Fit for a president

Fit for a president

October 19, 2009 22:33
The Jerusalem Post

king david hotel and leaders 248.88. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

It's Thursday morning at the King David Hotel and with less than a week to go before the second annual Presidential Conference kicks off in Jerusalem, Sheldon Ritz, deputy general manager and head of official delegations, is a very busy man. "I'm very sorry, your excellency, but we don't have any more conference rooms left with a view," says the polite, softly spoken former South African into the phone. "We already have five other dinners booked for that day... but, yes, Mrs. Ambassador, you are absolutely right, we will do what we can to accommodate you. Give me your number and I will call you back in a few hours." Hanging up the phone, Ritz shakes his head. "This is not the most number of heads of state we have hosted here in a single week. When the new Yad Vashem opened in 2000, we had more, but it will be pretty close," he tells me as we sit together in the hotel's historic lobby. Ritz picks up the pile of folders on the table in front of him and begins to list all the VIPs that will be arriving in the coming days. "Today, the prime minister of Spain is coming for one day," he begins, adding that on Sunday and Monday the hotel will receive a total of 20 international delegations, including Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and government ministers from Hungary, Canada, China and France. All of them are arriving here for the "Facing Tomorrow" Presidential Conference taking place today through Thursday at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. The King David, one of the capital's oldest and grandest hotels, was chosen by the Foreign Ministry as the official residence for all important international guests attending the conference. Says Ritz, who is not only responsible for ensuring that each special visitor receives every detail to his liking but must also personally greet each one according to international protocol, the government was also involved in allocating the hotel's exclusive presidential suite, royal suite and four executive suites. In fact, the Foreign Ministry will also cover the costs of the visiting leaders at the hotel, where its most luxurious suite is more than $3,000 a night. Turning off his cellphone as it starts to ring again, Ritz admits: "It's a complicated process. We are required to know in advance what each person likes and dislikes and must cater to everyone's specific tastes." In addition to the demands for certain brands of mineral water and the importance of knowing who has a penchant for fine cigars, Ritz says that the hotel must also be decorated with the requisite flags of the various national representatives staying there. "We have to place flags in the lobby, outside each room and even on the roof of the hotel," he says, the stress of the last few days and the anxiety that each detail is tended to clearly showing on his face. Ritz also says that the security services have been involved in securing the premises in the days before the dignitaries arrive. "Every detail of their stay must be cleared with the security services. The floors they are staying on must also be checked for anything unusual and some of those floors will be closed to other guests," he says. "They are all personally accompanied by an Israeli security detail, and we only know minutes before their arrival which of the two entrances they will use." Sometimes that means Ritz and his colleagues must run across the hotel with a red carpet and the flags in tow to ensure that the guest is greeted in the proper manner. "It's not easy," he confesses. "But after five years in this job you get used to it." IN FACT, Ritz was responsible for accommodating former US president George W. Bush when he visited this time last year for the same conference, which was inaugurated by President Shimon Peres to mark the country's 60th anniversary. "Last year only Bush and his immediate delegation stayed in the hotel, so it was a little easier," recalls Ritz. "Other visiting heads of state were sent to nearby hotels, such as the Inbal and David Citadel." Ritz shows me up to the fifth floor, room 522, the presidential suite that housed Bush and his wife during that visit. It's a two-story abode, the size of a moderate apartment and equipped with the finest furniture and finishings any president could ask for. The room is functional too. On its entry level, there is a comfortable living room/conference room where heads of state can entertain or hold high-level meetings. Ritz assures me many world leaders have utilized the space to discuss the fate of our tiny country and secure historic agreements. A large-screen television, stereo and even a fax machine only add to the room, which is also fitted with antique carpeting and, most importantly, a stunning view of Jerusalem's Old City walls. "Everyone wants the view," says Ritz, highlighting the charm of the hotel, which was built by the Mosseri family from Egypt and first opened in January 1931. The carpeted spiral staircase leads to the presidential suite's bedroom with its walk-in wardrobe and en suite bathroom. Of course a king-sized bed fills the room and two plush, comfortable couches fill the rest of the space. In the bathroom, VIP guests can enjoy a double Jacuzzi, wooden sauna for three and a large walk-in shower. Only the fluffiest towels and finest shampoos and soaps adorn the shelves and walls. One wonders what world leaders have walked down these stairs and used this room's exclusive offerings? What they discussed as they sat inside the sauna or soaked in the generous tub? Aside from the Bushes, the Blairs and the Clintons (the Obamas stayed in the executive suite down the hall), many other leaders - too many for Ritz to list offhand - have stayed in this very room. "Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will be sleeping here tonight," says Ritz, matter-of-factly. It is an everyday occurrence that a head of government walks through the door. Preparing for Zapatero's visit, even though he only stayed for one night, was an equally painstakingly detailed task as the preparations Ritz and his team have made for this week's visitors. "For the Presidential Conference, we will have 20 delegations here," he reiterates. "The floor they are staying on will be closed off so that only the officials will be able to access it." Ritz adds that the hotel is fully booked this week, not only with VIPs but also with Jewish leaders and philanthropists, most here to attend the conference but some for one of two other important events also taking place in the capital this week. "Some of the officials requested that their entourage be in this hotel too, but we simply could not accommodate everyone. Some people are staying at our sister hotel, the Dan Panorama [across the street]," he states. "It's an intense week for us." Now in its second year, the Presidential Conference will focus on ongoing trends and issues for the future. As well as the world leaders who are attending, presidents, CEOs and founders of several international companies, such as Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Josh Silverman of Skype, are among the guests.

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