Gatsby

His waterfront restaurants have all experienced a strong resurgence of demand over the past two months, Berry said, while his downtown restaurant Succotash Penn Quarter has yet to reopen because the area doesn't have the same level of activity. 

"That restaurant is [the] only one that remains closed because it's not on the waterfront," Berry said of Succotash Penn Quarter. "Our restaurants on the waterfront at National Harbor and the two on The Wharf are within a hair of 2019’s revenue now in terms of the last month or so."

Berry said the coronavirus pandemic has made customers favor outdoor dining, and he said restaurants with patios on the waterfront have the greatest advantage. 

"There’s very much an association with outside healthy, clean living and clean air and reduction of droplets and Covid, and that’s where people want to be," Berry said. "We're fortunate most of our restaurants have patios, and some are on the waterfront, and that has been a godsend for crawling back from this pandemic."

Clockwise from top left: Alexandria Restaurant Partners' Scott Shaw, TAA PR's Aba Kwawau, Knead Hospitality's Jason Berry and Profish's Greg Casten

Alexandria Restaurant Partners partner Scott Shaw said his restaurants on the Old Town waterfront, including Vola's Dockside Grill and Mia's Italian Kitchen, are performing much better than his restaurant Theismann's, which sits about a mile from the waterfront near the King Street Metro station.

"Waterfront restaurants are actually slightly ahead of our 2019 numbers, but I have Theismann's down at the Metro, and it’s a three-legged stool, so you saw off Metro and hotel traffic, and that's tough," he said. "That’s coming back, but that’s nowhere near 2019 levels yet."

Greg Casten, who owns Tony & Joe's and Nick's Riverside Grill at Georgetown's Washington Harbor and opened waterfront patio restaurant The Point on Buzzard Point in April, said people have been naturally drawn to waterfront restaurants as they emerge from the pandemic. 

"The masses were clamoring, and still are, to get outside where there’s breeze, where there’s fresh air, and where psychologically they feel they can be at ease," Casten said. "Being on the waterfront, no matter what your bill of fare is, whether you’re a great restaurant or mediocre, fine dining or casual, you're going to attract crowds."

Restaurants at The Wharf have benefited from the main waterfront street, Wharf Street, being closed to cars during the pandemic, allowing for more outdoor seating. Hoffman & Associates founder and Chairman Monty Hoffman, the developer behind The Wharf, said the team has studied this change and is considering making it permanent. 

"One of the changes that people will see is that we took cars off Wharf Street and made it pedestrian-only, and it allowed us to put tents and café tables out there," Hoffman said. "All the buildings can be serviced by the vertical streets that come into the community without being on Wharf Street, so that may be something that we maintain. As we watched how pedestrian movement actually occurred on Wharf Street, it started to feel more like a boardwalk."

The D.C. hotel market is still struggling to return to pre-Covid demand levels because business and convention travel hasn't come back, but waterfront hotels appear to be outperforming their downtown counterparts. 

Clockwise from top left: Events DC's Greg O'Dell, Thompson Hotels' Sherri Abedi, IMP's Donna Westmoreland, Carr Hospitality's Austin Flajser, Alexandria Economic Development's Stephanie Landrum and National Harbor's Jackie Saunders

Carr Hospitality CEO Austin Flajser, whose firm owns waterfront hotels including The Wharf InterContinental and Alexandria's Hotel Indigo, said they are gaining market share compared to hotels in the central business district. 

"If you look at the share of our two waterfront properties, within our comp sets, which the rest of the hotels are CBD business traveler hotels, we gained a ton of share," Flajser said. "Now, it’s a very small pie to gain share in, so we have to temper that. But as things go back up, if we hold onto a little bit of that, it will be some material movement."

Flajser attributed the relative strength of waterfront hotels to people being drawn to outdoor spaces and to the large amount of investment and development that has occurred in the neighborhoods. People who haven't visited a particular waterfront neighborhood since before the pandemic, he said, will likely find new restaurants and other offerings that didn't exist before. 

"These waterfronts have been invested in, whether the Old Town Alexandria waterfront or several waterfront locations in D.C., and there are a lot of exciting amenities there," Flajser said. "There's a lot going on, and these waterfronts are better poised to take advantage of it because there is more light and air and open space."

Thompson Hotel General Manager Sherry Abedi, whose hotel in The Yards opened in January 2020, said summer tourism has helped increase occupancy as hotels wait for the return of business travel. And she said she has seen visitors drawn to D.C.'s waterfront areas like Capitol Riverfront. 

"With the waterfront activities, whether just chilling outside enjoying the water or going on hikes or enjoying the neighborhood’s F&B, entertainment and sports, were lucky in this space that we have everything at our doorstep," Abedi said. 

Delta Associates President Will Rich, a researcher who presented key takeaways about the D.C.-area waterfronts at the start of the event, said he expects the hotel market in those areas will continue to outperform going forward. 

"While the hotel market has been slow to recover from the pandemic, we expect areas along the waterfront areas to fare better as leisure picks up faster than business travel," Rich said. 

The riverfront area at National Harbor, with the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in the middle.

The largest hotel in the region, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, sits on the National Harbor Waterfront. The convention-driven hotel has been closed for 15 months, but it announced in April it would reopen July 1, and National Harbor marketing head Jackie Saunders said on Wednesday's event it was still on track for Thursday's scheduled opening. 

"We’re very excited about their reopening," Saunders said. "They are seeing a mix of different types of groups coming back, but we’re going to see the larger groups come back in fall. That’s our expectation."

Peterson Cos. CEO Jon Peterson, the developer behind National Harbor, said in pre-recorded remarks that he sees the waterfront areas as the fastest-recovering parts of the D.C. region.

"People are flocking to the waterfront, it’s something about the water," Peterson said. "We’re enjoying the benefits of having a waterfront district here in Prince George’s County, and if you talk to the people in Alexandria and Washington, they’re seeing the same increases. We’re all enjoying this together. The waterfront districts are the heartbeat of our communities, and National Harbor is a great example of that."

As D.C. competes with other markets for domestic and international tourism, Events D.C. CEO Gregory O'Dell said it is intentionally marketing its growing waterfront areas, as many tourists may not be familiar with the new developments there. Events D.C. and Destination D.C. last week launched a $2.5M advertising campaign aimed at attracting new visitors. 

"It’s interesting that a lot of people, particularly outside of the U.S., just don’t know Washington, D.C., they perceive it as a government town," O'Dell said. "Even if people know anything beyond the government, they only know the monuments and the museums, so when people come here they’re amazed at all the waterfront properties we have."

Southwest Business Improvement District CEO Steve Moore said he sees waterfront neighborhoods as having a major advantage over central business districts as the region recovers from the pandemic. 

"These destinations, with waterfront as a common thread, are poised to regain market share in a fraction of the time of the region’s other shopping districts or CBDs," Moore said. "The waterfronts will recover faster than a CBD because they speak directly to the need to get out and spend time with family and friends."