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Earlier this month, Destination DC CEO Elliott Ferguson spent a sunny Tuesday afternoon doing what Washington lobbyists often do. He held a rally, hoisting signs and promulgating from a podium the economic benefits of travel.
At a time when the U.S. is losing share of international travelers and travel marketers from coast to coast worry that the White House’s message to foreigners is not one of welcome, Ferguson’s recent appointment to national chair of the U.S. Travel Association makes perfect sense. (Ferguson succeeds Wyndham Hotels and Resorts CEO Geoff Ballotti on a one-year term with the ability to be re-elected for a second year.)
As a Washington insider, Ferguson recently sat down with the White House chief of staff and Cabinet members. He knows firsthand what it means for a destination’s reputation to be tied to the occupant of the Oval Office.
Being based in the District of Columbia and having served on U.S. Travel’s board for seven years, he works closely with U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow and Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson.
Dow praised Ferguson for his “track record as a guardian of the travel industry in the nation’s capital,” which under Ferguson’s leadership promoted far more than monuments and museums, elevating awareness of the city’s dining, entertainment, culture and diverse neighborhoods, while leading it to a record 21.9 million domestic visitors in 2018.
He is also onboard with Dow’s statements regarding the importance of the U.S. sending a more welcoming message to international travelers. Ferguson, however, is in many ways more blunt as to the damage the Trump administration’s America-first messaging might be causing.
“Quite frankly, we’re seeing some decreases in international visitation because of this rhetoric,” Ferguson said. “And we’re trying to make sure that we share a role in the right messaging versus ‘You’re not welcome to come to America,’ which is what some people feel that they are hearing.”
And while he also acknowledges factors that were dragging down U.S. market share prior to Trump’s election, such as the strong dollar and Brazil’s economy, Ferguson said that when he visits Destination DC’s seven offices in other countries, he hears from travel agents that they’re seeing a decline in U.S. visitation interest that they attribute to the rhetoric from the White House.
“Be it tariffs on China or walls being built in Mexico, those are not things that are resonating in a positive way,” he said. “Therefore, we continue focusing on U.S. Travel’s need to interface with members of the Cabinet, folks on Capitol Hill to get them to understand the importance of the economic impact of travel.”
Ferguson said that while Trump is clearly focused on safety, he’d like to see messaging along the lines of making sure that “how that’s delivered does not deter potential visitors from coming to the U.S.”
Ferguson has seen Washington suffer and prosper under different administrations, which is part of why he has long touted D.C. beyond the National Mall.
“The perception or feeling regarding America is tied to Washington, D.C., and we try to focus on other aspects of our destination, but that’s our reality,” he said.
As the first person of color in 30 years to be U.S. Travel’s national chair (former Amtrak executive William Norman was the chair in 1988), Ferguson hopes to encourage the industry to embrace a more diverse workforce. “I’d like to think we are encouraging minorities and women to pursue careers and stay in this industry, because we’re seeing too much attrition at the entry level,” he said. “They stay a few years and are disenchanted and move on to another industry. I’m doing it here, but it’s probably more organic, because I see things through a different lens than a lot of my peers who don’t look like me.”
Ferguson added that bringing people from diverse cultures and backgrounds together is “tied to the genesis of travel. You learn more, and you’re exposed to more, and you think differently, and it breaks down barriers. These things should be part of the fabric of any organization.”