Meeting Mentor Magazine

June 2024

D.C. on the Road to Recovery

Destination DC President and CEO Elliott L. Ferguson, II

The sun shone brightly as Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, Destination DC President and CEO Elliott L. Ferguson, II, and other industry leaders gathered at Audi Field last week at a travel rally to discuss plans to jumpstart future travel to — and meetings and events held in — the city.

The pandemic has hit the city hard: Visitor spending dropped 68% and hotel revenue in the city decreased 84% from March 2020 to March 2021. However, according to Tourism Economics, the city can expect to rebound this year, with estimated domestic visitors reaching 14-15 million this year, up about 50% from last year — and it could go up to as much as 90% by 2022. D.C. hotels can expect to see double the demand for rooms they had in 2020, about 5.7 million room nights.

The city announced the launch of a recovery advertising campaign, headed by local agency January Third, to bring back visitors, especially the 50 million regional consumers within a four-hour drive of D.C., as well as a targeted national audience showing intent to travel. Key to the campaign is the website, which includes local attractions and highlights along with the latest travel and health information.

“A national economic recovery won’t be complete without a travel recovery, which requires the reopening of international borders as well as a business travel revival. The domestic leisure uptick is encouraging but won’t be enough on its own,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy, U.S. Travel Association. “D.C. is an example of a city where livelihoods thrive because of its ability to attract leisure travelers, large meetings and events, and international visitors. Celebrating the industry’s economic importance to the nation’s capital is critical, and we look forward to an even broader reopening.”

Meetings Matter

While the focus of the travel rally, held in conjunction with U.S. Travel Association’s National Travel and Tourism Week, was mainly on bringing back tourism and leisure travelers, meetings and events also were on the agenda.

“While the data shows that leisure and transient visitors will return before meetings and conventions, we remain actively involved in bringing in groups of all sizes — meaning groups that can meet in the convention center, hotels, or in unique venues such as Audi Field,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson acknowledged that while meetings likely will include a digital component at least for the near future, organizers “want to have people in person as well as the opportunity for people to tune in as to what’s happening in their meetings.” Because so many associations, a key segment of D.C.’s meeting market, tend to book years in advance, “The reality for us is that conventions are looking at Washington in five years and beyond. So that remains extremely robust,” he said.

Still Connected, Still Embracing Diversity

D.C.’s Hospitality Alliance, comprised of by DDC, Events DC, the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. and Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, has launched an initiative that builds on positioning D.C. as a connected city for future meetings and conventions. Called “Still Connected,” the goal of the initiative is to let customers know that there’s a coordinated effort across the hospitality industry and that D.C. is dedicated to bringing in-person meetings back successfully.

According to DDC, the approach is two-fold. First is a dedication to the health standards that will facilitate safer in-person meetings. “D.C. takes health guidelines very seriously,” said Ferguson.

First and foremost among the steps taken to bring events back, said Greg O’Dell, President & CEO, Events DC, was investing in technology around cleaning and safety protocols. This includes achieving GBAC STAR certification for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, which was the first convention center in the northeast corridor to achieve this accreditation for cleaning, disinfection and infection prevention strategies. By the way, the convention center hasn’t sat idle through the pandemic. It hosted a temporary hospital that thankfully never had to be put into use. The convention center, along with the entertainment and sports arena, more recently also served as a vaccination site. “As of today we have had 80,000 people vaccinated at our facilities,” said O’Dell. “We’re very proud of that. Now the mayor has opened up that vaccination accessibility to everyone, we’re probably going to serve 100,000 people in the next few weeks.”

The second piece of the “Still Connected” initiative is focusing on D.C. as a place where commerce thrives, due to its strong industries and access to top speakers, sponsors and exhibitors — ultimately making the conference appealing for attendees and successful for planners. “We know that meetings will come back stronger in D.C.,” Ferguson said. “We have a robust economy as it pertains to the meetings market, and we’re laying out opportunities for those groups to meet in the future. We remain in lockstep with Events DC, as well as venues and hotels around the city.”

To highlight the city’s commitment to embracing diversity — another important consideration for many meeting organizers — the redesigned website features The DEI District, a section that showcases Washington, D.C., as a global destination that promotes and validates diversity, equity and inclusion. According to Destination Analysts, more than half of typical travelers surveyed are likely to support businesses that they believe make a “positive social impact.” Through the new content, locals, visitors, groups and meetings attendees will learn more about D.C.’s diverse make up, progress happening in the city, and ways to create lasting change within the District’s communities.

Promise for Better Days Ahead

O’Dell also said that the city has not had any major events scheduled for 2022 cancel. “That gives us a lot of hope that we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

On a personal note, O’Dell said, “We all know that the world is a better place when we traveling. We need to be together, to see our loved ones, to travel and explore, meet new cultures, meet new people. We need to go to sporting events and socialize, have our emotions move again. And for people to come to our conventions to network, to learn, to be educated, and to change the world.”

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