‘Decimated’: DC tourism is a wreck, but there’s a plan to lure visitors back

What is normally peak season for tourism in D.C. — spring — has been halted by the coronavirus.

But a strategy has been formulated to lure visitors back once the public health emergency is over.

“The impact of COVID-19 on the industry as a whole — clearly everything from restaurants to hotels to meetings coming to the city, you name it — the entire industry has been decimated because of this pandemic,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, the city’s tourism marketing organization.

So far, 11 large conventions planned for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center have been canceled from mid-March through mid-June, for a loss of at least $86.5 million.

One of the largest was the annual meeting of the American Urological Association set for May 15-18. Some 16,500 attendees were expected to spend 47,400 total room nights in the city.

The event’s estimated economic impact was expected to be $24.8 million. The association is planning virtual events instead.

D.C. hotels stand mostly empty at this point, Ferguson said.

“Occupancy in the city is less than 10%. Over 50% of the hotel rooms in Washington are closed right now,” Ferguson said.

A “staggering” number of people in the restaurant, hotel and convention business have been left unemployed, said Ferguson.

And federal coronavirus relief loans approved so far are not set up to help all of them.

“Destination marketing organizations — which is what Destination DC is — we’re all classified as 501 (c)(6)s,” Ferguson said. “And with that classification, we are not covered under the CARES Act or PPP, which is quite frankly something that we’re trying to focus on.”

“We need some of those opportunities so that we can alleviate some of the overhead and the costs that we have in place now, and give us the dollars that we need to really promote D.C. as a destination.”

D.C.’s stay-at home order is in effect through at least May 15, but once conditions allow, Ferguson’s group has a multiphase plan to lure back tourists and conventions.

First, it will target people who live within a four-hour drive of the city and promote all of the free things you can do in the District.

“That will be attractive to those that are looking at traveling on a budget, which I would imagine would be a large percentage of our population in the U.S.,” Ferguson said.

Step two will involve advertising in cities that have nonstop flights to D.C.

There will also be a focus on bringing back conventions that were postponed and not canceled, even if they are converted into smaller meetings.

Ferguson plans to share more at Destination DC’s annual Travel Rally, scheduled for next week.

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Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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