D.C. turns to night life to attract new visitors


Patrons hang out by the bar The Hamilton at 14th and F Streets NW. (Tracy A. Woodward)
September 1, 2013

Is Washington cool?

A $3 million marketing campaign by Destination D.C. hopes to convince international travelers that it is.

Among other efforts to overcome the city’s wonky reputation, the campaign includes a 100-second black-and-white commercial that rattles off hip D.C. staples: Half-smokes at Ben’s Chili Bowl, beer at Churchkey and boozy milkshakes at the Satellite Room.

The ultimate goal, officials say, is to woo luxury travelers and international partygoers to Washington at a time when government budget cuts have reduced the number of conferences and meetings in the area.

“Night life will be a huge key in changing [the existing perception of Washington],” said Elliott Ferguson, chief executive and president of Destination D.C., the marketing arm of the District.

Ferguson added that he also hopes to lure some of New York City’s 52 million annual visitors to Washingon, which had 18.9 million travelers last year.

“We know the European community traditionally will travel to New York City to spend a weekend going out to clubs,” he said at Destination D.C.’s annual marketing outlook meeting last week. “We want more of that in Washington.”

Nearly 19 million people visited the District last year, bringing in a total of $6.2 billion in revenue for the city. That amounted to $674 million in local taxes and helped support more than 75,000 jobs, the group said.

“The key for us is the international market,” Ferguson said. “As much as we love visitors coming to this city, the bottom line is, how much are they spending? How long are they staying? And how many jobs are they creating?”

The average Chinese visitor to Washington, for example, spends $7,000, while travelers from the United Arab Emirates typically shell out between $19,000 and $22,000 per person, Ferguson said.

To attract more high-end dollars, the association is also ramping up its focus on luxury travel and international conventions.

“One of the things we’ve been hearing, especially internationally, is ‘What about the VIP experience?’” Ferguson said. “There’s a real appetite globally for that.”

To that end, the association is putting together high-end packages that include stays at five-star hotels and personalized experiences, such as behind-the-scenes tours of museums.

“Our goal is [to let] people know what there is to see and do off of the Mall,” Ferguson said.

City executives say they are hopeful convention business will pick up next year — particularly after the Washington Marriott Marquis opens in May with 1,175 rooms and an underground passageway into the convention center.

Sixteen citywide conventions are already scheduled to take place in Washington in 2014 — a sign, Ferguson says, that the Marriott Marquis will be good for the District’s bottom line. The hotel, which opens May 1, will host its first conference three days later when the American Society for Training & Development occupies 15,000 rooms over three nights.

“Being able to have more than one convention in the city simultaneously is possible now with this new hotel” he said.

In addition, the Marriott Marquis will create 600 new jobs for District residents, as well as an extra 100 managerial positions, according to D.C Councilmember Jack Evans.

“That [hotel] was the missing piece for our hospitality industry,” he said.

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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