What the Shutdown Means to D.C. Meetings: 'Not Much'

Destination D.C. is well-positioned to minimize the impact on groups, says Elliott Ferguson.

Elliott Ferguson

Amid the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, Washington D.C.'s destination marketing strategy is well-positioned to minimize disruption to inbound groups. Northstar Meetings Group talked with Elliott L. Ferguson, II, president and CEO of Destination D.C., about how the nation's capital is responding to its latest challenge, the business outlook for 2019 and the changing role of destination marketing organizations.

How is the shutdown affecting group business in D.C.?
We've been here before. But this time it's different. The last shutdown took place in October 2013 and lasted for 16 days. This time it's January, which is not a peak tourism or meetings month for us. Also, the reaction from the marketplace is much different than it was in 2013, when people literally had the perception that D.C. was shut down. This time, they're asking what is open, who's offering incentives and what's happening in town. And they have plenty of options: theater, nightlife, sporting events, restaurant, retail. They're asking, "What should we put in place of going to the Smithsonian or the National Zoo?"
Were you prepared for this?
Absolutely. We started our "DC is Open for Business" campaign in 2013, and that is active. We just had to do a refresh and tell people how they can have an amazing experience here; it might just mean changing a location on their agenda. We have a lot of new museums, for example, that are privately run and are not affected in any way by the shutdown: the Museum of the Bible, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, to name a few. We're focused on making sure folks aren't calling and saying, "We're not coming" — instead, they're saying, "We're coming, and what else should we do?"
Many people think of Washington, D.C., as the seat of government, but not necessarily a center of industry. How are you addressing that perception?
In 2017, DDC shifted its sales strategy beyond dates, rates and space to highlight the city as a leader in growing and established key industries: technology, biotech/pharma, medical and education. We just launched a marketing campaign that focuses on D.C. as a "Connected Capital." In addition to targeting those four industry segments, we are positioned to pitch more meetings within three new sectors: sustainability, transportation and government advocacy. 
As part of that effort, are you assisting groups with access to speakers and other content?
We are. We want our customers to understand and benefit from the assets in Washington, D.C., that they can't find anywhere else. About 400 think tanks are based here, including the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Through our connections, we can help groups recruit high-level speakers, such as presidential cabinet secretaries or federal policy makers. The 2018 World Gas Conference is a great example of a group that took advantage of D.C.'s access to thought leaders and local legislators, with the secretary of energy for the United States as a keynote speaker and the group's focus on educating policy makers on behalf of the global gas industry.
What is your outlook for meetings business this year?
In 2019, D.C. will welcome 20 citywide conventions and special events — 2,500 room nights on peak and above —generating more than 360,000 total room nights and an estimated economic impact of $321 million. Major events include the American Academy of Dermatology [March 1-5], NAFSA: Association of International Educators [May 28-31], the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics [Oct. 21-25] and the American Society of Nephrology [Nov. 8-11].
How easily can the destination accommodate such large groups?
D.C. proper has 32,652 hotel rooms, and 111,216 are in the D.C. metro area [according to Lodging Econometrics]. We just had the American Geophysical Union conference here in December. They are headquartered in D.C. but have held their meeting in San Francisco for the past 48 years. This was the first time it took place here, and they had a record 28,000 attendees in 65 hotels, and no shuttle — they didn't need it. That's how easy it is to have a citywide here.
What new developments should planners be aware of this year?
Eighteen hotels are in the pipeline, which will add 3,987 rooms to the city, including The Conrad Washington, DC, and the Hilton Washington DC National Mall, both expected to open in the first quarter of 2019. The National Law Enforcement Museum opened this past Oct. 13. The International Spy Museum is moving to L'Enfant Plaza and reopening in the spring. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' expansion [the REACH] will open Sept. 7, 2019.
How has the role of destination marketers changed during your career?
DMO's have a bigger-picture role in betterment of their destination. Any DMO that hasn't focused on that in some fashion is missing the mark. In the 1980s, D.C. was labeled as the murder capital of the world. As you look at where we are as a destination today, we have a strong relationship with law enforcement, we have established business-improvement districts, we are perceived differently because we are different. We see some of the issues that any urban cities have, but we are a part of the solution, whether that means getting you in touch with the police department to talk about security at your event, or sharing what's happening in some of the neighborhoods. DMOs have to focus on things differently. Our process has changed. We have the asset intelligence and can share ideas and direct planners to the right people who they can tap for their programs. We are a true partner.