For Destination DC boss, a time of upheaval

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Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood has a rich African American history.
Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood has a rich African American history. Source: Washington.org

Elliott Ferguson, CEO of Destination DC and national chair of the U.S. Travel Association, has emerged as one of the travel industry’s leading voices around the Black Lives Matter movement. 

But he is also trying to hold together a destination marketing organization struggling to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“We’re on life support,” Ferguson said, adding that his organization is currently working to bring back furloughed employees. “Not being part of Paycheck Protection Program or the Cares Act has been very difficult to us.”

Elliott Ferguson
Elliott Ferguson

DMOs were not eligible for PPP relief during the first rounds of government relief because of their nonprofit or quasi-government status, something that U.S. Travel has been lobbying to change in any future relief funding. (Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to amend the Small Business Act to enable destination marketing organizations to become eligible for loans under the PPP.) 

“These things are in place to help organizations continue to exist,” Ferguson said. “Through U.S. Travel we are working hard to be included in next iteration of the Cares Act. I need that relief so I can continue to pay my employees and pay our bills and hopefully have a budget for marketing.”

Destination DC gets 82% of its funding from less than 1% of Washington’s hotel taxes, funds that have dried up during the pandemic. The remaining budget comes from membership dues and partnerships. 

Ferguson said DMOs across the United States are suffering as a result. 

“We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve only furloughed whereas several have had to fire over 100 people in some cases,” he said. 

Besides paying employees and bills, Ferguson is concerned about having money for advertising and marketing, which will help D.C. recover. 

On the Record

Elliott Ferguson has been vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement and how corporate America can do better on issues of systemic racism and bias. Read More

In its recent launch campaign, the Black Travel Alliance, a group of black travel content creators, called on the travel industry to “work toward meaningful representation of Black voices” and specifically targeted DMOs for not enough Black representation marketing campaigns, even from cities and countries that attract or constitute a large number of Black people.

Ferguson said Destination DC is “absolutely aware of the need to promote what the Black community has done” in the city, from Frederick Douglass to go-go music to the museums that reference the Black experience or African experience, he said. 

He said having a Black person at the helm has made diversity more of an organizational priority. 

“We absolutely are more sensitive to that, but I’m equally sensitive to representing the diversity of Washington as a destination,” he said. “We have a lot of different ethnicities here. But I am clearly much more sensitive and pay attention to when or if there is a lack of diversity in anything we do. It does not mean that every single ad or piece of marketing has a Black person, but if we do a campaign you’ll see balance and the Black community represented in our marketing and advertising.”

At the end of the day, Ferguson said that this vision helps Destination DC accomplish what it is meant to do. 

“We just want to make sure that we’re focusing on bringing as many people as we can to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The Black experience in DC is very appealing to not just Black people. We appreciate the opportunity to promote D.C. and the history that we have here. And the history as the nation’s capital through the Smithsonian and so many other museums to the global community that is interested in learning more about so many experiences.”

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