D.C.'s convention business projections aren't looking good. As a political epicenter, dealing with how convention planners respond to politics is not new for the city but the current administration makes it a particularly tough sell.
Organizations hold their conventions in Washington, D.C. each year, in part, because of the destination’s proximity to powerful politicians. But the city’s convention business has declined in recent years, prompting Destination D.C., the city’s tourism board, is ramping up efforts to attract more international conventions.
Washington, D.C.’s current political climate isn’t the only factor that is likely keeping some conventions away as currency and competing destinations are always in the mix. But as home to President Donald Trump and his often-divisive policies, such as a travel ban and a proposed policy change aiming to roll back federal protections for people who identify as transgender, Washington, D.C. is facing a challenge to attract convention business that few other U.S. cities have to worry about.
Destination D.C.’s most recent forecast for convention room nights shows a dramatic drop in conventions business through 2025. Projections show the city will have nearly 1.2 million convention room nights in 2018, but only about 380,000 by 2025, a 68 percent drop. For citywide conventions or those that involve multiple venues across the destination, convention room nights fell an estimated 21 percent from 2017 to 2018 and the destination will have about 25 percent fewer room nights in 2025 than it will have this year.
Destination D.C. said that its convention booking window has narrowed during the past year, according to Cvent’s data, and that the destination remains above pace for convention bookings through 2025. The organization has recently focused more on short-term bookings and believes projections for the coming years will reflect more growth as conventions book closer to their actual date.
The organization recently launched its International Business Council that includes industry association leaders and corporate incentive agencies to help the destination determine ways to attract more international groups to the city.
“Participants gave us invaluable feedback that will help us shape how we position ourselves in the marketplace,” said Melissa A. Riley, vice president, convention sales and services for Destination D.C., in a statement. “We uncovered broader international insights in a creative and experiential environment, exploring some of D.C.’s new and innovative assets such as the LINE DC, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, Mess Hall at Union Market and the Hilton Hotel Room of the Future.”
The organization has also hired Sino Media, a Hong Kong-based media and publishing agency, to help the organization grow its meetings and convention business from China, D.C.’s largest overseas market.
Some 324,000 Chinese travelers visited Washington, D.C. in 2017, up 7 percent from 2016. The city’s overall visitor arrivals hit a new record in 2017, up 3.6 percent to 22.8 million. Domestic arrivals (20.8 million) were up 4.2 percent and international arrivals were up 2.5 percent.
Overseas convention attendees made up more than 10 percent (200,000) of the city’s two million overseas visitors in 2017.
The organization has 21 citywide conventions booked for 2019 and a total of 37 new international conventions booked in the coming years, such as the Congress of the International Society of Forensic Genetics in 2021, which is expected to have an economic impact of $2.6 million.
Destination D.C. also said its 2020 convention business is ahead of what it initially projected for that year, but a lot can change in the convention business depending on the economy and political climate in host destinations.
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Photo credit: Convention attendees like the ones pictured here are who Destination D.C. is working hard to attract amid a divisive political climate in the destination. Jeffrey Zeldman / Flickr