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The Business of Meetings

Mar 9, 2021

We have the great pleasure of speaking to yet another icon in our industry today, Elliott Ferguson. He is the President and CEO of Destination DC and the current national chair of the board of directors of the U.S. Travel Association.

In this episode, we will be talking about three main topics. We will discuss how DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations) can help business owners navigate the current situation and what will come after the pandemic. We will also talk about diversity, equality, and inclusion and the leading role Elliott has taken in that area. Finally, we will look at Elliot’s role as the chair of U.S. Travel and what will be coming next for our industry.

We hope you will enjoy our fascinating conversation with Elliott as much as we did!

Elliott Ferguson’s bio 

Elliott Ferguson serves as President and CEO of Destination DC, the official destination marketing organization for Washington, DC. A 30-year veteran of the travel and hospitality industry, Ferguson leads Destination DC’s efforts to generate economic opportunity for the District through meetings and tourism, overseeing the organization’s convention and tourism sales, marketing, finance, and business development operations. Ferguson began his tenure with Destination DC in December 2001 as the Vice President of Convention Sales, became Senior Vice President of Convention Sales and Services in 2005, and has served as President and CEO since 2009. Before working at Destination DC, he served as Director of Sales and Vice President of Sales at the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. He has also served as Director of Sales at the Savannah CVB. Ferguson currently serves as National Chair of the board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association, where he guides the board and association’s efforts to advance policies that facilitate more international and domestic travel. He also serves on the board of directors for the following organizations: Advisory Board of the Smithsonian National Zoo; DC Jazz Festival; Ryan Kerrigan “Blitz for the Better” Foundation and the United Way of the National Capital Area. He represents Destination DC as part of the Hospitality Alliance of Washington, D.C. Ferguson received a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing and Business Administration from Savannah State University. His many industry memberships include Professional Conference Management Association, International Association of Exhibition Executives, Destinations International, National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, Meeting Professionals International, and American Society of Association Executives. Ferguson and his wife, Telesa Via, a hospitality industry veteran, are longtime residents of Capitol Hill. He is active with Capital Partners for Education, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and Delta Sigma Pi.

Joining the industry

In the early 1990s, Elliott got an opportunity to work with the Savannah Economic Development Authority organization. The focus was on economic development and bringing business to Savannah and Georgia by way of industry relocating or expanding. The person running the Business Bureau was on the board of that organization, and he approached Elliott one day to offer him the opportunity to join the Business Bureau. Back then, there was not much diversity in the industry, and the board member of the Business Bureau liked what Elliott was doing and felt that he and Elliott would work well together. Being young and naïve at the time, Elliott avoided him for six months. 

Joining the organization

After spending six months thinking about it, doing some research, and learning about what the organization did, Elliott joined the organization. Now, more than thirty years later, he is still doing that.

Moving to Washington DC

Elliott moved to Washington DC in December of 2001, just after 9/11. 

The last twelve months

Having lived through 9/11, Elliott felt accustomed to things affecting business travel and tourism to Washington DC. Although the last twelve months have been the hardest to deal with, there is strength in numbers. After coming out of a state of denial and dealing with the shock of the reality of the situation, all Elliott’s peers around the country started talking about recovery, being more proactive, and looking towards the future.

What Americans need to work on

As Americans, we need to work on our tendency to believe that some things that affect the global community will never happen to us here, in America. 

The Da Vinci Code

You can visit Washington DC, based on the book, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. There is a program that shows the different places from the book in Washington. There was also a tour that showed Washington through the eyes of those who followed the Dan Brown movies.

Diversity, equality, and inclusion 

Elliot feels that things are improving slightly in terms of diversity, equality, and inclusion because when he entered the industry in 1992, there was only one black male who was the CEO of a DMO. 

The National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners 

Elliott was actively involved in the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners. He realized that there were opportunities and diversity at the lower level of the pyramid in our industry, but as you got further up the pyramid, there were fewer and fewer opportunities.

Diversity and inclusion within DMOs

In 2021, America is a nation with 600-700 DMOs, and less than ten of them are run by people of color and females. There are still many opportunities and enough time to look at that and dissect it through a different lens.

A wake-up call

Last year was a wake-up call for Elliott. He realized that COVID could happen in America, and he needed to do a lot more in terms of diversity and inclusion within the industry. 

Elliott Ferguson’s idea of doing better

Doing better for Elliott Ferguson is not only about white people recognizing and understanding the plight of the black community. It is about understanding that there is something wrong with being one of only two black people walking into a room filled with white people in 2021. Also, when representing an industry that he loves and not seeing the diversity, seeing the opportunities to have conversations about that.


Most discrimination comes from ignorance.

Seeing diversity in the future

Because of the things they have seen and experienced, kids entering the workforce in the next few years will expect to see some diversity in the companies for which they work. If not, they won’t want to work for those companies. Those who want to believe that it is just a black problem, a Jewish problem, or a problem that does not affect them will be left behind.

Diversity within companies

Sometimes, people don’t even realize that the things they are saying are racist. So, people need to challenge themselves to be more purposeful with the conversations they have within their companies. They need to understand that those diverse companies are the most profitable and they are usually the places where the most people want to work.

Elliott’s role is coming to an end

In the next few weeks, Elliott’s role as the chair of U.S. Travel will end. He spent two years in that role, and it was an interesting time for him.

Dealing with a pandemic

As we continue to focus on stressors like Black Lives Matter, the change of administration, and homeschooling, we realize that we are dealing with a pandemic, and people will be losing their lives. Elliott appreciates the direction the Biden administration is taking in terms of prioritizing the focus on the pandemic. 

The focus of the U.S. Travel Association

In the short-term, the U.S. Travel Association is focusing on domestic markets and on building relationships. Now, when there is no travel at all, people are paying attention to what is missing and how important the travel industry is.

The new chair of the U.S. Travel Association 

The new chair of the U.S. Travel Association will be focusing on ensuring that the U.S. Travel Association is dealing with the priorities tied to recovery and getting back on track so that people can start traveling again.

Something to be proud of

The U.S. Travel Association has done two webinars with NDEI, focused on diversity from the standpoint of being black in America. There were more than two thousand people on each Zoom. 

Racism that Elliott Ferguson experienced at IMEX

The U.S. Travel Association won two awards at IMEX. A few seconds after Elliott Ferguson got off the stage to accept the awards, someone came up to him and asked him to fill their glass of wine. Everyone was shocked! Although Elliott’s first inclination was to reassure everyone and make them feel okay, he felt deflated.

Creating awareness

After that incident, he decided that he would no longer focus on making other people feel comfortable in those situations. Going forward, he would rather prioritize helping people understand what is being referred to, in terms of marginalizing people because of the color of their skin. 

Leading the way

Elliott feels that the hospitality industry should be leading the way in terms of understanding people’s cultural differences.

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