Protests and marches are a phenomenon that D.C. tourism officials never asked for but are forced to reckon with. It's an ongoing reckoning that the city's tourism board is still figuring out in the digital age, and other destinations are taking cues.
Large events are everything to a destination and many tourism boards spend a lot of time and money working to attract meetings and conventions.
But when that destination is a political epicenter like Washington, D.C., some events like the March For Our Lives anti-gun violence protest scheduled for Saturday show make it easy for tourism officials.
Washington, D.C. is expecting about half a million anti-gun violence protestors this weekend who will be calling for gun control reform. The march comes after a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in February that killed 17 people, and many of the attendees will be high school and college students who will travel from different parts of the United States.
More than 800 other smaller, local marches will take place in other U.S. cities and around the world on Saturday.
Tourism boards often have little to do with marches and protests yet these events have an outsized impact on other sectors like hotels, airlines, and dining.
Destination DC, the city’s tourism board, is no exception. As the location of the United States’ federal government, the destination has had marches and protests for centuries. Protest tourism, however, is a term the organization has coined in light of the growth and higher frequency of protests since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
“Protest tourism is not something that’s happening because of our marketing efforts,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination D.C. “We don’t get involved with the dynamics of the event.”
Ferguson said it’s not the organization’s place to take a side of a debate, including if the issue directly impacts the travel industry such as the president’s travel ban. “We don’t touch anything political,” said Ferguson.
“I’m passionate about protest tourism only from the standpoint that you have individuals coming to Washington for the protest and while they’re here we need to make sure they’re aware of the things to see and do,” said Ferguson.
Marketing The March
Destination D.C. does have information about the march available on its site, but it’s not prominent. Travelers have to search to find it.
The organization doesn’t plan to socialize the event on its social media platforms other than to communicate information from law enforcement and emergency services, said Ferguson. “It’s not our role to communicate the schedule of the march,” he said. “It’s the city’s role to communicate the streets that are closed. We want to make sure visitors are aware of how to traverse the streets.”
Ferguson said his team won’t have a robust post-mortem of the march as it would for other events it’s more involved with. Destination D.C. will measure the number of hits to its washington.org site and see how many times visitors looked at washington.org while they were in the city.
“Our website is responsive design and will respond to whatever device you’re using, you don’t need an app,” said Ferguson
The Struggle With Protest Tourism Data
Washington, D.C. also has the National Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend, which will make an already busy time of year even more interesting.
Ferguson said it’s easier to track the impact of protests when it’s the only event happening, but that’s rare in a city like D.C. when there are always major events on the calendar.
“While last year’s inauguration didn’t have a high turnout compared to past inaugurations, the women’s march the next day made it a significant weekend,” said Ferguson. “I think a number of hotels are looking at many transient rooms that will be booked.”
Ferguson wasn’t sure of the destination’s projected hotel occupancy for this Friday through Sunday as that data is generally available after the fact. “But we know it will be a good week and month for convention business,” said Ferguson.
Destination D.C. doesn’t have data on the average hotel rates for this weekend but various booking sites show nightly rates as low as $140 to more than $800. “If the march was in January or August that would be a better time to position it because travelers could get better rates,” said Ferguson. “But this was a short-term decision in response to what happened in Parkland in February.”
Many travelers will stay with friends and family or in alternative accommodations such as Airbnb. Crystal Davis, a spokesperson for Airbnb, said 9,500 travelers have booked Airbnbs in Washington, D.C. for March 23 and 24. Some 88 percent of those travelers are domestic, and Davis said March 24 is set to be the company’s second-highest booked night in D.C. after January 20, 2017.
Ferguson said the city expects a younger crowd than past marches such as the women’s march last year. “The group coming in this weekend is youth-based,” he said. “They will probably have less money than the women that came in last year. This time of year we have the traditional 8th-grade trips but these kids will be older than 8th-grade.”
Chef José Andrés’ Think Food Group and a group of Washington, D.C. restaurants partnered for a Food For Our Lives initiative to give free meals to students younger than age 18 on March 24. Other restaurants such as Sugar Donuts, Shake Shack, and Sweetgreen will offer discounts to students who show an ID.
“The cherry blossom crowd will merge with the marches,” said Ferguson. “The Cherry Blossom folks will probably eat at higher value restaurants and stay in the city. We assume and expect that there will be a percentage of folks coming in that will eat at higher-end restaurants. But on the whole, you’ll find more looking for value.”
Many tourism boards generally avoid social issues to not draw the ire of the politicians who fund them. That’s led more private sector personalities like Andrés to step up and help with these events, and travelers notice.
Especially in a place like D.C. where many travelers visit specifically to better understand politics and history, it begs the question if remaining neutral makes the city’s tourism board more relevant or distant to travelers.
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Photo credit: Marches like the Women's March on Washington in January 2017, pictured here, are examples of marches that DC tourism officials don't do any marketing for. Molly Adams / Flickr