D.C. is celebrating receiving the GDS-Movement Innovation Award for its DEI Fellowship program. Despite the win, it's clear that the U.S. lags behind other parts of the world regarding destination sustainability.
Washington D.C., represented by Destination DC, has been recognized for its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts at the 2023 GDS-Awards. The destination received the GDS-Movement Innovation Award for employing innovative solutions to enhance sustainability performance.
This year marks the eighth annual edition of the awards, revealed at the GDS-Forum in Valencia, Spain, which are a partnership between the Global Destination Sustainability Movement (GDS-Movement) and the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA).
“Destination DC is thrilled to win the GDS-Movement Innovation Award and honored to be acknowledged for Destination DC’s DEI Fellowship program as a sustainable and positive solution in hospitality,” said Elliott L. Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC.
Recognizing DEI Leadership
Focused on socio-economic equity, the DEI Fellowship Program provides support and resources to small businesses within the local travel and tourism industry owned by people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities. The annual cohort welcomed 36 new businesses to the fellowship in January.
“The Destination DC sustainability committee applied to the GDS-Index to see how we stacked up,” Ferguson said. “We wanted to look at all facets of DEI and focus more on people who are underrepresented,” he said, adding that his organization also sought to demonstrate that D.C. is a destination that continuously focuses on sustainability. “We wanted to illustrate that D.C. as a destination is aligned with the values of the index and that we practice what we preach.”
The Fellowship is just one element of Destination DC’s DEI District. This innovative content hub allows visitors to engage more deeply with the destination. The hub encourages visitors to visit inclusive attractions, learn about empowering students and youth, meet more equitably, and engage with technical training programs and workforce development initiatives.
Washington, D.C. beat out five other finalists in the innovation in sustainability benchmark category. The shortlist featured the Canadian cities of Banff and Edmonton; Bordeaux, France; Gothenburg, Sweden; and Tempere, Finland.
Elevated Community, Elevated Events
“By engaging closely with our destination’s smaller businesses and community members we can ensure companies that don’t have the financial wherewithal can take advantage of opportunities to get a piece of the pie that is the $8 billion hospitality industry in D.C. alone,” Ferguson said.
In order to nurture and sustain these businesses, Destination DC provides networking opportunities, education, mentorship, and complimentary marketing delivered by connecting participating businesses with leisure and business travelers.
“It’s a great organization that’s done a lot to help my business,” said Roger Sherman, owner of The District Pit, a local eatery that specializes in BBQ and Southern comfort food, adding that the DEI Fellowship program allowed him to utilize Destination DC’s marketing resources. “Before connecting with Destination DC’s fellowship program, I was marketing only by word-of-mouth,” he said, adding that as a small business, he typically had to book his next client during the event he was catering at the time.
What’s more, Sherman says that the program has helped in garnering business from outside the D.C. area, including the Carolinas, Texas, and Kansas City – all of which pride themselves on a deeply-rooted bar-b-que culture. “The fellowship has helped me increase my business by 10-15% over the last year,” he said. “That might not sound like a lot, but it’s great for a small business.” Having only been in business for five years, Sherman said it’s been very helpful networking with older businesses through the fellowship.
“We’re really positioning things for events to interact with local businesses,” Ferguson said. “We not only want to attract events and conventions to the area, but we want to provide an excellent experience for attendees – we’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
U.S. Lagging on Sustainability Leadership
In 2021 and 2022, no U.S. destinations other than D.C. took part in the GSD-Index. This year, Tucson, Arizona, and Rapid City, South Dakota also joined. In contrast, 20 Canadian cities are part of this year’s index, 17 of which joined for the first time.
Ferguson believes the lack of focus on destination sustainability could be detrimental to the U.S. events market.
“If we have a foreign group in town for an event and we provide them with a gift that’s heavily wrapped in plastic, for example, then we’re going to look pretty tone-deaf in our messaging,” he said. “It also makes good business sense,” adding, “We as a destination are likely to book more events if our guests know that we’re a sustainable city.”
While the events industry frequently discussed sustainability and DEI, Ferguson says they haven’t been a priority for all destinations. “The U.S. expects the federal government to carry out efforts in sustainability, but it’s going to take greater participation from all states,” he said, adding that regions that are active in promoting sustainable measures often expect others to follow suit. “If there are no efforts in sustainability, events might not get booked.”
Photo credit: Ben's Chili Bowl Mural / courtesy of washington.org