Saturday, May 25, 2024 May 25, 2024
71° F Dallas, TX

Checking In (And Checking Out) the Omni Dallas Hotel

On the first night it was open to the public, I stayed at the convention center hotel.
photography by Jason Ryan

The lights of the hotel flash gently outside my window like a muted neon bruise, all purple and blue and pink. It’s 3:30 am. I’m wide awake. I’d say so much for the sleep of the just, but I think it’s the king-size mattress. Not that I don’t have things to keep me up at night in a luxury suite, but the bed’s just a tad too soft, and I’m picky.

I’m the first person to stay in this room. It’s the first night the hotel is open to the public, in November. No one has slept under this cream-colored comforter. No one has showered in this absurdly well-lit bathroom. The rooms haven’t been trashed by a tween having her first hotel sleepover party. Nothing much sordid has happened here yet, and the hallways are eerily, uniformly quiet, right down to the artwork on the walls, which is available for purchase if you like it all that much. The only evidence of humans comes in the form of ravaged room service trays left outside doors, a few privacy hang tags, and a breakfast order for two.

Welcome, Liz Johnstone, to the Omni Hotel.

When I walked into my room hours earlier, that message was flashing on the giant flat-screen TV, offering me HD internet access so I could surf and connect with friends from the comfort of my room. And there was more. Would I like to view the rest of the message?

Not really, no. I’m electronically challenged, and I was more enamored with the view. Room 1434 overlooks the red glow of the WFAA building, the white lights of Reunion Tower, and the sparsely populated parking lot of the Dallas Morning News. It’s the same skyline I was glad to see on the last legs of family road trips and the same pretty view that made me feel more grown up at age 16 than I actually was, going to see indie movies at the Angelika with the first boy I wanted to hold my hand.

Three blocks from the Greyhound bus station, the colored lights of the Omni Dallas Hotel’s curving exterior shimmer up and down. Of course, this wasn’t part of the package when I was making weekly pilgrimages from Irving to downtown Dallas in high school. The glimmering marble lobby smells like the candles for sale in the gift shop, and over the speakers in the background Norah Jones wonders why you didn’t call. Driving here earlier, I found it difficult to imagine that someone’s business trip or a family’s vacation would just happen to coincide with the opening night of Dallas’ convention crown jewel. Because, really, who stays in a hotel the first night it’s open?

Couples, that’s who. Young, old, middle-aged. They canoodled in booths at the Owners Box sports bar with glasses of Moët. They shared bottles of wine and high-fived the waitstaff at Bob’s Steak and Chop House (a brand the hotel chain now co-owns). They strolled hand in hand around the floors that boast meeting rooms named after various Dallas neighborhoods and at least one carpet patterned after our maddening freeway system.

It’s a city experience both beefed up and abridged—medium-rare steak and sports and that skyline all rolled into one. You can buy a Dallas Museum of Art tote bag without ever having to visit the galleries. You can watch any college football game you want on a big screen in the same place as a rival (but not, unfortunately, the Pacquiao vs. Marquez fight). A former local nursing a Heineken at the Owners Box bar was fresh from a family funeral. I accidentally murdered the conversation when he asked which team I was rooting for and I told him I went to NYU, where the Violets’ mascot is a bobcat.

When the concierge handed me my key card, she asked where I was from. I told her that I was from here. I was looking for a temporary break. The couple next to me, also from Dallas, checked in for their anniversary. The woman was tall, blond, beautiful. Her significant other was balding like Prince William. Did they need help with plans? “No,” the guy said. “Just a cab.”

Whether Dallas really needed 23 floors, 1,001 rooms, and 110,000-plus square feet of publicly owned hotel, novel as it might be for townies celebrating a special occasion, was the subject of much debate. The idea was Tom Leppert’s before he abandoned his mayoral post to run for Senate. The object was to increase the city’s desirability as a convention destination. Voters narrowly approved the hotel, which connects to the Dallas Convention Center via sky bridge, in May of 2009. Harlan Crow spearheaded the anti-Omni campaign, mostly because his family’s company, Crow Holdings, owns the Hilton Anatole. The Crow family stands to lose cash if convention-holding companies take a liking to all the Omni has to offer.

The hotel was backed by nearly half a billion dollars in revenue bonds, which basically means taxpayers are on the hook for a lot of funky glass pendant chandeliers and confusing state-of-the-art electronics. I didn’t figure out how to work the color-coded buttons on the TV remote until early morning. By that time, I’d spent four hours alternately staring out at the rapidly brightening sky and thumbing through the shelves of books that some interior decorator bought at the world’s most boring estate sale and then covered in white butcher paper. Does anyone still like Dan Brown, I wondered? I found two copies of The Da Vinci Code shelved alongside a masterpiece called Havana Bay.

Still. It’s a pretty piece of work, and everyone seems happy enough now that it’s here a few months ahead of schedule and a few million under budget. According to the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, convention commitments are up from 18 to 55 in the 24 months since the hotel was announced. Lights All Night, one of the more widely promoted New Year’s Eve shows, was booked at the convention center before the hotel even opened. The tie-in promotion allows revelers to stumble straight to their rooms. The hurry to get the hotel ready was noticeable only in small details: piles of stuff—dozens of white vases, what looked like orange chair cushions still wrapped in plastic, and something that’s maybe a lampshade or modern art—in the farthest halls, a broken electrical outlet in the living area of my suite tagged for fixing.

And, as luck would have it, I noticed the same anniversary-celebrating couple I’d seen at check-in breakfasting at Texas Spice, the casual, unfortunately named farm-to-table Bob’s alternative. She’d traded her heels for Sperry Top-Siders, and he was getting a little handsy as they headed back to their room. As the perky, sing song, possibly Australian elevator voice would say, “Going up!”

Somewhere, Harlan Crow is fuming and prepping a big “I told you so.” Somewhere, Tom Leppert is gesticulating with his plus-size hands and probably not caring until the pendulum of public opinion on his former pet project swings one way or the other. But stepping into the elevator back at my apartment, with its sticky floor and mystery stains, I miss that voice already.
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