What does tourism in the District look like after the pandemic?

What does tourism in the District look like after the pandemic?

Tourism is one of D.C.’s more profitable industries, and 2018 was a record year for tourism and hospitality in District. The city welcomed more than 23 million visitors, who spent over $7.8 billion in the District, and supported over 76,000 jobs. That capped a nine-year streak of tourism growth. Experts said those numbers would continue to rise.

But the pandemic has crushed the tourism and hospitality industry, as much of the world is staying home and attractions have closed to the public. Though the District is slated to lift its stay-at-home order soon, many whose jobs rely on the industry don’t expect to see throngs of visitors anytime soon.

How has the tourism industry worked to stay afloat? What will tourism look like after the pandemic? How are companies looking to adapt to the new normal?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Elliot Ferguson President and CEO of Destination DC, @DestinationDC
  • Steven Shulman Executive Director of Cultural Tourism DC; @DCculture


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll relive the Nats' World Series winning season with people who had front row seats with to that epic journey. But first the coronavirus pandemic has upended many sectors across the region, with tourists and locals remaining at home.

  • 12:00:22

    KOJO NNAMDIThe District's tourism industry has seen a 71 percent decline in travel spending, but even as the region prepares to reopen, tourism cannot go back to business as usual. So what will tourism in the District look like in the coming months? Joining me now is Steven Shulman, Executive Director of Cultural Tourism D.C. Steven Shulman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:45

    STEVEN SHULMANThank you for the invitation. Good afternoon.

  • 12:00:48

    NNAMDIAnd Elliot Ferguson is the CEO of Destination D.C. Elliot Ferguson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:54

    ELLIOT FERGUSONHello, Kojo, and happy to be here.

  • 12:00:56

    NNAMDIElliot Ferguson, what is Destination D.C.? And what does the organization do?

  • 12:01:01

    FERGUSONYeah. Thanks for asking. Destination D.C. is the official convention and visitor's bureau for Washington. Our primary job is to promote D.C. for conventions and tourism domestically and internationally. I think most people think that visitors just automatically want to come to a city like Washington and to a certain extent that's true. But our job is to focus on a larger scale or a larger market, perhaps those that may not necessarily have Washington as a part of their itinerary. And with that we're a private non-profit organization and we work with all facets of Washington that focus on the economic development associated with tourism.

  • 12:01:39

    NNAMDIElliot, how much revenue did tourism in the District generate in 2019?

  • 12:01:43

    FERGUSONYou know, Kojo, we were having an amazing. You know, we part of the mayor's press conference just a few weeks ago. And we were looking at record tourism of over nearly 23 million visitors, $8.2 billion in spending and $897 million in hotel -- in taxes generated by visitors to the city. And that really resonated to about 78,000 jobs that are created solely through the hospitality industry. So things were looking really good.

  • 12:02:11

    NNAMDISteven Shulman, for those who are not familiar with the organization, tell us what Cultural Tourism D.C. is and what role it plays in the tourism industry in the District?

  • 12:02:20

    SHULMANWell, Cultural Tourism D.C. is about 20 years old and we've been working in neighborhoods throughout the District. People probably know us best from Around the World Embassy Tour when we helped the non-European embassies open their gates for the day in early May. And then also our D.C. heritage trails that are in 17 neighborhoods around the city. So there's lots of reasons to go to neighborhoods and we encourage that and have been doing so for a long time.

  • 12:02:52

    NNAMDISteven, the pandemic forced all of the area's tourist attractions, to shut down completely. What has the industry been doing during all of this? Has it gone digital like some other businesses?

  • 12:03:04

    SHULMANVery much so, nearly every organization has taken to the virtual world in some fashion. And we've tried to help out with promoting and through our websites, our resources every week we put out a communique that lists what's happening and what people can tune into and how easy it can be. But that's where they need to be and they're promoting themselves, their programs anticipating that they'll be live soon.

  • 12:03:35

    NNAMDISteven, how much longer can Cultural Tourism D.C. go without any significant business?

  • 12:03:43

    SHULMANWell, we have taken advantage of every opportunity afforded to non-profits through the Payroll Protection Plan, through grants in the Districts, and I think that we're going to be okay through September 30th. And we have a small staff that is lean, mean and doing some great things. And one of the things that we're looking towards is how we take Around the World Embassy Tour and make that virtual so that becomes something of interest to tourists throughout the year not just that one day a year when we open up the embassies.

  • 12:04:20

    NNAMDISpeaking of virtual tourism, a number of my friends say that's what they're doing right now. Elliot Ferguson, what were your expectations for this season before the pandemic struck?

  • 12:04:30

    FERGUSONKojo, things were really looking good. We were on track to have another strong year with tourism and visitors coming both domestically and internationally. And also in our world we focus on conventions coming to the city. The larger conventions, which we play a large role in bringing to the city as well those that are happening in hotels. And we were having a really -- we were on track to having an amazing year.

  • 12:04:53

    FERGUSONAnd all of that has dissipated simply because of, of course, COVID-19 and the inability of individuals to meet and come to the city. And this is so unique because I moved here in December of 2001 after 9/11. And we were rebounding from the unfortunate circumstances surrounded with that. It took us 10 years as a destination to rebound with visitation from a leisure perspective, but the meetings division continued to remain strong.

  • 12:05:24

    FERGUSONAnd even in this particular case, it's been touted by U.S. Travel Association that this pandemic is nine times worse from an economic perspective than was 9/11. So this is going to be a very difficult process of climbing out of this and getting back to the numbers we're accustomed to.

  • 12:05:42

    NNAMDIHow much has the District lost in tourism profits thus far?

  • 12:05:47

    FERGUSONYeah. When you look at the overall numbers, you know, we're down about 89 percent to date. So we've lost about $407 million overall, $188 million tie to the larger conventions canceling. So it's going to be a very difficult climb from the perspective of the city and what tourism does for Washington as a whole. You know, looking at the same data from a national perspective it's $519 billion lost, $1.2 trillion loss to the economy. So sometimes when people think about economic development through tourism it's marginalized. But these numbers really reemphasize the importance of this particular industry, specifically for a city like Washington. And we're fortunate to have Mayor Bowser really looking at the importance of this industry as well.

  • 12:06:41

    NNAMDIWell, we're going to have Mayor Bowser as a guest on The Politics Hour tomorrow. If you can questions or comments for her, you may want to call us then. Elliot, how is the District planning to make up those loses?

  • 12:06:51

    FERGUSONYeah. Right now we're all about recovery. I mean, I think for a long time we were focusing on what's next. And --

  • 12:06:58

    NNAMDIUh-oh, we seem to have lost Elliot for a second. But we got a tweet from Lin who says, "This pandemic has affected my travel plans in four ways. Myself and my sister had milestone birthdays this year. I turned 50. She turned 40. Our cousin was supposed to return from Germany to celebrate with us in Charlotte and Las Vegas. Those plans," says Lin, "have fallen apart." Here is Paul in Alexandria, Virginia. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:07:26

    PAULHey, Kojo. Paul speaking to you through a mask from Washington D.C. And I got lucky. I'm a member of the Guild to Professional Tour Guides and I just got hired a little bit ago to do a virtual tour for 12 shining eighth graders in New Hampshire. It was pretty good. And I used my buddy, Jeff Livingston's photographs and I'm now putting signs back at the Department of Health.

  • 12:07:52

    NNAMDIElliot Ferguson is back. Elliot, do you -- you haven't finished your response to my question about how the District was planning to make up for the losses.

  • 12:08:00

    FERGUSONAbsolutely and I think the key thing for us is all about how we're able to promote Washington as a destination. You know, there's an inherent number of individuals that will come to Washington, because of all the things that we have to see and do that are free. And I think the key thing that we focus on would be those that stay longer and spend more, which is usually the international market.

  • 12:08:22

    FERGUSONSo our goal is to find ways to promote things in which you can see and do in the city that perhaps are not necessarily on individual's radars. You know, usually monuments, memorials and museums are a large part of the reason why people come here, and we're excited that that's the reason why. But we do look at, you know, Washington's rich diversity and heritage and nightlife, theater, sports. All those things that we hope will return at some point really soon.

  • 12:08:50

    FERGUSONSo you asked about, you know, virtual and armchair travel, we're really relying on what's happening in those particular arenas to help arm or to whet the appetites of those individuals that are wanting to leave their homes. And perhaps from a regional perspective not get on an airplane, but perhaps drive to Washington, check into a hotel and enjoy the options of things in which they can see and do in this city.

  • 12:09:14

    NNAMDIGlad you brought that up about people driving back to the city, because we got a tweet from Josh who says, "I am sympathetic to the tourism sector in D.C., but really don't want the tourists who will show up in the next couple of months. There will be people with the worst judgement about risk." Elliot Ferguson, for those tourists, who have chosen to come back to D.C. after we begin to open up and they may be driving here, what do you feel about that opinion about their judgement about risk?

  • 12:09:44

    FERGUSONYeah. It's a valid question and I think that we all are weighing that. We're relying very much so on the administration here with Mayor Bowser seeing and doing, and the criteria that's going to be put in place for safety and for cleanliness. And, you know, a lot of the hotels are focusing on that. We know as a city we're focusing on it. I just got off of a Zoom call with the gentleman that runs the New York Convention Bureau and the woman that runs the Boston Convention Bureau and we are all commenting on the fact that the locals are missing the tourists that they saw as a nuisance.

  • 12:10:16

    FERGUSONSo, you know, I think that we're all focusing on safety first for those who live in Washington, of course. As well as those that are coming. So it's going to be really really imperative that individuals are paying attention to what that criteria is in Washington D.C. And our website washington.org will be a portal to make sure that folks know what is expected when they come to the city.

  • 12:10:38

    NNAMDIAnd Steven Shulman, Amanda in Falls Church has a question that I am not sure Cultural Tourism has ever had to deal with, but here it is. Amanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:10:49

    AMANDAHi, Kojo. You had a show earlier this year about possibly swimming in the Potomac. And I know that I would love to swim in the Potomac this summer especially since we can't swim in any of our pools. I mean, we can only do laps. I don't have a boat. There's all kind of boats out there this weekend, but I'm just wondering if those plans are still moving forward. I know that's a little bit outside of this, but this could be a way to bring people to D.C.

  • 12:11:12

    NNAMDILet's see if it's inside Steven Shulman's box. Steven, swimming in the Potomac.

  • 12:11:17

    SHULMANIt's not something that we do -- that we have any information on it today. But certainly years ago it was something that was done and there were places that people could go to swim. But I don't know that there's any plans for it right now.

  • 12:11:36

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we're back, we'll continue this conversation of coronavirus and D.C. tourism. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:03

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about how the coronavirus has impacted D.C.'s tourism industry. We're talking with Elliot Ferguson the CEO of Destination D.C. And Steven Shulman, Executive Director of Cultural Tourism. Steven Shulman, when we talk about the local tourism industry it's more than just the Smithsonian attractions and the hotels. What is the trickledown effect of the slowdown in visitors? What other types of businesses and workers are being affected? Go right ahead, please, Steven.

  • 12:12:32

    SHULMANWell, you know, we've always been talking about people in the neighborhoods, organizations that aren't on the beating path that aren't on the national mall. And there's a ton of small theaters, museums, art galleries that enliven the neighborhoods throughout the District. And what happens with those is that as they attract people, it also is good for retail and restaurateurs, who benefit from that activity brought on by the arts and by cultural programing. There's a lot of it.

  • 12:13:08

    SHULMANThere's hundreds of organizations and we just don't remember them and it's important that we do especially right now. As they're closed, there's lots of their employees that need help. And it's a problem and going to continue to be a continuing problem, because I think a lot of people see the big institutions and say, ah, they're open again. But it's the small ones that are going to have a lot of problems, and, you know, just even marketing themselves when they can do things.

  • 12:13:41

    NNAMDIElliot Ferguson, this pandemic hit the region just as we were gearing up for the annual cherry blossom festival, which of course was mostly canceled. Many other hallmark summer events have also been canceled including the Pride Parade and the Fourth of July Parade. Do you envision a scenario where any of the street festivals or annual events that we've come to expect in D.C. during the summer months can take place this year?

  • 12:14:04

    FERGUSONKojo, probably not this year, and at least until a vaccine is found. I'm optimistic. You know, we're really focusing on 2021, because as you mentioned and Steve mentioned those events, you know, the jazz festival, the sporting events, you know, the cherry blossom festival, that really starts the beginning of the tourism season in Washington. And the economic impact of the cherry blossom festival is enormous. You know, they do an amazing job with so many different things and activities that folks can enjoy.

  • 12:14:39

    FERGUSONSo, you know, we envision and we hope that by 2021, you know, as we look at what the CDC and others are saying in terms of a vaccine that we'll be able to regain some of the momentum we had especially in 2021. But right now it's going to be important that we look at ways in which we can exist in an environment whereas we have to limit the number of people that are being able to gather.

  • 12:15:03

    FERGUSONAnd it's going to be really an opportunity for us to be more creative and to still give individuals an opportunity to enjoy the things in which they come to Washington for. You know, as Steve referenced, what Cultural Tourism does with Passport D.C. is something that only happens in the world in Washington D.C. And there is a lot of international momentum for an event like that and we want to be able to get back on track with marketing those things to the global community.

  • 12:15:31

    NNAMDISpeaking of creativity what are you doing to keep tourists interested in all of the different attractions in the District?

  • 12:15:38

    FERGUSONYeah. The key thing for us right now and again, we are very fortunate. You know one of the things that we have on our website would be the 100 free things to see and do in Washington. You know, we're already getting calls from individuals that want to get on the road and travel, because their states are reopening and they're assuming that we're in the same level. And we're catching up. But, you know, the one thing that we're saying to individuals is that one hotels. There are hotel rooms available right now. Two coming and enjoying nightlife -- excuse me. Enjoying outdoor activities and the monuments and memorials are things in which you can still do and use the proper precautions.

  • 12:16:14

    FERGUSONBut as we're looking towards the future, we're really working with all facets of our industry to determine exactly what and how individuals can enjoy the city. You know, the Smithsonian, for example, we know that the African American Museum as well as the Holocaust Museum, which is not a part of the Smithsonian require time tickets to get in. And we're welcoming and communicating that something like that makes a lot of sense.

  • 12:16:41

    FERGUSONSo that we don't have a significant number of people coming to the city and because of social distancing requirements having to stand outside for significant amounts of time. The benefit for us is to perhaps they'll be able to enjoy other things and other parts of the city that maybe were not on their radar. And that's what we're focusing on such as things that are happening in Anacostia and other areas of the city that are really more vibrant than perhaps they were 5 to 10 years ago.

  • 12:17:08

    NNAMDISame question to you, Steven Shulman, what are you doing to keep tourists interested in different attractions in the District?

  • 12:17:13

    SHULMANWell, we have the D.C. Neighborhood Heritage Trails in 17 neighborhoods.

  • 12:17:19

    NNAMDILove those.

  • 12:17:20

    SHULMANWe've got a program that we did many years ago called, Art On Call. So we're encouraging people, local residents too that you need to get out. You need to get exercise. When you come to Washington these are things that you can do on your own. And walk through the streets and see what's there. It's pretty amazing that we often times drive by rather than walk by and miss a whole lot of activity and a whole of things to learn that would be better if you just get out of the car and walk, and now, here's that opportunity.

  • 12:17:54

    NNAMDIA listener tweets, "With so much the tourism and hospitality industry relying on tip labor, what can D.C. tourism businesses do to help workers when there are lower capacities and fewer tipping customers?" Elliot Ferguson.

  • 12:18:08

    FERGUSONThat's a very good question. I think that the key thing is that, you know, from a national perspective individuals are recognizing how drastic this pandemic has been on our industry as a whole, and really appreciating those that really survive off of the tips that they make. And I know that folks like Kathy Hollinger with the restaurant association, our organization is working lock step to communicate what there is to see and do in the city as well as to make sure that folks recognize the needs and the hardship that's associated with those that are not working right now.

  • 12:18:45

    FERGUSONSo I think the most important thing is for us to be able to engage and get folks back to work by having individuals coming into the city. You know, you're also talking about a labor force that if no one if physically checking into a hotel or eating in a restaurant they may not work that week. So the more demand exists the better the opportunity is for those individuals to get back to work and make the appropriate wages.

  • 12:19:10

    NNAMDISteven Shulman, what's the next big event on the calendar for you and how will it be different because of this new normal?

  • 12:19:18

    SHULMANWell, we have an event in September called Walking Town D.C. It's still on our calendar. It's in the middle of the month. Typically we would do about 70 free walking tours of the District and those are presented by passionate people about their neighborhoods, professional tour guides. We haven't said, No. It's not going to happen. We're looking at ways in which we might be able to still do it with social distancing, but the closer we get to that time without changes, the more susceptible it is. And if that happens then all bets are off and we look towards 2021 and May a year from now when hopefully Passport D.C. would take place. And we can once again celebrate international cultural tourism month in the District.

  • 12:20:13

    NNAMDIHere's Clara in Silver Spring, Maryland. Clara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:17

    CLARAYes. I've taken some virtual tours and they're wonderful for sharing new information. But they're by no means a replacement for being able to stand on the West steps of the Capital Building and look across that beautiful panoramic view to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It's no substitute for being in Venice and watching the beautiful lights sparkle off the Grand Canal. So they may be a short term fix, but they'll never ever be able to replace that in-person experience.

  • 12:20:50

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that, Clara. Finally, Elliot, how do you see tourism changing after the pandemic has passed? Will everything just go back to normal?

  • 12:21:00

    FERGUSONWell, it's going to be a slow return.

  • 12:21:02

    NNAMDIYou only have about 30 seconds left.

  • 12:21:03

    FERGUSONAbsolutely. And I agree with what Clara said. But it's going to be a slow return. It's all going to be all tied to, you know, consumer confidence in terms of traveling again. We know that we will rebound. It will take a little longer than perhaps other crisis in which we've had to deal with in the past. But there is a demand to come to a city like Washington D.C. and to explore the things that perhaps they've seen virtually.

  • 12:21:27

    NNAMDII am learning to enjoy the D.C. Jazz Festival virtually first time ever. Elliot Ferguson, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:21:34

    FERGUSONThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:21:35

    NNAMDIElliot Ferguson is the CEO of Destination D.C. Steven Shulman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:39

    SHULMANThank you. I appreciate the invitation to be with you.

  • 12:21:42

    NNAMDISteven Shulman is the Executive Director of Cultural Tourism D.C. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll relive the Nats World Series winning season with people who had front row seats to that epic journey. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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