Sunday, November 1, 2009

Elliott Ferguson’s job should be easy.

As the new president and chief executive officer of Destination DC, an organization that promotes Washington as a premier convention and tourism location, all Mr. Ferguson has to do is hand prospective visitors a brochure of the city, right?


“The biggest mistake a leader tends to make when representing a city is assuming that there is an inherent perception that people want to visit your city,” Mr. Ferguson said. “Although D.C. is a sought-after tourist destination, we have to continue to be competitive. There are more cities building convention centers and offering deals. Our customers are looking at those deals. We have to continue to sell our city as if there is no interest, or we lose.”

And Mr. Ferguson has no intention of losing.

Mr. Ferguson took the helm of Destination DC in July, replacing Bill Hanbury, who left the agency after eight years to head United Way of the National Capital Area.

Before his promotion, Mr. Ferguson worked seven years at Destination DC, most recently as senior vice president of convention sales and services. His decision to assume the leadership role was a no-brainer, he said. “You either move up or you move on.”

While his tailored suit and frameless glasses project an air of seriousness, it soon becomes apparent that the 43-year-old Capitol Hill resident is approachable and easygoing. Breezing through a monthly meeting for Destination DC members at Smith & Wollensky, a restaurant in the DuPont Circle neighborhood, Mr. Ferguson thanked them for their support before whizzing off to Philadelphia for a conference.

Destination DC represents more than 850 local tourism-minded businesses and organizations. The agency is a contracting arm of the Washington Convention Center & Sports Authority and is funded by a percentage of D.C.’s hotel occupancy tax, along with membership dues and marketing fees.

With more than 20 years of experience in the industry, including stints leading sales teams at visitors bureaus in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., Mr. Ferguson, a self-proclaimed salesman, is confident that he can showcase D.C. as a destination hot spot, particularly to international tourists.

“We are going after the international tourism market,” Mr. Ferguson said. “International tourists stay longer and they spend more. The reality is that the euro and the pound are doing much better than the dollar, so international tourists are eating at nice upscale restaurants and they are doing a lot more shopping.”

International visits to the District increased 22 percent last year as 1.4 million foreigners visited the city, making the District the eighth most-visited U.S. destination for international travelers, according to data collected by Destination DC While those international travelers represented less than 10 percent of D.C.’s total visitors, they accounted for 24 percent of the tourist dollars spent here.

But the city most Europeans consider visiting when coming to the United States is New York, and Mr. Ferguson wants to change that.

“Our goal is to get them to understand that Washington is more than someone standing in front of the Capitol building,” he said. “There are other things to do in the city. We are emphasizing our restaurant community, shopping in the area, and the international community that already exists here with more than 40 embassies. We are a world destination, and that is what we are continuing to promote.”

Washington’s quiet allure for the stylish, trendy and affluent is helping to attract businesses and bring new prestige to the city. J&G Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant chain with 19 locations worldwide, hosted the biggest grand opening bash in the company’s history when it opened inside the W Hotel in September. The hotel itself has become a magnet for the city’s young professionals.

D.C. tied with Seattle as the No. 1 destination for young professionals aged 25 to 34 in a September survey of travel experts conducted by the Wall Street Journal. Young people tend to have more discretionary income and spend more at restaurants and bars, Mr. Ferguson said.

One unseen aspect of Mr. Ferguson’s plan to sell D.C. as a tourist destination is strengthening relationships with elected officials, a practice begun during Mr. Hanbury’s tenure.

“It is really important that we keep them engaged,” Mr. Ferguson said. “It is important to get them to understand what we do for D.C. from an economic perspective.”

For every dollar that is invested in marketing D.C. as a destination, there is a $2.80 return to the city, Mr. Ferguson said, noting that tourism is the city’s second-largest industry.

Destination DC’s efforts help generate $5.6 billion in revenue each year, he said, which “equates to about $600 million in tax dollars.”

For some businesses, membership in Destination DC comes with a six-figure price tag. But it is a price that must be paid if you want to be successful, said Rachel Krieger, director of private dining for Smith & Wollensky.

“They sell for us,” she said. “They know our space. When they talk to conventioneers, they recommend our restaurant. They connect me to the people, in the city, hosting the conventions. That is a very important resource. If I wasn’t going through the people at Destination DC, I wouldn’t be able to gain access to these people.”

Rumors that Destination DC might be raising its membership fees next year surfaced a few months ago. But Mr. Ferguson downplayed those fears.

“We are not raising dues in fiscal year 2010,” he said. “We know it’s a challenging economy and our focus right now is to continue delivering value to our members.”

“People always say that D.C. is insulated from recession. In the past year, we’ve seen that this is quite untrue,” said Ms. Kreiger, noting that a fee increase would be a tough pill for businesses like hers to swallow right now.

With fewer hotel-occupancy tax dollars rolling in, Destination DC laid off about a dozen employees this year.

Members might not notice, said Shirin Kooros, director of sales and marketing for Donovan House, a luxury boutique hotel on 14th Street NW. “We still have the same opportunities. The monthly meetings have continued. They have been pretty transparent in terms of the cuts. We haven’t really noticed a difference.”

As for the change in leadership, Ms. Kooros said, “Elliott has been with the company for a while and has a style we all know and appreciate.”

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