District of Cool-umbia

By Johanna Jainchill
WASHINGTON -- Earlier this year, representatives of the Destination D.C. marketing organization traveled to New York to make the case that our nation's capital is a hip city with a lot going on.

My first thought upon seeing "D.C. Cool," the name of the campaign, was that any city that has to tell you it's cool probably isn't. And let's face it: While Washington has always offered a lot of amazing experiences for tourists, "cool" has not historically been listed among its qualities.

D.C. Hot SpotsWhat I was about to discover, however, was that the District of Columbia of 2014 is not the D.C. of 20 years ago, 10 years ago or even five years ago.

Shortly after the campaign launched, I visited this city and talked with residents in the hotel, fashion, restaurant and travel sectors. I discovered that today's D.C. is one in which neighborhoods once known only as stops on the Metro subway map are now brimming with fashion-forward boutiques, innovative restaurants and trendy bars.

Where cranes dominate the skyline, they serve as harbingers of an ongoing explosion in new hotel, condominium and retail spaces. A once-rundown waterfront is now a weekend playground for locals and tourists alike. And the homicide rate, once among the highest in the nation, reached a 50-year low in 2012. (See related story, "D.C. hotel market undergoing building boom.") 

For tourists, these changes mean there is much more of Washington to see than ever before. Even before Destination D.C.'s campaign kicked off, tourists were already making their way off the Capitol Mall and trekking beyond the museums, memorials and monuments that have long made the city world-famous.

"There's really been a resurgence," said Kurt Crowl of Connoisseur Travel, a Signature Travel member in Washington. "I've never heard so many positive things about the city as I have recently. From people who say, 'I was there years ago, and how it's changed' to 'I've heard about all the things going in the neighborhoods.'"

Locals here have differing opinions as to when the city started to change, but one factor that everyone agrees has made a huge impact is that almost all of D.C.'s population growth between 2000 and 2010 was among adults ages 20 to 34. That demographic increased by 23% during that decade, according to the Washington Post.

These young professionals moved to neighborhoods outside of Georgetown and Dupont Circle, many of which were once considered unsafe and rundown. Those new residents opened restaurants and bars, started small businesses and attracted more of their generation.

Marla Malcolm Beck"I've lived in D.C. since 1998, and it's like a different world now," said Marla Malcolm Beck, founder of Washington-based Bluemercury, a nationwide chain of high-end beauty stores. "It used to be that Georgetown was hip, and that's where everything new happened. And everything else was where people went to work. Now, the entire city is hip, and there are new ideas and bloggers, and there's so much energy in the city."

Some locals say that changes already underway went full throttle in 2008 when the Obama administration brought in people from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Destination D.C. President and CEO Elliott Ferguson said the administration has been a boon to D.C.'s reputation as a hip city.

"What really helps us is when Obama and the first lady go out to dinner," Ferguson said. "The president goes to the theater, and then people ask about D.C. theater, and we can say that D.C. has the second-largest number of theater seats in the country."

Ferguson added: "Nothing against [former President George W.] Bush, but when I did my job under his leadership, the perception of the city wasn't as good. [The Bushes] didn't get out as much as Obama has. He's done a lot to showcase D.C. in a different vein, which has made our life a lot easier."

Whatever the reason, D.C. is no longer only the stuffy government town that locals readily admit it once was.

Ferguson, a lifelong resident, said that over the past few years, he could see that the city was changing dramatically and that it was time to promote its "coolness."

Power's a given; cool's a discovery

The new campaign is a marked contrast from the "Power" campaign launched in 2008, which promoted the perception of D.C. as the epicenter of world power. But the campaign also served as a reminder that it is, first and foremost, a government town.

Elliott FergusonD.C. Cool, by contrast, seems to focus on everything but government.

The idea for the campaign came from "American Cool," an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery that opened in February and runs through Sept. 7. It showcases portraits of American icons of cool dating as far back as the 1800s and ranging from Walt Whitman to Billie Holiday to Madonna.

Ferguson felt the exhibition tie-in was a natural way to launch the campaign.

"Our goal was always to come up with something that allows us to showcase the other side of Washington," he said.

Destination D.C.'s charge has always been to get visitors to spend more time and money in the district. Too many tourists, Ferguson said, think they can see all that the capital has to offer in one day.

He realized that tourists would only stay longer if and when they felt there was more to do than the checklist of experiences on the traditional D.C. tourist docket: the National Mall and its monuments and memorials, the main Smithsonian museums and the seats of the three branches of government.

"The goal for us is to get [visitors] for an extended stay," Ferguson said, one that includes visiting and spending money on theater, restaurants, shopping and other experiences outside of the Mall/downtown area.

A Night on the TownTo do that, Destination D.C. now offers travel agents training on how to promote D.C. effectively as a place to stay for at least three nights. Ferguson was recently promoting the D.C. Cool campaign in Europe, hoping to persuade more international travelers to visit the city and add a few extra nights to their visit. The rationale for that pitch is simple: Internationals made up only 9% of D.C.'s 18.5 million visitors in 2012 but were responsible for 27% of the total visitor spend.

The international market, he said, "comes for longer and spends more. They are going to shop, shop, shop. They have the largest economic impact and can come to D.C. at times we need the business -- in July and August, when it's not peak season for us."

The same cannot be said for the group that Ferguson often refers to when talking about the typical visitor -- thousands of eighth-graders on class field trips. Ferguson recognizes that while these preteens will someday become adults and hopefully return to the city, at that age they are not spending money in restaurants and clothing boutiques. What's more, in many cases they are taking advantage of one of the qualities that makes this city so alluring: Almost all its monuments and memorials, even the 19 Smithsonian museums and galleries, plus the National Zoo, are free.

Ferguson is thrilled that visitors take advantage of Washington's freebies, but he also hopes they will add on extra time to spend in restaurants, shops and hotels.

"People often take a trip to the U.S. East Coast, spend three to four days in New York to shop, and then go to D.C. for a day," he said. "Then they say, 'We wish we'd stayed longer.' Our goal is to get them to do that."

The cuisine factor

Beyond offering some of the best Ethiopian restaurants in the country, D.C.'s food scene was never something people talked about. Now locals sound more like New Yorkers as they dissect the new restaurants and bars that seem to open on a daily basis.

"It's a fun time to be living here," said Laura Hayes, a food writer and contributor to Thrillist.com, who observed that more than 120 restaurants had opened in the city in the last year. "It's both exhausting and exhilarating for a food writer and fun for everyone else."

Eric Hilton of the electronic music DJ duor Thievery Corporation is owner of a mini-empire of restaurants in D.C.According to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, 709 restaurants opened between 2001 and 2011, a 50% increase. (Read Hayes' picks of five of D.C.'s newest restaurants worth trying.)   

"We are starting to have national recognition, and we're attracting top talent when it comes to chefs," Hayes said. "D.C. used to be known for stuffy steak houses and button-up, white-tablecloth [eateries]."

Now she said, visitors are coming "to eat our food and experience our nightlife. The city's really changing, and everything's moving east," specifically to the 14th Street corridor near Logan Circle, arguably the city's hottest restaurant and bar strip, where Hayes joked that a new restaurant opens "as often as a politician messes up."

"I think tourists who come to town now make a night out of crawling down 14th Street," she said. "It has great restaurants, bars, beer gardens."

In many ways, restaurateur Eric Hilton represents the evolution of the new food scene. Internationally known as one-half of the electronic music DJ duo Thievery Corporation, the Maryland native has built a mini-empire of restaurants in D.C. Starting in 2007, he built his restaurants in what were at the time abandoned buildings along 14th Street.

Nowadays, the strip's bars and restaurants are packed on the weekends, starting with brunch and continuing late into the night.

W takes center stage

The W hotel offers the services of a W Insider.The renaissance taking place in D.C.'s fashion sector and nightlife scene is on full display at the W Hotel on F Street between 14th and 15th streets, just steps from the White House. Olivier Servat, the property's general manager, who transferred to D.C. from the W Paris, has helped cement the 5-year-old hotel as the epicenter of D.C.'s fashion and music scene in the public's mind.

Its rooftop bar, POV, often hosts fashion and music events and performances that are always packed to capacity, such as a four-day fashion show last October in partnership with Bloomingdales that Servat said attracted some of the industry's top talent.

What's most remarkable about this is that Servat said he has been told that a place like the W, where high fashion and cutting-edge music intersect, "could not have happened five years ago."

"It's new for the W and new for the city," he said. "We filled a need in D.C. that didn't exist five years ago."

A testament to the new kind of tourist who is visiting D.C. is that the W here is one of a handful of W properties around the world, including Paris, Barcelona and Hong Kong, that offers the services of a "W Insider," someone who shares insider access and experiences with guests.

W Washington D.C.'s Insider has done everything from organizing bowling parties at the White House to getting prime seats for a Beyonce concert and having a dress dry-cleaned in under an hour.

"It can be anything," Servat said. "[The Insider] is connected in very reputed places like the White House, or it could be a super experience in a bar that is not necessarily featured in any guide, or backstage access at a concert, or a connection to a museum."

New nurtures old

The new D.C. is also helping visitors discover some of the old D.C. that was often off their radars, such as the expansive cultural scene, which is worth venturing off the Mall for.

The Newseum attracted 800,000 visitors in 2013.The Newseum, the museum of news and journalism that opened in 2008, is a good example of a worthy institution that does not have the international fame (or free admission) that the Smithsonian museums do. But it still attracted 800,000 visitors last year, a 5% increase over 2012.

Jonathan Thompson, spokesman for the Newseum, said, "For a long time, I think Washington was known as a Smithsonian town, but visitors have begun to explore a variety of new attractions in different parts of the city."

Connoisseur Travel's Crowl also makes sure to remind his clients about the abundance of world-class theater options in D.C. beyond the Kennedy Center.

"We have almost 90 theaters in the D.C. metro region," Crowl said. "The variety of work is really staggering, all the way from Arena Stage, the 60-year southwest Washington theater dedicated to American plays and playwrights, which underwent a $135 million makeover four years ago, to Shakespeare Theatre Company, which received the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2012, to small black box [experimental] theaters anchoring and revitalizing neighborhoods all over the city."

Crowl, who caters to a lot of corporate travelers and groups, said many of his clients have been here before and are hungry for new experiences.

"They are looking to do fun and different things besides see the Mall again," he said. "Especially [visitors] on the higher end."

One experience he recommends is taking advantage of the revitalized waterfront areas and the increase in boat traffic between different parts of the city, even into neighboring Alexandria, Va.'s Old Town.

"It's fun to put people on a boat to Old Town," he said. "They don't have to fight traffic, and Old Town is really quite charming and has good restaurants."

He also likes to send people on a newly offered cruise between Georgetown and the Yards, the southwest waterfront area near Nationals Stadium, home to the district's Major League Baseball team, enabling them to take advantage of all of the new development there, including restaurants and a riverfront park.

"The whole waterfront along the Anacostia River, which was never really accessible, is cleaned up and really beautiful," Crowl said.

The area is home to trendy restaurants like Osteria Morini, which was opened last fall in a renovated lumber shed by Michael White, a New York chef, and Bluejacket, a brewery built into a former munitions factory that is widely credited with helping bring new life to the Navy Yards area.

And of course, one place to see D.C.'s fashion and nightlife on full display is on popular shows like Netflix's "House of Cards" and ABC's "Scandal," which have helped contribute to the city's cosmopolitan image.

Bluemercury's Beck observed that these shows, with their well-dressed characters who frequent swanky bars, do not just contribute to Washington's coolness factor. Rather, she said, they offer "a conclusion and a testament to what the city has become."

Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw. 
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