Destination DC CEO: Washington, D.C., Is Very Open for Business Despite Government Shutdown

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Destination DC CEO: Washington, D.C., Is Very Open for Business Despite Government Shutdown

By Rich Luna | Jan 10, 2019

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There may be shuttered doors around Washington, D.C., due to the government shutdown, but the city’s meeting and event industry is open for business.

While the shutdown has caused uncertainty in the nation’s capital and around the country, Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC—the convention and visitor organization for Washington, D.C.—is confident the destination can continue to meet expectations for meetings, events and tourism as his organization launches new initiatives in 2019.

“The biggest lead-in has been about the government shutdown and fortunately, for us, we’ve been focusing on the fact that D.C. is open for business,” he told The Meeting Professional this week. “It’s kind of an opportunity for us to focus on our branding. We’re able to focus on other aspects of the city like theater, nightlife, outdoor events, sporting, retail and the likes, restaurants and those museums and attractions that are not tied to the Smithsonian that are in fact open for business.

“The positive for us is the fact that as you look at and come to Washington right now there is a lot of development, a lot of it is tied to the meetings industry and new infrastructure with hotels, new restaurants, new museums and other attractions in Washington. So, despite things we cannot control, there’s a lot of positive feedback in terms of meetings in Washington, D.C.”

That’s not to say that the government shutdown has not had an impact on meetings, particularly those in the federal sector. The American Astronomical Society, which held its 233rd meeting this week in Seattle, expected to lose as many as 450 furloughed government workers from a total of around 3,200 attendees. Among those missing were registrants from the Smithsonian Institute including AAS Past President Christine Jones and invited speaker David DeVorkin.

The annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society gathering this week in Phoenix also projected up to 800 fewer attendees from its expected attendance of around 3,500.

Ferguson said he has heard of an impact to smaller meetings in the district that required or counted on government employees attending.

“We look at it in two different buckets, the citywides and all the other meetings that take place,” he said. “We’re looking at the month of January and there are certain realities for us. It’s not a peak month for conventions nor is it a peak month for tourism.”

He said the city so far is not seeing the reaction from the last government shutdown, which lasted for 16 days in 2013.

“There are things that we can’t control,” he said. “You don’t know how long it’s going to last, but we do know that the city still remains very much so open, and there’s so many things in which you can focus on.”

Ferguson said there are two citywide meetings in DC this January, starting with Transportation Research Board expecting 13,000 attendees next week.

“Luckily, they’re not using any of the impacted attractions for offsite events, and we’ve been in constant communication with the planners, so they can understand what’s open for business and communicate the information on is open with their attendees,” he said. “If a planner was utilizing a museum funded by the federal government, we will facilitate other options, such as new venues at The Wharf or the Newseum.”

Ferguson is also confident his team, and its branding for the destination, is prepared to manage through at this point.

The destination’s “DC Cool” campaign has been in place for about five years and late last year unveiled a new approach—“Discover the real D.C.” This comes on the heels of a successful 2017 in which Destination DC had its eighth consecutive year of growth in tourism, attracting nearly 21 million domestic visitors, a 4.2 percent increase, and about 2 million foreign travelers, a 2.5 percent increase. Destination DC estimated that tourism resulted in about a $7.5 billion economic impact.

The city hosted 21 citywides in 2018 with about 442,000 room nights. Ferguson wants to keep the momentum going in 2019, with new hotels and improvements such as streetscape changes and some external updates at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the Carnegie Library, a new Conrad Hotel and the entertainment and sports arena which recently opened in historic Anacostia.

The city has about 4,000 new hotel rooms at 18 hotels in the pipeline, with about 2,000 to be added in the next three years.

Ferguson announced this week the next iteration of its asset-based sales value proposition, focusing on DC as a “Connected Capital,” using the positioning to pitch more meetings within three new sectors: sustainability, transportation and government advocacy, as well as four existing sectors: technology, biotech/pharma, medical and education. Meeting planners within the sustainability, transportation and government advocacy space will find major sustainability advancements, transformative public transportation initiatives and access to the country’s leaders and lawmakers in D.C., which benefit their attendees, sponsors and bottom line.

“We want our customers to understand and benefit from the assets in Washington, D.C., that they can’t find anywhere else,” Ferguson said. “The 2018 World Gas Conference is a great example of a group that took advantage of D.C.’s access to both 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 policymakers on behalf of the global gas industry.  

“We’re really focusing on ways in which we can help improve or get them to think a little differently about how their program exists while they’re in Washington for their convention.”

Ferguson, who has been with Destination DC for 17 years, will become chair of the board of the U.S. Travel Association in March.

“One thing my teams know about me is that if I didn’t have fun, I wouldn’t do it, and the fact that in D.C., every 18 months we’re selling something different and we’re selling it at least through a different lens and that kind of keeps it fun,” he said. “Politics aside, which is never the fun part of what we do, our destination continues to improve. Be it perception of safety, perception of things to do, the attractiveness of Washington as a destination, and you know we like the fact that we’ve played a role in how people perceive Washington globally, and so that keeps me excited.”



Rich Luna

Rich Luna is Director of Publishing for MPI and Editor-in-chief of The Meeting Professional.