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[SHOWNOTES] Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC: Branding a City for Universal Appeal – ECEO025

[SHOWNOTES] Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC: Branding a City for Universal Appeal – ECEO025

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What is Destination DC?

The easiest way to describe who we are is that we’re the economic development organization solely focused on the hospitality industry for Washington, D.C. Traditionally known as a Convention and Visitors Bureau – or DMO, destination marketing organization today – we focus on bringing visitors domestically and internationally to Washington as a destination, as well as bringing conventions as small as ten people and as large as 25,000 plus to the convention center or to individual hotels.

We’ll get into the actual economic driver that you are in the city. It really is incredible. Talk about what role events play in your overall strategy as an organization.

Clearly, for us, events play a huge role in how we focus on attracting our customers to events which we’re doing around the globe, and giving us an opportunity with a lot of our vendors to really promote our destination. We do lots of events that are associated with trade shows, specifically for the convention industry, but for the leisure market it’s a different sell, and the unique thing about the leisure market is that it’s a different sell simply because you’re dealing with different cultures and different countries, and you want to make sure you’re hitting on the right cylinders to attract the right people.

When you say “industry events,” you’re also at SXSW. Those aren’t really typically industry events.

True, and actually Events DC, which we call our “sister company,” they’re primarily focusing on SXSW, because what they do is – not only are they the owner of the Convention Center, Carnegie Library, RFK Stadium, and Stadium-Armory, but they’re responsible for bringing events to the city that we will in turn promote in a way of bringing more people to the city.

Our role is more specific to promoting events that are happening in the city. Very rarely do we actually put on events of that caliber. The last time we did something of that nature was Taste of DC, which were gladly willing to get out of, not because it wasn’t a great event, but because we wanted to be able to promote events happening in the city more than actually put them on. The flipside of that is that we do many events that are customer-based. We do many events at trade shows, and some of the most unique events we do globally simply because those customers are looking for a different type of experience.

Talk a little bit about IPW, which is one of the largest tourism events in the world, actually, and what will this event mean to D.C.? So a little bit about what it is and what it means to us as a city.

What does IPW stand for? I’ve never heard of it! Yes! Gool ol’ IPW. U.S. Travel Association has put on a show for 40-plus years – formally known as Pow Wow, for those that are familiar with that name – but changed the name about 5 years ago to IPW, which stands for nothing, and the benefit of Washington hosting IPW, which this will be our first time in the 40-plus year history, even though U.S. Travel Association is headquartered in Washington, this will be our opportunity to promote Washington to the global community – the travel agents, the travel writers, the media – during this show and convention that will be taking place in the city.

The benefit for us… The unique thing about Washington as a destination is that… I call it the “bubble effect,” where the people that live within the perimeter of Washington think that the world wants to come to Washington, and everyone knows this, and they know us for all the wonderful things which people that live here know. The reality is the world knows us from the standpoint of what they see on TV. I call it the “BBC/CNN effect.” It’s always politics associated with the name Washington. Politics, Washington. It’s not necessarily glamorous, so our goal and what happens is when we have travel writers that come here, travels agents that come to the city, they leave with a different feel for Washington as a city, and we’ll talk about our brand later, DC Cool, because that’s usually what happens. “What did you think of Washington?” “It’s cool. It’s much more cool and more unique than I thought.”

So by hosting IPW, we’re able to capture all those travel agents, all those that are really responsible for the international traveler coming to a destination, and wowing them with all the things which we have to offer. U.S. Travel puts on events in the convention center and throughout the city. We play a huge role in the opening event, which we want to wow these folks with an event on the National Mall and the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian. We’re also responsible for the closing event, which will be at Nats Park, and we’re doing that with the State of Maryland and the State of Virginia, and in between, we always do our signature Washington, D.C. event prior to the show opening on Saturday, where we can really focus on welcoming those to the city, and then we’re also doing an LGBT event for the first time on Monday with San Francisco, simply because a large component of who we attract would be the LGBT community.

So the return on investment for us in hosting IPW is a million-plus visitors three years after hosting and a tremendous economic impact to the city.

Do we have any sense of what that impact is?

It’s usually about $1.5 billion or more, and that’s the gift that keeps giving long-term, because of course when visitors come, they’re going to talk about their experience and how unique Washington is. It’s more than just a day trip. And how we should be one of the top destinations they visit when they’re in the U.S.

Well, let’s segue into DC Cool. Interestingly enough, I had breakfast at the Four Seasons yesterday with an international client, and on the menu is DC Cool, and one of the items I think is reminiscent of Ben’s Chili Bowl. They asked me, “What is this?” I was very fortunate to be able to tell them what it was and who created that campaign.

But from an audience perspective, I think what’s interesting about what you guys did there, and I’d love you to talk about it, is the fact that not only are you hosting events or bringing events here, but you’re also trying to create an environment which is attractive to people, so you have to create a whole campaign and recast the city essentially, rebrand it.

Absolutely. I’m glad to hear that you had that experience in the [Four Seasons] because we’re a membership-based organization. We always encourage our members to take what we’re doing in terms of branding the city and to incorporate it in how they’re promoting their hotel, their restaurant, or whatever it is, because it’s such a catchy phrase, DC Cool.

We started DC Cool after the National Portrait Gallery had an exhibit that we knew that was coming, called America Cool, where they looked at different portraits of Americans, be it in sports or politics and/or whatever, and they had a unique exhibit that was coming to the Portrait Gallery that we looked at and said, “How do we tie our next campaign into something that is profound for the city?”

Quite honestly, every time there’s a group of travel writers or folks that are coming to the city, the team immediately wants me to be the first person to welcome them and say how great D.C. is. I’m like, “Well, they just got off of a long flight, and now they’re being forced to come to this event and drink, which of course they’re loving to do, and then they’re having to listen to me talk about how great Washington is. It’s my job; people expect me to do it. So why don’t we let them do things in the city, let them ride a bike around the city, let them go to some of the museums, let them do restaurants, sporting events, night life – all the things which we have to offer – and then let me come in on the second or third day, after everyone is relaxed, gotten to know each other, and had a great time.” So the first thing that’s usually asked is “Why should we bring business to Washington, D.C.?” If you’ve been here for a couple of days, I can turn that around and say, “Well, tell me what you thought of your experience,” and they automatically say, “D.C. is much more cool than we thought.” “Got you.”

As we looked at the tagline and the experience and what we hear from visitors that are coming to the city, especially those which we are invited on familiarization tours, that name resonated more often than not, so it was a great opportunity for us to say… You know, one of the things I say to the team is that monuments, memorials, and museums are clearly a key reason to visit Washington, and we get it, and we know that that’s great, but it doesn’t always resonate in a sexy or glamorous way to those that are saying, “Hey, kids, do you want to go to Disney World, or do you want to go to Washington, D.C.?” We’re probably not going to win a lot, but if you start focusing on all the other aspects and allow us to promote monuments, memorials, and museums, but all the other things and reasons why folks come to the city. Nightlife. Second largest number of theater seats outside of New York City. A great restaurant scene with its own Michelin guide now. Great theater. Great sporting events. Retail, which continues to get better. Great venues for meetings and events in the city. And that became our DC Cool campaign, and it continues to resonate 3 ½ years later.

It’s an incredible campaign, and you really did make us look sexy, which is awesome. Actually, let’s talk about your organization, given the audience listening. How would they use and activate an organization like you? How does a planner or a CEO who wants to host something come in any city where there are similar organizations? How do they use you? What benefit do you bring them?

Very, very good question. The most important thing is for those that are looking at doing business in Washington and/or considering Washington and other cities is to know that our services are free of charge. With most convention bureaus or DMO’s around the country, that’s the case. You’re not paying for the service. We like to think that we are the professionals and the authorities on everything that’s happening in Washington – best places to hold your meetings. We basically have our finger on the pulse in terms of what’s happening, and we’ve got 950 members, including your great organization, that are members so that they can receive leads and/or know exactly what’s happening.

If it’s a convention or an event (sometimes they’re synonymous), we’d like to make sure that the planner knows that they can call on us, and in most cases, because we have a strong convention sales team, you’re usually assigned to someone already, so hopefully you’re not calling us, we’re already calling you, and being able to say basically we’d like for you to bring your meeting to Washington, D.C. in 2020 (or whatever the year is) we will send out a lead to those hotels that we’ve qualified your needs. So if you’re looking for a high-end experience, and you’re looking for 50 rooms, we’ll send it to those hotels that meet that qualification. If it’s a big city-wide convention, we’ll do the same thing. We’ll put together a package that includes the convention center availability and hotels, and we’ll sell Washington as a package to that meeting planner, as they’re looking at other options.

Now, once the convention is definite, which we hope that we’re chosen, then it doesn’t end there. Once you’re coming to the city, then our goal is to make sure that we service that account to make sure that they are not left on their own to find how to navigate through Washington. In some cases, we recommend they work with a destination management company that clearly will do everything from soup to nuts, which makes a lot of sense. In other cases, they’ll say, “I’m looking for a place for our presidential dinner,” or “to hold our big opening gala,” and we’ll send out leads to venues in the city to make sure that they’re able to look at all the options that exist.

Do you guys aggregate that information when you get it and then share it, or are you just forwarding those proposals on to them directly?

It’s all a la carte, depending on what the customer wants. Sometimes they say, “I don’t want a whole bunch of emails or calls. Would you please have all that information and send it to me in a detailed listing?” or “Would you ask folks to email me the information. Please don’t tell them to call me.” Or whatever works best. In some cases, they want to remain anonymous, and they don’t want it published, so we’re looking for space – especially corporate groups. They usually like to kind of sneak into a city, do their thing, and then leave.

It is an incredible benefit that is not unique to Washington, although I think you guys do it best, and I’ll be honest, because we use those services around the country. It’s really done well here.

Back to IPW, because this is sort of a unique platform for you guys, because you are actually producing events. In this realm, you’re a savvy guy and you’ve been in the business a long time, and sponsorship has really changed over the years. In order to do this, you guys are looking to gather sponsors for this, and I will put a plug in and say that there are still opportunities to sponsor IPW, so if you’d like that, please get in there.

What is your sponsorship strategy, and how has it changed not only for IPW but just in general?

It changes based on the dynamics of change within the city and within the industry. IPW is unique and specific, simply because, as I said earlier, we don’t put on events or plan events for conventions. In this particular case, we are, because this is basically, as I said, to the various directors of the Smithsonians in the city, this is our advertisement on Washington, D.C., and when U.S. Travel decides to take the show to a city, they basically give that city an opportunity to promote itself in a unique way.

We’re on a tradeshow floor at IPW promoting Washington with our members and really focusing on ways in which we can bring more business to the city, because the leisure market is so uniquely different than the convention market, so we’re very active at the show. The general sessions are robust and lively. Brand USA will sponsor it, and they’ll have groups like Journey, or last year they had Gladys Knight and the Pips as their performance. New York will host another session, whereas they will bring different acts from Broadway to the show. But it’s really U.S. Travel’s event.

The opportunity for us, because it’s in Washington, D.C., is that, yes, it’s their event, but we’re going to make it unique and special. The goal is to have people really interested in coming to Washington for the IPW show, which there has been a lot of positive feedback in terms of Washington being chosen and folks coming here, and then we’ve got this phenomenal opportunity to showcase our city. They don’t tell us where to do events, how to do events, but we know we’ve got a platform to promote this to an international audience, because all these folks are coming in from different locations. We are focusing on those events. We’re producing them with great organizations such as yours and others to make sure that the experience is spectacular. We have one opportunity to do an opening and do it well on the National Mall, which everyone in the global community has seen on TV in some capacity, but to be there under the stars and be able to really enjoy the entertainment and all the things we have in line, hopefully will be memorable in a positive way.

And let’s just face it – the global community loves baseball. Soccer (or the “real football,” as they like to call it in other countries) is the primary sport of choice, but everyone loves baseball, so to have it in the baseball stadium and the things which we have planned gives us a chance to close this out in a spectacular way, so they’re leaving Washington saying, “Yes! We love the monuments, we love the fact that so many of the attractions are free, and we’ve got great things to see and do, but it’s a more diverse destination than we ever thought it was.”

How are you going to leverage and capture all of this for the post-period [that follows]? Give our audience a bit of insight on best practices around that.

Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I literally said to my VP of Tourism, Theresa Belpulsi, “Let’s continue the momentum leading up to the first week of June, but let’s make sure we don’t run out of gas on June 8th. Let’s take some time off to catch our breath, but then let’s make sure we focus on the follow-up.”

With that, we’ve got organizations posted around the globe in countries like Brazil, Germany, the U.K., Australia, and France, and they’re focusing on making sure that the momentum continues post the event. Not only are they following up with those customers… Because a lot of it is the training of the travel agents in those various countries. Unlike America, where we’re prone to go to ten different websites to get the best deal on a hotel room and an airline, they’re still traveling with a travel agent.

The hardest thing for us to fathom is a travel agent in China promoting Washington or selling Washington in a way that they would sell it if they had visited here. If they’re not here, they’ve never been here, but they’re promoting Washington, how are they effectively doing a good job? Post-IPW, coming here and experiencing it and sharing it with their colleagues in terms “Not only was the show great, but Washington is phenomenal,” then they’re going to be able to say to that individual that says, “I want to come to America, I want to spend 21 days there, I want to start on the east coast,” they’re going to be able to speak to all the great things they can do in Washington and the region. Our goal is to continue that follow-up, get back on the road, go back and see some of those folks, get them to influence other people, and make sure the momentum continues.

They’ll do that because they’ve had the experience, and they’ll have the narrative. Will there be assets that you’ll provide them? Are you going to do a post-reel? What will happen in terms of the actual assets?

Yes, we’re counting on the creative team that we have in house to produce some unique things that we’ll be able to showcase their experience in Washington, and continue to remind them how cool Washington is, if I can use that phrase.

What about social media? How has that influenced your strategy not only for IPW but just in general?

Social media for us is probably (by certain generations) the least understood but the most effective and probably one of the least expensive, so we’re clearly focusing on social media. As a matter of fact, our marketing and communications department is probably the fastest growing department within the organization, and we’re bringing on more people that are focusing on tweeting and sharing stories about Washington on social media. There’s a process and/or a plan in place post-IPW to be able to promote Washington using social media.

One of the coolest things that we did is something called #MyDCCool. Again, I always say to the team, “It’s kind of my job to go out and say how great Washington is,” but when visitors come to the city, take pictures of our city, and post them to our website, I’m sure it will get a different reaction, because these are not the folks that are responsible for promoting the city. It’s actually been one of the most effective and most clicked on portions of our website with people that are interested in coming. There’s going to be an interaction with those that are attending IPW to continue that momentum with their peers, which we hope will resonate in a positive way.

Essentially you’re crowdsourcing the content, which gives it more heft. Are you bringing any influencers in that might not be in tourism but still have a great impact on the public in these various communities that you operate?

Mostly the media. Most of them focus on the industry – traditional and digital. And global. There’s actually an addition to the opening and closing and the other two events. There’s an event which we’re doing at the museum that is specific for the media, where we’re going to wow them not only with one of the most spectacular museums in the city and in the country, but also give them a chance to expose them to Washington from the perspective that’s important to them, and there will be a lot of interviews that are done, in addition to the things which I referenced there.

After the opening event, there are going to be night tours on open-top buses, where they’re going to really be able to experience Washington during the evening hours, which I think is one of the most spectacular times to see the city, and big buses supplying us with that opportunity. We’re going to continue to find ways pre-convention and post-convention with familiarization towards Washington and the region, because we are teaming up with State of Virginia, State of Maryland, and the airports authority to promote the region, which is also what we do from a global perspective.

From the outside of all of this, given that you have this panoply of partners essentially, how do you determine ROI for something like this? What metrics are you setting at the front end of this, and how do you measure throughout and calibrate?

It’s different for the leisure market than conventions. For a convention, you can go up to the planner and say, “How many people are registered, and how many rooms were picked up?” For the leisure market, I like to take responsibility for every visitor to the city, that are coming because of us, so we rely very heavily on airlines. We rely on the Department of Commerce to determine what the percentage of increase from different countries is in terms of visitation to the U.S. and to Washington, D.C. We rely on some of the different travel agents that we work with in those countries, because then they’re going to say, “In 2016, we supplied 1,000 trips to Washington. In 2019, that number increased to 2,500.” So we rely on that data to really assist us in determining what the ROI is.

Take us overseas. You do events all around the world. How do you adjust for the protocols in each country? What do you do to prepare to go and both entertain and speak in those environments, and communicate and collaborate as well? What adjustments do we have to make on this end in order to bring people and be hospitable in a way that they’ll understand and appreciate?

Very good question. The thing for us is that you do have to recognize that one size does not fit all. An example with China, we have a program in place that really assists us and our members in preparing for Chinese visitors coming to Washington. They’re actually getting somewhat certified, and we’re communicating to those travel agents that we work with in China that these are the hotels and restaurants and what-have-you that are prepared for Chinese visitors, be it knowing some of the cultural differences… What should you have in place for breakfast? What are the expectations in terms of turn down? What are the expectations in terms of signage? We do that locally so that we can also promote it in China to those visitors that are coming.

Are you bringing those constituents locally together and really giving them a cultural lesson?

Absolutely, and we’re bringing folks in from China and, locally, government and other… You know, Ctrip comes to mind. Ctrip is one of the largest travel agencies in China. I was there two years ago, and they had about 25,000 employees. I was back there about three months ago, and they were up to 32,000 employees that solely focus on travel. The opportunity is so robust for us. There are 200 million people in China that travel internationally every year, but only 2 million of them come to the United States, so there’s a great opportunity to increase that number.

When we’re in country, one of my favorite events we ever did… Actually, there are two. Especially when you’re in the U.K., there is an expectation that we are going to be familiar with the culture, especially when you’re in formal countries, such as Asian countries. They’re a little more forgiving to Westerners, but we do study and we have individuals that work on our team and the offices in those various countries that prepare us in advance for whatever it is we might be faced with.

A good example, we were in China. We flew into Shanghai the day that our now-President called the leader of Taiwan, so our communications department was on top of that. “This might happen, these questions might come up,” simply because of the sensitivity of the politics, and we are engaged and prepared, and fortunately that wasn’t the case, but we do focus on those things if they are sensitive. When we’re in the European countries, they like coming to our events, and they like having fun. You want to hit their sweet spot. You want to build the relationship, because at the end of the day, what we’re doing is building relationships.

The most interesting thing we did was a karaoke event, where we had a live band, and our folks in the U.K. said, “Trust me, this is going to be a hit!” I said, “OK, this doesn’t seem like a big hit,” because in Asia they love karaoke, and this was not lip syncing – you’re singing the songs with a live band. I had never seen more people that were prepared. They studied, they practiced, and they were ready to go. I get in there. I’m not that guy that’s standing in the corner, just waving and saying, “No, I’m not going to do this.” I was the first one up. I sang a song that I felt like the whole community would get involved with. I sang “Hey Jude.” I sang a Beatles song in the U.K., so they were all in it. Everyone was in it. It was a lot of fun, and we ended the event at 9:00, and at 12 midnight we were still trying to tell people to go home.

The goal for us… Yes, it’s a lot of fun and that’s a large part of what we do, but we’re building those relationships so that the next couple of days when we’re in their offices, the reaction is totally different, when you’re doing stuff like that with people and they really enjoy spending time with you. The momentum for us (and to your point) the follow-up is we continue to engage them and get them to come here, and now all of a sudden, you’re working with friends, which is really what you want to do.

Where do you draw inspiration from, and what do you task your 80-person organization with personally to do to keep them really evolving as an organization and being the best?

I get inspiration from some of the most unique places. It could be speaking to a group of schoolkids in terms of things they want to do, because then I start thinking about how I got into the industry – which to your point, I can go on and on about that. I draw my inspiration from watching televisions, watching commercials, and how people react to certain things.

I think the key thing with our organization is that I remind the team, “Let’s never be stale. Let’s not sit on our hands after we host IPW and say, ‘Let’s wait for the fish to jump into the boat.’ That’s where the work really begins.” I remind them that there’s a difference between saying “I’m never satisfied,” which is not what I’m saying versus “We did this and it worked – what are we going to do differently?” This is our fourth year into DC Cool, and it’s OK it’s our fourth year, as long as we didn’t do the same things in the fourth year as we did in the first year. Everything changed from black and white, which was how we started it, to different photography and a different feel. That’s the key thing for us.

Never, ever assume that because you’re in a first-tier destination, selling a city that we like to think that people want to come to, that we should rest on our laurels. Always sell Washington as if you’re selling the smallest town in America that no one has ever heard of. It makes a big difference when you’re really passionate about selling that destination and not assuming that because we are fortunate to have Congress meeting in the city, which is a huge draw, and we’ve got great infrastructure, and we’ve got all these wonderful things… that that’s enough.


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Elliott Ferguson HeadshotGUEST: Elliott Ferguson

Elliott Ferguson serves as President and CEO of Destination DC, the official destination marketing organization for Washington, DC.

A 26-year veteran of the travel and hospitality industry, Ferguson leads Destination DC’s efforts to generate economic opportunity for the District through meetings and tourism, overseeing the organization’s convention and tourism sales, marketing, finance and business development operations.

Ferguson began his tenure with Destination DC in 2001 as Senior Vice President of Convention Sales and Services and has served as President and CEO of Destination DC since 2009. Prior to working at Destination DC, he served as Vice President of Sales at the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. He has also served as Director of Sales for both the Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia Convention and Visitors Bureaus.

Ferguson received a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing and Business Administration from Savannah State University. His many memberships in the industry include the American Society of Association Executives, Professional Conference Management Association, International Association of Exhibition Executives and Destination Marketing Association International.

Ferguson currently serves on the board of directors for the following organizations: U.S. Travel Association; Travel and Tourism Advisory Board; Advisory Board of the Smithsonian National Zoo; DC Jazz Festival; Capital Partners for Education; and the Ryan Kerrigan “Blitz for the Better” Foundation. Ferguson also serves on the Hospitality Alliance of Washington, D.C.

Ferguson is a longtime resident of Capitol Hill and is an active mentor with Capital Partners for Education.

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