Steve Geiger and Herbert Guzman of the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center share their summer hot spot suggestions, day trip destinations, hidden gems in D.C. and much more.
You both have long-standing careers in hospitality. How did you get your start, and what attracted you to the industry?
Geiger: I have always had jobs that dealt with the public. I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire whose economy was heavily based on tourism. After moving to D.C., I worked for many years in the Smithsonian museums and then at the White House Visitors Center. The position I hold now was my first time working as a concierge; it was a natural fit for me as I always found myself helping customers and visitors in my other positions, but as an aspect of my job, whereas the concierge role allows me to fully concentrate on helping folks navigate their day, whether they’re business people or tourists.
Guzman: As we all know, the hospitality industry is a hands-on environment. I was 17 when I started my first job at a restaurant as a busboy. A few years later, I moved to the Stewarding Department of the Ronald Reagan Building, where I met Steve. We quickly became friends. A concierge position happened to be open a year later. Steve suggested I apply, and that’s how I became a concierge.
How do you think being a concierge at locations like the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center differs from hotel concierge?
Geiger: On the one hand, as we have no hotel rooms and we may never see the people we help again after they leave our desks. They are not staying with us for days on end so we have that one chance to be of service, and it has to go right that one time.
On the other hand, we have thousands of tenants in the building whom we see on a daily basis. We also host innumerous events, conferences and galas. We welcome heads-of-state, foreign delegations and visitors from every corner of the globe. I would liken it more to working in an international airport—in terms of the vibe—rather than in a hotel. It is never the same day twice and that’s what makes it interesting and challenging.
Herbert: The Ronald Reagan Building is a federal building, and therefore we do not have lodging accommodations for our guests. However, we do have a state-of-the-art conference center, and we host many events such as galas, weddings and trade shows.
Which summer hot spot would you suggest to visitors exploring the DMV?
Geiger: The challenge of summertime in D.C. is to enjoy the city while not getting beat by the heat. The National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden offers a patch of tranquility in the heart of the major sites. The large circular fountain and ring of shade-giving trees in the middle of the garden create a nice chill-out zone. The Pavilion Café—located near the fountain—offers an air-conditioned interior with floor-to-ceiling windows and a European flair. This is a veritable oasis on the National Mall.
Guzman: I would suggest the National Zoo; it’s one of the oldest zoos in the United States and it’s also part of the Smithsonian Institution, so the admission is free.
What do you love most about being a concierge?
Geiger: I love being able to help people; sometimes the smallest of things can make someone’s day. In my place of work I can’t offer people any amenities like a fruit basket or a free upgrade but what I can offer is a caring ear and many years of experience living and working in D.C.
Helping someone get to that job interview on time or suggesting the best place to go with their elderly parents and small children—these are the things that make the job rewarding on a personal level.
Guzman: What I enjoy the most about being a concierge is when I have guests come back to my desk and thank me for my suggestions about places to visit or to dine at. For example, I had many tourists who did not know that the Smithsonian museums are free. My goal is to make sure that guests who come to my desk always have memorable experiences in Washington, D.C.
If a visitor wanted to spend a day outside of the city, what day trip destinations would you suggest?
Geiger: I know it is not very far to go, but I would recommend Old Town Alexandria. It’s easy to get to and it has something for everyone. Not only are there great shopping and dining establishments, but you have the whole waterfront experience. There’s the Torpedo Factory Art Center and galleries to appeal to art lovers. And with the popularity of PBS’s “Mercy Street,” Alexandria’s important role in American history has come to the public’s attention.
Guzman: My recommendation would be Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. I had the opportunity to visit it last year, and I fell in love with a scenic view from the mountain. I also loved the house architecture and the gardens. This national landmark is just about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from D.C.
What do you love most about D.C.?
Geiger: Hands-down, the best thing about D.C. for me is the abundance of international and cultural offerings. You can literally travel the world in a day and never leave the District. From museums to restaurants, Washington offers you the world at your fingertips.
Guzman: Since my parents and I came to D.C. and to the United States 25 years ago, I consider myself a Washingtonian. I have seen so many changes in D.C., and one of the most remarkable of them is that the city is not as dull as it used to be. We now have many more cultural attractions. The food scene is becoming one of the best in the country, and there are multiple nightlife venues. Washington D.C. is not just about politics anymore, it has so much to offer to our visitors.
As a concierge, what’s the most interesting request you’ve received?
Geiger: Ok, this was in the days before Uber. I had a reporter arrive at my desk in a frantic state. She was supposed to be on Air Force One with President Obama on his first trip to Mexico. Being bilingual, I conversed with her in Spanish as I tried to figure out the best way to get her to Andrews Air Force Base in a hurry. It was also raining cats and dogs at the time. I could see and hear the panic in her voice. She was losing hope. She had missed the transport that went from The White House with the other reporters. I had the contact information for a private driver, and I called him and asked if he knew how to get to Andrews and if he was available. As luck would have it, he was able to arrive in a matter of moments, and I walked her out to the car under my umbrella in the torrential downpour. The next day I got an email from her. She had made the plane, covered the meeting between the U.S and Mexican presidents and filed her story.
Guzman: Once we had a visitor who was confused thinking that the Ronald Reagan Building is actually an airport. We told the guest that the Ronald Reagan Airport is in Virginia, and that he is not too far from it at all.
What are your top recommendations for a guest who wants to spend the day like a true Washingtonian?
Geiger: Rent a bike and see the National Mall, which I call “America’s Front Yard.” Then get off the tourist path and delve into D.C.’s distinct neighborhoods.
To me, the heart of a home is the kitchen, and D.C.’s kitchen is definitely a global one, so be adventurous; our city has unique flavors that even the most worldly of travelers might not have tasted before. We boast some of the largest Salvadoran and Ethiopian communities in the country, and the number of eateries offering their respective cuisines is in accordance. To be a Washingtonian, to me, is to embrace the international and cultural diversity our city offers.
Guzman: There is so much to see here, that it all depends on the time that the visitors have. The National Mall and the Smithsonian museums are the city’s main cultural attractions, however they are not frequently visited by locals. I would also recommend the U Street Corridor which has a rich history dating back to the 1920s. Its music venues, the nightlife, and the restaurant scene are very popular among locals. The must-to-see place on U Street is of course, a D.C. landmark, the venerable Ben’s Chili Bowl Restaurant.
What’s your favorite hidden gem in D.C.?
Geiger: Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens. It is off the beaten path, and as such does not get overly crowded. The estate allows one to see luxurious and elegant living at its best. The house and gardens—including the greenhouse—are fascinating. There is always a special exhibition area as well. And the café restaurant has delicious food that can be enjoyed inside or outside on a patio. I call this the ultimate “Rich for a Day” experience!
Guzman: There are many hidden gems in D.C. One that is often overlooked by tourists is the U.S. Botanic Garden. It is situated right next to the Capitol Building on the National Mall, however I rarely get questions about it, and not many know it is there. This landmark exhibits multiple unique species of plants from different regions of the planet.
What should every visitor do during a trip to D.C.?
Geiger: Go to the top of the Old Post Office Tower. This offers the best 360 degree view over the city. First timers will get an instant visual of the city’s layout and thus be able to plan their itinerary better. It is free and run by the National Park Service and, with the Washington Monument closed for repairs, it offers the highest vantage point to see the capital in all its grandeur.
Guzman: What I would recommend to someone visiting D.C. for the first time is to have comfortable walking shoes. D.C. is one of the top 10 cities in the country that is “walkable.” There is so much to see that one can spend the whole day walking.