DC has fewer big conventions on the books, but that’s not a concern

Walter E. Washington Convention Center (Courtesy Events DC)
Walter E. Washington Convention Center. (Courtesy Events DC)
Business travel in the D.C. region and nationwide has made a comeback. It is still shy of pre-pandemic levels, but a recent survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association shows it is getting closer.

Of business travelers AHLA surveyed, 49% said the average length of business trips is now the same as before the pandemic, and 22% said it is more than before.

When asked about travel budgets, 47% said the amount of spending their employer will cover for trips is the same as before the pandemic, while another 25% say it is more than before.

AHLA’s online survey was open from April 28 to May 3 and it received responses from more than 4,100 participants.

Business travel can include anything from one employee, to a team, to large conventions and conferences that draw employees from many companies and from all across the country.

For the latter, this is shaping up to be a slower year for D.C.

While the District expects strong leisure travel, and stronger business travel in general, there are fewer citywide conferences and meetings on the books this year than last. Those larger conferences are defined as at least 2,500 hotel room nights.

AHLA said that is not cause for concern. Some of last year’s conventions were probably booked before there even was a pandemic, and there is a lag for such events.

“When a group brings in 5,000, 6,000, 10,000 people, those types of conferences usually take two to three years to plan,” said AHLA president and CEO Chip Rogers. “So within the next couple of years, those bookings will catch up.”

Memorial Day weekend was the first big measure of D.C.’s leisure travel tourism this year, and 2023 is expected to top last year’s 20.7 million domestic tourists, which was 91% of pre-pandemic numbers in 2019.

“The market has returned for D.C.,” Rogers said. “D.C. was one of the trailing major markets, but if you look at (hotel) occupancy last week, it was almost identical to the same occupancy back in 2019.”

Guests are back, but hotels are still missing employees. Nationwide, the U.S. hotel industry has more than 100,000 unfilled jobs. In D.C., there are more than 3,200 hospitality-related job openings posted on Indeed.com alone.

“Opportunity exists, both in downtown D.C. in the traditional large convention center-style hotels, but also in the suburbs,” Rogers said. “If there is a hotel around you, I can almost guarantee that they are hiring.”

AHLA has been on a mission the past year to get the word out about hospitality career opportunities.

The AHLA Foundation’s “A Place to Stay” marketing campaign is now advertising in 20 cities, emphasizing the hotel industry’s 200-plus career pathways, and openings that range from housekeeping and maintenance, all the way up through management ranks.

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Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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