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Earning Its Stars

Morrison House moves into 2003 with four-star rating from Mobil guide, new alliance to bolster its luxury.

There have been some storied guests at Morrison House, and some guests less famous but still demanding.

“We had the chairman of a multinational corporation who wanted his pants pressed in the middle of night,” said owner Peter Greenberg. “Another came here for the water pressure. He said it was too low at the Ritz-Carlton.”

It is what Morrison House guests expect, he said, and it’s the kind of attention to detail that has earned the Alexandria hotel four stars in this year’s Mobil Travel Guide, and four diamonds from AAA.

Each room is individually decorated with Federal Period furniture. The china is Spode, the glassware is Spiegel, the linens are Frette. “We went out of the way to make it a replica of a Federal period mansion,” Greenberg said.

The hotel was built in 1985, a labor of love by local businessman Robert Morrison. But Morrison himself lost the property to bankruptcy in 1996. Greenberg bought the hotel then, and invested several million dollars in refurbishing the interiors. “We completely redecorated, and I keep putting money into it,” said Greenberg. “I’ve sunk millions into it.”

THAT WAS NOT what earned Morrison House four stars from Mobil, said Sandy Duhé, Mobil Travel Guide program manager. “Stars indicate levels of service. We look at over 400 points of quality, interactions between customers and staff,” she said. “Morrison House fulfilled the requirements for a four-star rating, which puts it in the top 2 percent of [hotels] in the U.S.”

That means meeting obvious standards of cleanliness, and performing well in services like laundry and room service. But it also includes more subtle elements of a guest’s stay, according to the Mobil’s Star Rating Criteria.

“Guest’s name is used effectively, but discreetly, as a signal of recognition.” “Time from arriving at reception area until registration is complete does not exceed five minutes.” “Public phones equipped with seats, privacy panels and pads/pens.” “Lobby areas will feature live plants and/or fresh floral displays.”

The ratings are based on anonymous overnight stays, Duhé said, stays that mean the Mobil guide is effectively serving as a consumer watchdog. They also mean that Mobil recommendations carry more weight than some advertising. “We are a consumer advocacy group. That’s why we don’t sell advertising in our guides,” she said.

WHEN HE LOOKS at Morrison House, Greenberg sees some of the same details that Mobil raters look for.

“There’s no check-in. Why make people stand around if they’re willing to pay for luxury?” he asked. Instead, a butler meets guests at the front door, greets them by name and shows them to their rooms.

“It’s one of the nicest properties that we have, an upscale, small boutique hotel,” said Joanne Mitchell, chief executive officer of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors’ Association. “Whenever we bring travel writers into town, they are willing to put people up.”

At night, when guests return to their room, they find the bed turned down and a cordial, not a chocolate, waiting for them. “I’ve never understood that: Why chocolate?” Greenberg said. “Why give someone a stimulant right before bed?”

Every detail is another way to “add layers of texture” to guest stays, he said, and as Morrison House goes from year to year, those layers must always grow. “We want to make it more and more luxurious. But we don’t want people to think we’re snobs,” Greenberg said. “That’s not our style. We’re hospitable, but elegant.”

To that end, Morrison House last year became a member of Relais & Chateaux, a French-based international organization of individually owned luxury hotels. It puts Morrison House in association with the Inn at Little Washington and the Mayflower House in New York.

Relais has also developed a reputation for its cuisine, and Morrison House upholds that tradition with Elysium, home of chef Gian Pierro Mazzi and the Chef-of-Your-Own program. Mazzi visits the market each day, and constructs a meal for Elysium diners based on what foods are fresh that day.

GREENBERG WORRIES that most Alexandrians already know about the restaurant, though.

Instead, he hopes to sell Morrison House as a good place for weekend getaways close to home.

“I know a lot of locals come in for the food,” he said. “But the real experience is to stay for a night or two, not have to drive home or check the mail. I have two small children, and sometimes we get a babysitter, and just come here and hang out.”

Elysium is the focus of most of the media attention Morrison House has received. But it only makes sense to have fine cuisine in a luxury hotel, Greenberg said. “Because we’re a luxury hotel, we demand it. But there’s more here.”

"It does hold an appeal for Alexandria residents who don't want to go too far from home,” Mitchell said, and Ken Moore, president of the Chamber of Commerce, agreed. “I think it’s a good place for people to go if they want to go pamper themselves,” he said.

Morrison House has also helped pamper the community, supporting the Chamber of Commerce, and helping out local non-profits, Moore and Mitchell said.

For Greenberg, it’s a way of supporting his adopted home. He grew up in Florida before starting a career as a commercial developer in California. But in the early 1990s, he and his wife dropped out of their California careers to take a cross-country trip — a trip that, eventually, led him to Alexandria and Morrison House.

“I like big cities, I like the Mid-Atlantic,” said Greenberg. True, he said, there’s another luxury hotel 90 miles away at the Inn at Little Washington. “But why drive 90 miles, when you can drive 20 minutes?” he said.