10 questions with… Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC

LATTE chats exclusively with Destination DC's President and CEO

Washington DC welcomed a record 23.8 million visitors in 2018, a figure that was up 4.4% year-on-year. That figure was overwhelmingly weighted by domestic travellers (21.9 million), with the US Capital’s international markets (excluding northern and southern neighbours, Canada and Mexico) accounting for 1.9 million down more than 5% compared to the prior corresponding period.

China is Washington DC’s number one source overseas market, followed by the UK, India, Germany and Brazil and then Australia. While Chinese visitor numbers plummeted 25% in 2018, Australian arrivals nudged ahead by double digits.

Destination DC, the official destination marketing arm of Washington DC, held its annual showcase in Australia in September, led by President and CEO Elliott Ferguson. LATTE chatted exclusively with Ferguson to learn about the destination and its growing appeal.

Destination DC revealed double-digit visitor growth from the Australia market. Was that a surprise to the organisation?

To see double-digit growth in any market is substantial. While we’ve seen single digit growth year-over-year, we want to capitalise on the nearly 13% increase over 2017 that was achieved.

It’s good for us to see there continues to be a lot of interest in the East Coast and making Washington DC a part of the itinerary.

What is the average length of stay for an Australian and how much do they spend?

The data tells us that they are staying for 4.2 nights. We recommend staying in DC for three to four nights to really enjoy all the things there are to see and do in the city.

We’re seeing Washington DC included in East Coast itineraries and Australian visitors are coming to the US for over 20 nights. We know that an Australian visitor is not going to spend their entire trip here but we want to make sure that folks understand how they can capitalise on DC as a destination as a part of an overall itinerary.

As we look at the overall expenditure, it’s usually around nearly US$1,700-$1,750 per visitor, and the total was nearly US$100 million spend in terms of travellers from Australia to Washington DC. We know that a stronger US dollar can sometimes curtail visitation but we are still seeing a lot of interest which is great for us.

Are you finding Washington DC is growing in popularity as a destination for first time Australian travellers entering the US?

We are seeing that those travelling to New York are looking at the East Coast as a whole, even starting in Boston. We’ve now got a non-stop train between New York and Washington DC that can transport us between the two destinations in about 2 hours and 45 minutes. 

Our latest ad campaign is primarily focused on “Discovering the Real DC”, the monuments, memorials and museums, but also on night life, theatre, food scene, sporting events, outdoor activities, arts and culture.

The one comment we hear the most from visitors to DC is that someone advised them to make it a day trip but, they wish they’d stayed longer.  If you look at the 16 free museums, the zoo and the various attractions like the newly opened REACH events venue, there is no way that a day is enough to explore.

Also, the value of coming to a city where you have so many free attractions is very appealing, especially  when you are bringing a larger family on travel to the US.

Of those Aussies that are coming to DC, are they arriving as an FIT traveller or on a group tour, or are you seeing a combination of both?

A combination of both. Globally we are seeing a lot more FIT travellers than before. There are certain countries, particularly those is Asia, that were traditionally coming in groups; but even that’s changing. The younger travellers are wanting to do their own thing and explore. On our website, washington.org, we give visitors suggested itineraries on different ways they can enjoy the city.

Is DC an easy city to navigate and get around and explore?

Yes. You can do the double decker BIG BUS tout, a bicycle tour of the city, or an evening cycle around the National Mall on a Segway tour. The other misnomer with most is that DC is an extremely large and sprawling city. There are 700,000 people that live in DC and it is only 13 x 13kms in area so it’s easy to walk around and tour by bike. 

Can you tell us about Washington DC’s culinary scene?

DC’s culinary scene is thriving. Michelin chose Washington, DC as only the fourth city in the US to have a guide to showcase the dining scene, re-emphasising how great the food scene is Washington, DC. A lot of these restaurants are opening in emerging DC neighbourhoods which offers visitors the chance to explore parts of the city they may not have known existed before.

Can you tell us more about the rail service between Washington DC and New York? 

The service is known as Amtrak Acela, which a convenient way to get between Washington DC and New York. The train also continues onto Boston. In late September, Amtrak introduced Acela Nonstop between DC and New York, initially once a day on weekdays, trimming the duration by 30-40 minutes, to 2 hours and 45 minutes, and bypassing traditional stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Delaware, New Jersey.

Elliott, you mentioned the high-speed rail service. What is happening in that space?

We’ve been talking about a high-speed bullet train from Boston to Washington, DC for years. I happen to be the Chairman of the US Travel Association and infrastructure in America is one of the things we are focussed on -how to make it much easier for visitors and for locals to get from one point of the country to the next. This is extremely important to us.

We are focused on everything from our airports, to our railways to the transportation and highways in DC. Rail will play a huge role in that. Once upon a time in American history you could take a train from the East Coast to the West Coast, but that’s impossible now without taking a convoluted route. We are anticipating some opportunities in the future for those that want to explore America from the east coast to the west coast by train.

How are things in the luxury market in Washington DC? 

As the high-end traveller is looking at coming to Washington, DC, we recognise that the free attractions are not necessarily what they are focusing on. Recently opened  high-end hotels like the new Conrad by Hilton in CityCenterDC or the recently renovated Rosewood in Georgetown – where upscale shopping with high-end boutique luxury retailers are resonating with the luxury market.

Hilton, Marriott, Choice Hotels are headquartered in the Greater Washington area, and then of course we’ve always had some independent luxury hotels like the Willard and The Hay-Adams that resonate with luxury travellers.

What booking channels are Australian travellers using? Direct, travel agencies, OTAs? 

All the above.The airlines are selling Washington, DC because the younger generations are booking their own a la carte travel plans. However, OTAs and travel advisors remain a huge part of how Australians book their visits to our city.

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