By Katie Lockhart
Zagat Stories asked people in hospitality around the country what’s at stake for them in the 2020 election. Connie Wang is managing director of the Hotel Figueroa and Veranda Al Fresco restaurant in Los Angeles. Wang previously managed hotels in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. For the first time, Hotel Figueroa will serve as an official Los Angeles County voting location for the 2020 election.
I was drawn here because of the history of the hotel. The Hotel Figueroa was a little bit of a rabble-rousing place back in the 20s. In general, it was a place for political discourse, for debates about what was happening during the times. People felt free to talk about art, religion, politics, business. I think that that spirit is really what continues today.
The hotel was started in 1926 by a group of women also from New York, who came to try and create a safe haven for single female travelers. At the time, when in most hotels, women couldn’t check in without a male chaperone. And so it was actually really quite progressive. After the hotel was built, the women hired Maude Bouldin, who was the hotel’s first managing director—the first female hotel manager in the country. She very famously dressed up as a man and crashed a meeting of all-male hotel managers, the Hotel Men’s Association, in 1926. She was a pilot. She flew airplanes, and she also rode a motorcycle. We had originally planned to do a motorcycle parade this year.
Pre-pandemic, we moved from New York in the fall of last year to California. Our hotel owner hired a social anthropologist to do a full deep dive into the history of the hotel. So instead of doing a renovation where you’re almost wiping the slate clean or wiping away history, we took a lot of care to make sure this was more of a restoration. All the different layers of history from 94 years ago, until today, have really been considered in the design and the redesign of the hotel.
Many of the hotel’s founding women had very well-connected families, and certainly, they were wealthy. And even though they had only recently received the right to vote at the time, I think for many years—perhaps their whole lives—they were influential in making things happen around them. Many women’s clubs had meetings in our hotel in the 1920s, like the Chicago Women’s Club, the Girl Scouts, the California League of Women Voters, the Friday Morning Club, the Women’s International League, Business Women’s Legislative Council, the Southern California Women’s Press Club. The YWCA held many, many events at the hotel over the years.
This is the first time we’ve been a polling place, and it just felt very appropriate. We really wanted to make sure that we’re reaching out to the community as a safe place. For me, personally, I feel that we really can’t take our voices for granted. It’s the hundredth year of celebrating the 19th Amendment, and we are honoring that at Hotel Figueroa.
This is also a way for us to say, “Hey, how else can we help during this time?” Obviously, we’ve been through a lot in downtown LA, and so it is very clear that our community needs a safe place to share their voice. Whatever people’s political inclinations are, I think it’s really important that we can do so free from intimidation. Considering the history of the hotel, this just feels like the right moment to do something about it.
We’ll be letting our guests know that we are available as a polling place for them. If you do choose to vote at Hotel Figueroa, you will get an “I Voted” sticker that has some symbolism to it. In the background, we have a yellow rose, which is a symbol that suffragettes used, as well as a purple sash. We designed that in honor of the women who led the push for ratification of the 19th Amendment.
We contacted LA County to indicate our interest in working as a polling place, and they were able to send out a number of serving teams to assess our space. What they’re looking for is a space that’s really large and comfortable enough for voters to vote, and for the queue to be at a safe distance due to COVID. We were able to outline the path of traffic where guests or voters would go, and create a plan in partnership with LA County to make that happen. I think they were eager to provide many options for voters this year. We’re obviously hoping for strong voter turnout and civic engagement in 2020.
At our restaurant Veranda Al Fresco, we do everything through this contactless app. Our chef does Mexico City-inspired tacos. We’re going to put up our ordering app inside the hotel so that’s very easy for our guests to order online, and then they can wait in the queue, vote, and pick up their food at the end. You can vote, go have lunch, and move on with your day.
When the pandemic hit, we made the decision to stay open. We’ve never closed throughout. The hotel was open through the Great Depression and World War II. I really think that a hotel as a place to stay should be reflective of the community in which it resides. It’s very important that we continue to be that safe haven, which is the original mission of the hotel. We stayed open and hosted first responders and essential workers when the pandemic first hit. It really wasn’t until early summer that we welcomed regular guests back to the hotel.
And now we’re hosting firefighters dealing with the challenges that California has had with wildfires. We’re just trying to find ways to be part of the solution for everybody. We’re finding more and more people—local Angelenos—wanting to use our hotel. Not necessarily for an overnight stay, because they already live here. Just as a place to work. That’s actually been a really successful program for us.
We partnered with a fantastic organization called Women Under the Influence, and last year they had an incredibly successful film festival for women in Idlewild. The focus of the film festival is to celebrate women in film—producers, directors, creatives in the film industry. Instead of canceling this year, we said no, let’s partner together and put it in our parking lot. So we launched a drive-in movie theater in a parking lot next door to our hotel and partnered with a number of local businesses to make this happen. Our first inaugural movie was Queen and Slim. Tickets were sold out in 30 minutes. It was really crazy. I’m really proud of all the initiatives that we put forth this year, even during these difficult times.