The 2022 outlook for travel and tourism
Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC shares his unique insights into the state of tourism, mandates, omicron and the question of what’s next from the Nation’s capital, a premiere visitor destination filled with world class attractions.
Elliott talks about the pivot for destination marketers from ‘heads in beds and butts in seats’ into a new central role of chief communicator between venues and visitors, reflecting on the changing expectations and demands of travellers across attractions, events and hospitality.
For more on Destination DC, visit https://washington.org/.
Angie: Hello and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit here today with President and CEO of Destination D.C., Elliott Ferguson, who is the outgoing national chair of the board for the US Travel Association and the chair of Tourism Diversity Matters. Welcome Elliott.
Elliott: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Angie: I understand congratulations are in order too, because this month marks two decades for you at the helm of Destination D.C., it’s quite the tenure!
Elliott: You know, Angie, that means you’re either getting very old or, or… something along those lines. But yes, I did celebrate my 20th anniversary last week. Very happy to be able to be here for that long. So thanks for that.
Angie: I’m guessing the last couple of years have been your most notable there. Does anything else compare?
Elliott: Well, I moved here right after 9/11. We’ve had, as you look at tourism and you look at the things in which we try to influence, there had been a lot of obstacles, be it 9/11 itself… Anthrax, which was a major scare. And actually there’s a show on Netflix about it now and other government shut downs and anytime something happens, terrorism related globally, there is a perception tied to D.C.
So we’ve, we’ve had a lot of things in which we’ve had to deal with in that regard. And of course, January 6th, which comes to mind, is something that happened this year . So the key for us is resilience. And the fact that as the Nation’s capital of the United States, there’s so many amazing reasons for people to still want to visit and enjoy our world class destination, despite some of those obstacles.
Angie: I’m going to have to check out that series on Netflix. I think I fell in love with DC first on the big screen!
Elliott: Yes. It’s usually some movie tied to politics, hopefully with a positive ending.
Angie: Well, D.C. is my second home and I’m missing it so much during the pandemic. What is life like there at the moment? We’re in December ’21, all of us are holding our breath to see what next year looks like, especially with Omicron creeping
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re all concerned about Omicron. But I think we should still remain very concerned about Delta and the fact that as you’re looking at the number of cases that are being documented, two things come to mind.
One, those that are not vaccinated are those are the most, they’re the ones that are most vulnerable. And then two, Delta has proven to be far more formidable as it pertains to long-term negative effects, then Omicron at this point. So I think the fact that we have two variants plus the original are reasons for us to all remain concerned.
But to answer your question. You know, we’re unlike in New Zealand, we’re ramping up for our winter mind. So it’s a little colder here. This happens to be a slower season for us in terms of travel. So, you know, we’re, we’re optimistic keeping our fingers crossed that people will continue to follow the safety protocols and still enjoy being in the Nation’s Capital, being in the U.S. without having to go through another shutdown, which nobody wants.
Angie: I guess it can be a that some of the disturbance of these new variants is happening in the winter rather than the top of the high season.
Elliott: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s one way of looking at it. And, you know, I think the other is the fact that we’ve had so many months of people being at home, working from home. And I know that people are still doing that.
We know so much more now than we did arguably a year ago and we have protocols that are in place that should make it a lot easier. I think the key thing in which we’re focusing on Angie is not only getting vaccinated and telling visitors and locals to be vaccinated, but also continuous testing.
Because we all know that you can be vaccinated and you can still carry one of the Corona viruses and you just have to know your status. So constant testing is an necessity. If we’re wanting our industry to remain back on track and see some of the positive trends that we heard, that we would have moving forward based on where we are maybe 30 days ago.
Angie: So Elliott you’re out on the front lines with many of the cultural institutions in your area. And you’re an advisory board member to the Smithsonian National Zoo and Director for DC Jazz. I know you head up a few recovery committees and working groups. Can you give me a sense of what the industry’s confidence or spirit is out there at the moment.
Elliott: Well, I think overall, the outlook is very, it’s very optimistic from be it the Zoo or any of the institutions that are here in Washington, DC. You know, we’re all hoping and praying that as we learn more about Corona virus, that, each iteration, if you will, that we’re learning about will be less than the next and that’s what’s happening with Omicron.
And I think the key thing for us is to look at it through a positive lens. Let’s talk about groups and events that have been able to take place successfully – and in an environment such as we’re in now. I think that clearly there’s a need to communicate how detrimental the viruses and articulate the importance of testing and vaccines.
But as we’re looking at getting back on track for meetings, events, and activities, we’ve got to talk about what has and how it’s worked in which folks should do so that we can continue in that trajectory. So that’s what our stakeholders are asking of us. That’s what we’re sharing. And we’re always trying to get the latest information in terms of being global or national as to what’s the easiest way to navigate and to still meet in a COVID environment.
Angie: And are you expecting demand to pent up at any stage or for that to kick in, or is it going to be slow and steady wins the race? What’s your thesis on how that will unfold?
Elliott: Each sector is going to be different. As we look at our meetings or conventions industry, we were anticipating and still anticipate positive results in terms of the number of major citywide congresses we’ll host in 2022, we’ll host nearly 20 next year compared to 5 this year. And of course, 2020 after March of that year, everything just totally dried up in terms of meetings. So we’re anticipating a recovery, a strong recovery in terms of the larger congresses and small meetings that we normally host as we look at the international community, of course, the borders reopened on November 8.
That means different things to different parts of the US and the world in terms of travel. But we remain optimistic as we are being told by experts that by 2024 or maybe it’s as early as late 2023, we will have returned back to the numbers that we have hosted in 2019. So, you know, be it any obstacles that might skew or, or change that course of action, we remain optimistic as do our stakeholders, as we look at the future.
Angie: We’re seeing that visitor attractions in DC right now, they’re sitting at about 72% of normal on their visitation recovery index and the holiday lead-up. What is happening out there in the wider travel and tourism recovery, in terms of tourism numbers or occupancy rates?
Elliott: It depends on where you are. I mean, if you’re looking at locations that are on the coast or maybe in the Midwest, whereas folks who are able to do things outside, there are doing much better than major cities, like New York, Boston, DC, and, you know, that’s short-term of course.
So, you know, we anticipate, Washington is one of those cities, whereas you can come here, you can socially distance. Especially with monuments and memorials and the museums are so large. And the key thing for us is that there’s so many free attractions here, that in addition to them being amazing attractions, they’re free.
And that’s appealing to a lot of folks, especially those that have been financially compromised. But those destinations that have been skewing better are those that are usually beach destinations or places that like state parks in the middle of the United States.
Angie: That’s interesting. So it’s a real advantage for the DC region over New York and for some of those outdoorsy states over others?
Elliott: For now, I think that the key thing for us is that we normally rely on a mix of business travel, conventions and meetings and leisure, domestic and international. And for us, business travel is relatively non-existent, meetings are trying to get back on track. And as I referenced earlier next year as a stronger year, and the international leisure market has been totally decimated and the domestic market is still trying to recover.
And so as we look at the successes of 2021 – much better than last year, not remotely where we should have been, but very optimistic as we’re looking at potential for recovery. And the key thing too, Angie, is that individuals are ready to get out. Folks are ready to meet in person. I’ve attended a series of meetings and we all recognize how more impactful meetings are when you meet in person and just the opportunity to interact with your peers and to learn from others in person that is far more appealing long-term than any scenario that’s out there or Zoom or any other platform. So therefore there’s a desire to get out there. There’s a desire by the leisure market. The moment November 8th was marked as a day that international travel returned, we saw significant spikes in interest in returning to the US. So those are all good signs.
Angie: Are you hearing of any standout behavior changes in that market, such as advanced booking timeframes or changes to mode of transport or sensitivity to cancellation policies, anything going on there?
Elliott: I really think that it’s all the above. I mean, you know, folks are trying to figure out how to navigate the new norm.
And they need to know how flexible wherever they’re going is in terms of a need to potentially change plans for whatever that reason is. And so there’s a lot more sensitivity there. There’s also more sensitivity and knowing what the protocol is for venues for hotels in terms of cleanliness and say, as well as what is open and what services could someone suggest if they’re staying in your hotel, you know, people don’t like to show up and be surprised on site that there’s no food and beverage options or there’s no room service at all.
So there, there is a need to communicate, in some cases over communicate, simply because individuals want to know more and know exactly what their options are as they’re looking at.
Angie: You talked a little bit about the trends of domestic versus international tourism. Particularly now the borders are reopening and the outlook for winter and the coming summer season.
Are there any particular demographics or places of visitor origin that are recovering faster or conversely, is, is DC more appealing to a particular type of visitor is maybe a destination with a higher degree of mass compliance and vaccine coverage?
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. Angie, I think the key things for us is that: one, you can start with recognizing the world-class attractions that are here with our museums and monuments and memorials, and the fact that they’re free. So if you’re looking at a compromised financial situation and you’re trying to figure out where to go. And how to get there. Washington becomes an appealing destination. We’ve got 33% of the US population within a four hour drive of Washington. So that became a large part of what we were focusing on as people were trying to get back on track and figure out whether or not, in their mind, it was safe to fly versus getting on a train or to drive. And so therefore our strategy out of necessity changed from, you know, a global end domestic outreach to mostly domestic short term, simply because those are the only ones that only individuals that had an opportunity to travel.
And the response for a city like Washington clearly is not the same as a beach location, but with two rivers and folks being able to kayak and go hiking within close proximity to Washington and the region as a whole, we’ve been able to market and promote how you can socially distance and have a good experience in Washington, DC. And equally as much, if you want to go to theater, what protocols in place to make sure that you’re safe as you’re going into different different venues.
Angie: Speaking of some of those protocols, are you expecting any winter restrictions, such as capacity constraints to be re-introduced or do you have, an outlook on when the last of those might lift? I know as well now where we’re sort of getting back into this conversation with public venues over whether they might consider shutdowns again, which seems, amazing to think about.
Elliott: I think the key thing is that no one wants to shut down again. We don’t want it. I know our elected officials don’t want it, but we do want to make sure that we focus on safety and something you said earlier that has resonated with visitors is the fact that we have been very cautious and not every state in the United States or territory has the same protocol as it pertains to wearing masks. In Washington, our mayor lifted our mask protocol a few weeks back, but it’s back on as of tomorrow out of necessity. I think the key things would be to figure out how to successfully communicate or make sure that visitors or folks that are attending events, understand the importance of being vaccinated. I know if you’re traveling internationally to the US you don’t have a choice, you have to be vaccinated, but equally as much, we’ve got to make sure that testing is readily available to folks that are coming into the city, as well as folks that live here and that are here on a regular basis. So these things are all important as we’re looking at moving the needle in the right.
Angie: D.C. doesn’t have a vaccine passport, right?
Elliott: DC does not have a vaccine criteria. Now it is being discussed, but nothing is in place. Of course the federal government does, and we have a lot of federal employees here in Washington, DC. So there’s a lot of talk about what makes the most sense. We know other major cities, New York LA have those, those mandates in place. And I talked to my peers in those other cities as early as this morning. And we’re all trying to figure out what makes the most sense. And I think when you hear more about Omicron and other variants, people become more aware of the fact that they should get vaccinated, get that booster. The goal is to not having mandate because everyone is vaccinated, but we realized that’s not where we are.
So, we’ve got to figure out what makes the most sense to make sure that frontline employees and visitors alike are safe as they’re coming to the Nation’s capital.
Angie: There’s a real trade-off, isn’t it of consumer confidence of going to a public place versus the convenience of visitors and visitor experience of having to enforce.
Elliott: No, you’re absolutely right. And, here’s the thing. When you’re in the space of economic development, through tourism and you are dealing with the sensitivities of a pandemic, you want to be empathetic and communicate the right messaging. And that messaging is tied to ‘ we don’t want to shut down’. We want to remain open. We want you to feel safe coming to Washington and theUnited States. We want to make sure that employees are safe. If you’re coming here, so let’s by all means, focus on the protocol, get the vaccine, wear your mask.
Angie: To shift gears a little bit, I’ve heard you talk about the role of destination marketing in terms of heads and beds and butts and seats. How is that evolving as we come out of the pandemic and we have to jumpstart travel and tourism, and how that appeals to the consumer?
Elliott: I love heads in beds, butts in seats. You know, the bottom line is that no matter how we articulate our role, it’s always going to be tied to creating jobs through visitation and economic development, through visitation, visitors coming to the city and saying for three or four days, and then other people coming in.
The reality for us is that we have now morphed into an organization that has to communicate more about safety as it pertains to the virus. And as well as other aspects of safety coming into an urban environment, we recognize that, yes, we should talk about how amazing DC is as a destination, but we have a responsibility to make sure that individuals understand what safety protocol is in place and what’s expected.
And, quite frankly, that was probably not something on our radar. No one’s radar a few years, a few months back. And as well as keeping up to date with whatever is the latest information that visitors need to be aware of. As they’re coming into the city today, you don’t have to wear a mask. As of tomorrow, 6:00 AM, you must wear a mask. As we talked to the city about testing, we want more testing sites around the city open for visitors and for locals because the convenience makes a big difference in terms of people getting tested.
We’re now, the organization, our website and washington.org, that’s going to be responsible for communicating that message, especially to visitors. Our role continues to evolve. We never would have thought we would be this insightful on all things tied to a pandemic or coronavirus and out of necessity, not only are we listening to the information and paying attention, not taking the responsibility of being, we’re just the conduit. We hear the information from the community and for the medical community. And we share that information, but, but equally as important, we do have to share it and ask key questions that are important to visitors that are looking at coming to the US.
Angie: That’s that’s so interesting that it’s gone from destination marketing to really industry and visitor communications as well as promotion, both to the attraction and to the tourist.
Elliott: Yeah, you’re right. And, our members, their expectation of us is to share with them what’s expected by visitors. What folks from Oceana expect in terms of coming to the United States is different than from other parts of the world, you know, and I’ve said that for a long time, one size does not fit all. Your travel patterns are different. What’s expected in terms of information is different. And we have to be on top of that so that we can communicate the right messaging that, that everyone isn’t.
Angie: You keep in touch with a lot of other destination marketing and communications organizations around the world and around the US – what other strategies and challenges are you seeing at a domestic or even international level with your colleagues?
Elliott: I think it’s tied to finding individuals that want to return to work in hospitality. We have a labor shortage right now, and that’s nationwide and in some cases globally. That is a big concern, of course, as we’re looking at meetings, get coming back on track. The question is, you know, who pays for the hybrid? How much is it and how do we make sure that we are communicating to meeting planners because there are expectations that did not exist before. So, you know, it’s, it’s really tied to those are the, the major concerns, of course lift, because a lot of airlines have opted to stop nonstop flights in certain markets, which remains a concern.
And, just the economics tied to what we do. We did see light at the end of the tunnel. As we looked at the vaccine being introduced late last year. But where we are now is that uncertain area of what’s next? The concern that I have is the fact that the moment we hear that, one aspect of events be it sports events or theater shuts down, then there’s a ripple effect.
And I don’t know whether or not in this environment where people are testing and more people are vaccinated that we have to shut down. And that is the key thing in which we’re talking about internally. How do we make sure we’re articulating messaging? That’s important to those that plan events and meetings so that they can still go do those events and meetings successfully.
Angie: You’ve spoken a little bit about the conference market and events in terms of things that will be on your horizon like cherry blossom next year. What about the longterm outlook for business travel, especially in the age of zoom, is that forever changed?
Elliott: You know, I think it’s it’s for those who did not think that zoom or WebEx was an option, they now realize that it is an option. But another part of that is recognizing the fact that there’s nothing more important than person to person interactivity and interaction. In terms of building relationships, a couple of things are going to happen. Angie, if my company sells a product and I know that my competitor is going to meet with a potential vendor in person, am I going to want my sales team to talk to that same vendor on zoom? When my competition is beating them in person. And the answer is no. I think that one we’ve learned as an industry and we continue to articulate to the industry as a whole, is the importance of meeting in person.
We’ve learned that zoom is a conduit and can be very helpful, but let’s just face it. Everybody multitasks when they are on zoom, they’re not paying a hundred percent attention. So therefore you’re not getting the full scope and capacity of the audience simply because they are multitasking.
The answer is, the studies that the experts share with us suggest that the meetings market will return. The caveat might be that instead of having 10,000 people in person, you might have 10,000 people in person, but an additional 3,000 on zoom or on a hybrid simply because now that’s an option that, that organization may not have offered before.
Absolutely remaining optimistic, recognizing human behavior is tied to human interaction. Just look at the grade schools and how kids suffered emotionally and physically and their grades suffered simply because they weren’t meeting face to face that same data can be shared in terms of what happens when you need accreditation or you need training or certification on a certain process. Do you want your cardiologist to have learned a new process on a zoom call versus versus being in person and learning that process in person? So they can ask questions that more.
I think we all know the answer there. And I think that there’s, there’s something to be said about in-person meetings and the same with leisure travel. During COVID we had no choice. So we relied heavily on social media to tell stories about what’s happening in the Smithsonian, what things are happening in DC.
But that was a stop gap so that people can write those things down and say, well, when we start to travel again, I want to come to Washington because I want you to see these things in person, the new World War One Memorial, the new Eisenhower Memorial, or the new Planet Word Museum or, or the Children’s Museum.
So these are things in which we whet people’s appetites in terms of what’s happening in Washington, DC, with the hopes that they’ll want to come in person once they’re able to do.
Angie: That’s a good last demographic or group for us to cover, those school and tour groups, particularly in DC, they make up such a huge proportion of visitation. What’s your prediction on how those elements will recover?
Elliott: Yes, school groups. That’s always a very touchy subject, because as I tell parents, when they call and say, ‘Hey, we heard about a something that happened in Paris, is DC safe?’, my response is always going to be the same, in most cases, the school groups, usually the first rite of passage for a kid is that eighth grade trip in America, mostly to Washington DC.
And we want them to come and we want them to feel safe. But as I say to parents, you’ve got to dictate and decide on your own, whether or not you feel comfortable with your child traveling without you. I cannot tell you that they will, I cannot guarantee to you in any capacity and if you have any concerns, be it coming to Washington or stay over at a friend’s house, then you’ve got to make that decision. The destination cannot. But what we focus on, the, the inverse of that messaging. Washington has well over 20 security policing organizations. So it’s arguably one of the safest cities in America. We’re a compact destination. So you have so many attractions that are so close together.
So use the common sense that the organizations that are traditionally responsible for kids groups coming in, use the information that they share with you in terms of safety and safety protocols for your kids coming. That should at least alleviate some of those concerns or fears about them traveling.
Angie: And what does the future hold for DC, you’ve got a few new museums on the horizon?
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. We continue to focus on the fact that between our nightlife and theater and sporting events and world-class cuisine and the two rivers and events and activities that take place there and sports. And of course memorials and museums. There will continue to be a large influx of individuals that want to either come to the Nation’s capital for the first time, or because they’ve not come in a few years. And there are new museums that opened, new attractions or new memorials or new exhibits and museums that they’ve attended before.
They’ll want to come back and enjoy a baseball game on one day and then go to the Kennedy Center or Arena Stage on the next night for a performance and of course eat world-class cuisine. And that’s our responsibility is, to share with those potential travelers, how unique and diverse Washington is.
And the key thing is that I love the most is that a lot of those things you do for free. So if you’re spending the whole day enjoying Washington as a destination and spending no money, then that gives you more to spend on shopping or perhaps upgrade your hotel room or go to a Broadway show or a show here in Washington, DC, that perhaps was not on your radar.
So that’s our responsibility. And that I feel that there’s going to continue to be a demand to come to Washington DC because of that great mix of things in which people can see and do it.
Angie: Thank you so much, Elliott, it’s such an important role that destination organizations are playing in the future for recovery and at a time that is still a little up and down in terms of what’s happening out there in the world. Thank you so much for sharing all of that with us.
Elliott: You’re absolutely welcome. It’s my pleasure. And I look forward to. Welcoming, any guests that are looking at coming to the US, to Washington, go to washington.org to learn more about what’s happening in Washington, DC as you’re looking at perhaps your next trip to the US.
Angie: I can’t wait to get back there myself.
There is nothing like that drive from Ronald Reagan over the bridge, seeing the lights of the iconic DC skyline. It’s my favorite.
Elliott: I totally agree. Angie – we look forward to having you back. All right. Take care.
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