CMW’s Iain Stirling spent some time at the recent PCMA Convening Leaders event in Las Vegas with Destination DC president and CEO Elliott Ferguson (pictured). Click here to read the feature in the CMW March/ April 2022 Magazine.
How challenging have the last couple of years been for you in DC?
Any time you’re in an industry where you rely on numbers and historical data and you have trends tied to success it’s very difficult when all that is thrown out of the water and you’re subjected not only to a loss of business but loss of life. It’s been very difficult to see what has been happening to the industry and DC.
As a destination we have also had other disruptors. I moved to DC in 2001 and it took us 10 years to rebound from a leisure travel standpoint after 9/11. In between we’ve had anthrax, a sniper and federal government shutting down six times. These things have all been disruptors in terms of business, but clearly nothing compares to what is happening now and the concern as we’re looking to getting back on track.
What are your expectations for this year?
Last year was better than 2020. We had 20 city-wide conventions and we have smaller meetings coming to DC in 2022. We are dealing with Omicron like everybody else and hoping it won’t deter people from coming to these conventions, we remain optimistic.
You had two conventions in the second week of January – The Modern Language Association and the Transportation Research Board, bringing an estimated $18.4m of economic impact; good indications of returning business?
Yes, and they come every year and January is not traditionally a strong month for convention business so this is a big deal. We rely on business during lean periods. So, the fact that we are hosting these groups – and the Auto Show is returning to DC in a couple of weeks attracting a few hundred thousand people – and seeing them committing is encouraging.
The bottom line is we are learning how to get back on track while dealing with a pandemic.
What else has changed?
The way planners and groups look at business. Hybrid does work, groups have recognised, and does meet the needs of people that cannot come to events in person. That is a change. But then there is the expectation of the destination and the cost of it all to the convention centre. We have also become more astute in terms of the science and medicine tied to the pandemic. We have a good sense of communicating with stakeholders on what’s happening and how they can still function in DC with a convention.
We are focusing on how we move forward during Covid. Customers get it and tell us: ‘You need to help us figure out how we can still have our meeting in your destination in a Covid environment which will probably be the norm for a long time’.
How important is leveraging local DC expertise?
Information is constantly changing, such as quarantining time and we are relying on our city government and medical community to assist in understanding what is expected of visitors coming to the city.
The fact that we have all these experts in our back yard – you don’t have to fly them in – means they can make recommendations for subjects to talk about during a meeting. Well before the pandemic we’ve relied upon key sectors to assist us close business.
What is your outlook?
We are optimistic, we see an increase in leads. If you’d asked me that a year ago, I’d say write everything in pencil because it changes.
We rely heavily on international visitors, but the positive news is we’re getting fewer groups talking about cancelling meetings, unlike 2020.
Now is the time for the media to rely more on some of the positive things, like CES meeting in Vegas and PCMA Convening Leaders; safety measures are all in place. After all, how many years are we going to stay off the grid and not travel?
There is a fundamental difference between certifying online and in person. It’s important to get back to the business of meeting in person.
What’s new in DC infrastructure?
One positive has been the amount of infrastructure build continuing in the past 24 months. The second phase of the Wharf on the Potomac River opens at the end of the year. It is a unique development in a new part of town. The commitment of industry to build in Washington remains very strong.
Planners are asking for more, and cities are stepping up to the plate. The key thing about Washington is that transport costs can be kept low,16 museums are free.
We’ve always been on the ‘bleisure’ trajectory because we have an advantage over other destinations in the US. We have three airports and a Silverline Metro that opens this year and will bring in visitors from Dulles International airport.
What role does sustainability play in DC in terms of securing events?
The US is light years behind Europe and some other international communities in terms of sustainability but the issue is a priority in Washington, so as groups are looking to come into the city, the city prides itself on having all efforts tied to having a sustainable convention or meeting in the city as well as a lot of new builds tied to green build certification. It is a priority. We want to make sure that we are a leader in the green build space.
We are not as large a city as people may think with our 700,000 population. Not a large footprint in terms of size of the city, but there’s a lot we can do and the city is incentivising those focusing on sustainability.
With so many non-profits and think tanks in DC, they also understand that they are responsible for the environment.
How does the ‘Capital’ tag help with business?
Lots of national associations are headquartered here and 180-plus embassies as well as legislators based in the city. If you’re looking for a destination that offers international experience with access to embassies and easy flight options, these are all things we look to promote.
As well as government, we have entertainment and sporting events as attractions. It is fun to be in a city where so many sports teams have won national championships. Theatre is another reason for visits.
It is incumbent on DMOs to recognise we can no longer just sell on the infrastructure and how great our city is, we have to focus on ways to tie the assets we have in the destination to the customer.
We also have assets in our community that allow you to take some of your meetings out of the hotel or convention centre and into a unique space in the city. It’s our responsibility to share that with our customers so their attendees can say ‘Wow, I had the most amazing experience in Washington DC’.
People want to meet in person. Human interaction is important to a lot of things tied to doing business. If my competitor is going to meet in person do I want to be on a Zoom going after the same customer? Whoever is there in person will have a better connection to the customer. Being here at PCMA, the overwhelming thing I hear is ‘People want to spend time with each other’.
What about talent leaving the industry. Is that a problem?
Absolutely, our industry has been severely impacted and some won’t return and we have seen that the hospitality industry is very fragile. We are talking about ways of attracting people back and focusing on diversity and inclusion. It is very difficult when you are running a 365-day a year hotel or venue business, but we have to get back on track and attract new talent to the industry.
If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us how important it is to have that interconnectivity and how much we need each other.