EPISODE 261: Destination DC CEO Elliott Ferguson Recommends That Sales Professionals Implement These Steps to Bring Value to their Customers Right Now

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the SALES GAME CHANGERS LIVE Webinar hosted by Fred Diamond, Host of the Sales Game Changers Podcast, on August 12, 2020. It featured Destination DC President Elliott Ferguson.]

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EPISODE 261: Destination DC CEO Elliott Ferguson Recommends That Sales Professionals Implement These Steps to Bring Value to their Customers Right Now

ELLIOTT’S TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “People can see when you’re happy. I gave my entire team mirrors years ago and I said, “Every time you pick up the phone, I want you to look in the mirror and look at your facial expression. I want you to smile when you’re talking to them and see whether or not they see a difference in how you’re talking because that’s how people perceive you, that’s exactly what they hear and that’s really important as we’re looking at developing our brand – because each of us are a brand – as we’re looking at moving forward and getting out of COVID.”

Fred Diamond: Let’s get right to it. First off, how are things going for you as the leader of Destination DC?

Elliott Ferguson: First of all, Fred, hello to you and good to be here. Melissa Riley reminded me that she was on well before me so she greased the pathway for me, so I’ll try to live up to what she delivered a few months ago. I had a choice between an hour with you or watching TMZ and I chose you because that’s where we are now, we’re all stationary, not traveling, doing a lot of calls and talking about business and clearly not wearing suits anymore. I don’t miss that part at all but as you can imagine, the disruption of COVID and things that are not happening has been pretty detrimental to us economically here in DC.

Fred Diamond: First, give us the perspective prior to the pandemic and even post. Again, your job is to bring associations, companies to do their conferences here. By the way, I’m based here in Northern Virginia, you’re in DC, whenever I broadcast the show I always tell people I’m in Northern Virginia just right outside of Washington DC. I’m looking at the people who are watching us today, I know we have people from all over the world, we have some people here from Europe, we have a couple people from Australia, of course we have a lot of people in the United States as well but what is it about DC as a destination? Prior and post pandemic, why would an organization want to come here for their conference, for their big events?

Elliott Ferguson: Very good question. What we do is really economic development, it’s disguised as tourism and fun stuff and I accept that, as a matter of fact, I appreciate it because I started my career on the other side of economic development. DC is an attraction for a variety of reasons, it starts with the thing that we like to sell the least which is the federal government and the fact that we’ve got thousands of associations headquartered in the DMV – that’s DC, Maryland and Virginia – with them in this area to lobby members of congress, there are several opportunities to do business with them. That plus the fact that you’ve got business leaders and corporations from a global perspective and of course domestically coming to Washington to lobby congress to do business.

You’ve got a lot of businesses, a lot of different industries that have state ground in the DMV, specifically tech, medical and others that also leads to meetings. Then of course the infrastructure is there, flights, international, domestic and convention centers, hotels, all those things have to play a role in this as well. From a leisure perspective, I’ve always said that a strong leisure destination lends itself to be a great convention destination. Just imagine Orlando or Vegas without the things that attract people there, it would not be a strong meetings place but for Washington it’s the things I referenced plus the fact that we’ve got a lot of amazing things to see and do and the fact that there are so many of them, Fred, that are free. When you have 16 free museums and you’ve got memorials and monuments that you can visit, especially now during the pandemic, you still can come to the city and enjoy these things.

That makes us a value-added attraction and a great destination. The thing about our museums – and I’ll cut it short here – is that usually you hear the word ‘museum’, you think Picassos and you think sculptures, that’s not what we have to offer here. It’s one of those things whereas you can go into the Air and Space Museum and you think you’re going to be there for an hour and four and a half hours later you’re still there because it’s so interactive and so amazing, so many things you can see and do in Washington which really makes us a cool destination.

Fred Diamond: Like I mentioned, I live 15 minutes outside of DC. Whenever we go into DC which is frequently – not frequently in the last 5 months, but frequently prior to everything – it’s like going on a vacation. There’s great restaurants and so many great things to see. Here we are, it’s August 12th and we’re in the pandemic, conferences have been cancelled, the big, beautiful convention center I presume has been empty since March 13th and probably through the end of the year as well. What is your team focusing on? Again, you run the entire organization but from a sales perspective what are your people doing right now where there’s so much uncertainty with when things might come back especially in the conference and the event center?

Elliott Ferguson: For us it really ties into what they can do versus what they cannot do, who can meet, right now you can’t meet in DC if you’re over 51 people coming together so that parameter limits a lot of things. From a city-wide perspective we’ve hemorrhaged all business in 2020, we’ve lost it all, we’re losing business in 2021, we’re not alone, that’s happening nation-wide because of the pandemic. Sometimes we look at who will rebound first and what should we be focusing on. Fred, I could sit here and commiserate on what’s not happening in DC, what’s not happening globally or we can be optimistic and see how we rebound. To answer your question, our team continues to focus on ways in which we can continue to engage with our customers.

I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, for those newbies to think that communication starts and ends with an email or a text message, now they’re learning that picking up the phone, building a relationship with a customer goes a long way because if you did not have that relationship beyond email or text then you’re behind the 8 ball. We did an amazing event yesterday with one of the wineries – yes, we have wineries in DC – where we shipped customers a red, white and rosé and we spent an hour and a half talking about wine, talking about the culture. I see my red sitting on my desk here just in case this is really tough, I might have to take a glass of it. We’re doing things creatively to continue to engage the customer, to give them ideas as to how they can engage their members. It’s not just about bringing the business to the city but also making sure that the customer knows that we are looking at things in which they should consider doing because they’re concerned about their membership and they’re concerned about how to continue to keep the individuals that are members of their associations or their corporations engaged. There’s a lot of that.

City-wide right now we realize we’re going to probably lose business until something is developed to deal with COVID, but we are also focusing on smaller meetings, we’re focusing on what we can do now and equally as much with what we can do in the next phase which opens us up a little bit more to larger meetings. Then of course, how do we continue to service customers? Because they’re hurting too, how do we become that source that they can call that we can encourage them in a positive way as they’re looking at losing staff, losing revenue and all the things which we’re all dealing with?

Fred Diamond: Talk a little bit about the conversations that you’re encouraging your sales organization to have with the type of customer that is struggling right now. Again, everyone’s struggling, but those entities are struggling even more so.

Elliott Ferguson: I think that with empathy comes a sense of relationship. Our industry is all about relationships, very few are not but especially hospitality. I’ve said to the team – I’m hoping that Melissa said this two years ago – that it’s more than just heads in beds, butts in seats when we’re bringing people to the city. Yes, we’ve got great restaurants and night life and theater, things you can see and do outside but we’ve got to learn a little bit more about what the customer’s goals are, what their program is all about and to your point, what their city-wide convention means to the bottom line of the organization, and we’ve been doing that for years. As we are talking to customers that we know we’re definite for the city, we have a better understanding as to what this does to them.

Some of them, 70% of their operating revenue in a given year is tied to their annual convention so they need a lot of empathy, perhaps they need a lot of red wine. To your point, this is not a one-dimensional situation. When I moved here December 2001, we had just experienced 9/11. Yes, the whole nation dealt with it, the global community figured how impactful it was but it was New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania because that’s where the attacks happened, that people were afraid to come to our destinations. Whereas the rest of the country, once airline travel returned they were starting to see business. We were fortunate that we saw business return as well, this is so different so the relationship, the conversation with the customer is not necessarily about, “When are you booking again?” It’s more along the lines of, “How can we help you? Here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re thinking.”

Digging a little deeper with the customer to truly understand what their issues are and also offering them ideas as to how they can move forward. Every time we do something that we find is successful or we hear about something that was successful in terms of online meetings and revenue generators we’re sharing that with our customers because it’s important to them. Something like a wine social sounds hooky but let me tell you, those customers were really appreciative of the fact that we were doing something different, giving them some ideas and even though we were not physically together, we were still trying to connect with them. That’s really what it’s all about.

Fred Diamond: Elliott, a question comes in here from Leslie and Leslie is in the DC area, she’s actually in Maryland and she wants to know what are some of the other ideas that you’re directing your team to do. It’s interesting because we want to constantly have activity, a lot of people were saying they’re busier than ever but they’re not really selling per se or transacting. It’s even the middle of August, it’s busy, what are some of the things that you’re telling your people to do? Are you expecting them to be pounding the phone calls the whole day, are you having them on Zoom all day? What are some of the things that you’ve been directing them to do with their customers like the wine idea? Did that come from you or from a rep? What are some of your thoughts along those lines?

Elliott Ferguson: The one thing that I also worked on as an organization is to make sure that the idea pool, the creativity is not tied to the sales. I want sales managers to sell, I know they can be somewhat creative but I have a creative department, I have a team that focuses on the customers’ experience and right now, as you can imagine because we’re not doing site inspections, they’re not working. But what they are doing is they’re giving us ideas and looking at things that are happening within other industries and within the industry itself that we can offer to customers because right now that’s extremely important.

We’re fine with Zoom and webinars, WebEx and what have you, but we’re really sick and tired of them at the same time. The idea of someone saying, “Let’s get on a webinar” and having another meeting, we know it’s the only alternative right now for the most part but we’re looking for other ways in which we can keep it interesting and keep people engaged. One thing about being in a city like Washington and the more we learn about this virus, we are positioned to say, “Let’s meet at the national mall and rent bikes and go for a bike ride.” Get folks outside, you get a customer that hasn’t been on a bike in 20 years. You can get in a canoe by yourself and canoe on the Potomac and do an event here in the city. I think it’s all about recognizing that people need a break, they need a break from their families, they need a break from the four walls of their home and also, they need a break from the stress of what is or what is not happening within the organizations. It’s all about being creative, it’s great when you live in a city like Washington whereas you can do some really cool stuff and that’s what we’re going to continue to do to keep people motivated in the next coming months.

Fred Diamond: We have another question here, it comes in from Eric and Eric is in Belgium. Thanks, Eric, for chiming in, I guess it’s a little bit after 8:00 o’clock your time. The question is, “How is Elliott staying motivated himself?” You look great, by the way, you’ve got a lot of energy, you’re running a big organization, you’ve got a lot of responsibility. In good times you’re competing with Orlando, Chicago, Boston, you mentioned Vegas. Right now it’s August 12th, we’re five months in, what are you doing personally as a leader to keep yourself in the highest productivity mode?

Elliott Ferguson: Good question, thank you, Eric from Belgium. We talked about the domestic cities but we also do a lot of international and we actually have a relationship with the city of Brussels to promote our destinations. As an organization, we actually teach a boot camp on Thursdays and we’ve been doing it for a long time because we’re all kind of health nuts. On Thursdays at 4:00 p.m., anyone who wants to join or who wants the Zoom information, we’ll give it to you. For 45 minutes to an hour we are working out as a team and we’ve got other DMO’s that are Destination Management Organizations and people that join simply because you need that relief, you need that option.

We also go running to the national mall when it’s not terribly hot or just go walking around the mall because we have that right close to us. My wife’s in the industry, she actually was a speaker on this series as well and she’s doing the same thing, it’s all about mental and physical health, eating well and trying to make sure that you’re not too stressed out by what’s happening right now in our industry. If all else fails, you can go to the district winery and get you something to drink, but I don’t condone that, I’m just saying that’s an alternative – in small quantities. [Laughs]

Fred Diamond: We’ve become experts on tequila here at the Institute for Excellence in Sales as well, that’s been one of the positive things. Speaking of positive things, what’s been a positive surprise that’s come out of this situation for you as well?

Elliott Ferguson: Because I’m a glass-half-full thinker, we’ve had to do the same painful things everybody else, we’ve had to furlough and reduce days, reduce hours, I’m very happy to hear how team members have taken advantage of not having the responsibility of working right now to do other things. I’ve been encouraging that, it’s one of those things whereas when you finish college and you start your career, whatever time you have in between then, that’s probably going to be it before you have other life experiences and things, short vacations that Americans normally take. I’ve been very pleased to hear how people are taking advantage of time off, I’ve been encouraging it, I’ve been encouraging people, you don’t have to be in the DMV, if you’re working remote you can work remote in the Himalayas as long as you have access to the internet and Wi-Fi.

That’s one of the good things and the other thing is sometimes as an industry I chair the US Travel Association, there’s a lot going on there as they’re lobbying very diligently for our industry to really look at things through a different lens, take a step back since we’re not traveling and do more research, do more thinking than we normally do because we’re always on the fly. It’s those things, time with your family, I know that’s a positive thing but six months in it may not be as positive but at the same time, when will you ever have this opportunity to ever spend this much time with your family? These are things that you should be able to cherish because before you know it, if you have kids they’re going to be out of the house and you’ll look back at this opportunity, hopefully the good parts of it. These are the things we’re focusing on with our folks.

Fred Diamond: Elliott, another question comes in here from Ruben in Georgia, probably around Atlanta, I guess. You actually came from there, you mentioned before. You mentioned a professional association, do you compete with the Chicago’s, Orlando’s of the world and how does that look today? You mentioned that the industry is coming together for some ideas. Normally if a large organization wants to hold a conference there’s a whole bunch of options and then there’s even smaller options around DC, Tidewater, Richmond, those types of things. There’s a lot of competition for people to come to places. A, is it a competitive space where you are? And B, what does it look like right now? You mentioned the industry is coming together, where is the competition today or are you all together to hopefully figure out some ways to get everybody through this?

Elliott Ferguson: Good question, Ruben, I also lived in Savannah, I have to shout out Savannah. The reality is with the DMO world we are the friendliest competitors ever. If we are going after city wide or a small piece of business I always say to the team, “Most groups meet annually. If you lose it in 2024, you need to be going after it for 2028.” That’s the reality of it all, we are competitive, it’s very friendly in terms of that competition and right now we are more along the lines of sharing ideas and sharing how we are going to focus on our future. My new fiscal year starts October 1 so all the things we normally do, set goals, set marketing plan, all these things that have imploded in 2020, we’re looking at a hybrid approach to 2021 and we are relying on and talking to all of our DMO’s in terms of what makes the most sense. It’s just who we are, again, hospitality is a very sociable group so competition is what it is but simply because we all move around. I’ve been here for 18 years but I was in Atlanta for 10 years with the Bureau there, I was in Savannah for about 2 1/2 years in the Bureau, it’s not out of the ordinary. It’s friendly competition.

Fred Diamond: A question comes in from Mason and Mason is in Maryland as well. Mason says, “You mentioned that DC is capped on events right now for 50 people or less, what kind of venues are hosting events with less than 50 people and is that commonly happening right now?” Are there any events going on 50 people or less or are we pretty much in a nothing-going-on pattern waiting for things to hopefully clean up a little bit and move to the next stage?

Elliott Ferguson: It’s all the above. We recognize that health and science is far more important than anything else so we’re really asking people to use common sense. As we look at what’s happening nationwide there are certain hot spots in various states that concerns all of us and it may not be good for them to travel. We’re not at a point whereas we know how to do it and do it I like to thing relatively well, I’ll give you an example: US Travel Association, we have a Meetings Been Business coalition, we had a meeting here in DC two weeks ago and we had about 35 people. They were all itching to get on a plane and go somewhere, I was wanting to get on a plane and go somewhere else [laughs] but they came to DC and the others that could not travel were on a call.

You are seeing things happen within the guidelines of what the mayor has put in place for us. The nice thing about sitting outside, I literally leave here – I live on Capitol Hill – I drive through the National Mall, I literally drive around the mall and then I live on an area called Lincoln Park and I see the number of people meeting and congregating outside practicing social distancing. You’re seeing those things happen and you’re seeing people that are coming to town for meetings and doing those things and that’s very encouraging because folks are wanting to get back to normal.

Fred Diamond: We have another question here and this question comes from Suzanne from Pennsylvania, thank you, Suzanne. The question here is, “How often should I be calling a customer when I know they’re not ready to buy? It’s an interesting question, that’s a question we get in some various forms along the way. You talked about relationships before, you talked about maybe go meet somebody on the mall, go for a bike ride or something but let’s say you’re trying to sell an association in Cleveland to come here for a big conference or Chicago or something. You know that we’re all in the same boat where we’re still waiting for things to happen before decisions are going to be made. How often are you encouraging your sales team, the people on the team, to interact with the customers? Are you saying, “Let’s give them space” or, “I want you to call them every day” or, “email them an article”? What are you thinking along those lines when you know that we’re all in flux with deadlines?

Elliott Ferguson: Suzanne, if you’re calling and selling you’re probably frustrating the customer a lot more right now because there are certain realities about where we are with this pandemic and I think that if you’re calling to check on a customer and/or to share ideas and what you all are doing wherever you are in Pennsylvania, that will resonate much differently. Calling me now and asking me about 2024 when I’m dealing with 2020, if I don’t have the relationships with you I’m probably not going to want to talk to you about that right now – depending on what city you’re in, of course. I think it’s really important to recognize that being an aggressive salesperson is probably not going to resonate well with whoever you might be reaching out to. It ties to all the other stuff we talked about, how are they calling you and saying, “Suzanne, thanks for this really cool thing you did”? There’s an event that I attended whereas they sent me dinner through a local caterer and they did it with 50 people in other cities and we all got together and we all ate our dinner and some of us were outside, we talked about our experience. I reached out to those folks afterwards and said, “Thanks for doing something out of the box.” I think that’s what a customer is going to want from you right now versus a hard sell.

Fred Diamond: A question related to that just came in from Claire and Claire’s in the DMV. I’m going to read her question but I’m going to follow up with a little bit of a twist to it. She says, “Thank you very much, Elliott, how do you advice people who are trying to plan meetings for dates beyond the October 9th deadline of the mayor’s executive order?” A little bit of a twist to that which is are you getting into the politics when you engage with customers? Are you prognosticating or are you telling people, “We don’t know, just continue to develop the relationships”?

Elliott Ferguson: I’ll start with the last part of that first which I think might be what you added. The political spin, there’s just no place for politics in terms of a pandemic and I think if there’s something, we all have our opinions about how it’s being handled but the most important thing for all of us no matter if you’re red, blue, what have you, in between, independent, is safety or some type of a vaccine for this pandemic. Anything beyond that, I don’t have an appetite outside of the frustration that many of us feel as to how it’s being handled politically. That’s all I’ll say about that. Planning beyond the deadline, I think that it depends on what you’re planning to do. If you’re looking at a group of 50 or so then you can plan. If your anticipation is, “In October we’ll move to this next phase” which we all want to do, then I would be very cautious because it’s all tied to how smart we are about wearing a mask and what are we doing to make sure that we limit the number of COVID cases. That is not something the mayor can say or you can say to any group that’s looking to meet because you just have to wait and see and see how smart we are.

Right now it’s been very painful to see what’s been happening with people not wearing masks and recognizing the fact that this is spreading this virus. Our mayor has been very adamant which has worked to our favor, but the negative is we’re in a business of attracting people from other places. That could be the difference between us doing well until someone comes and they’re not doing well because they’re not wearing a mask. It’s a gray area, Claire, that I would say I’d wait until we get into the next phase if you have that flexibility.

Fred Diamond: Elliott, how are you coaching your people at this time? You had mentioned before about cherishing the opportunity to be with your kids and all those kinds of things but there’s so much going on right now that’s out of people’s control. As a matter of fact, in our webcast yesterday we talked about focusing on what’s in your control and the fact that all you can really focus on are things that are in your control. How are you coaching your senior people and how are you coaching your junior people as well? It’s funny, when we started doing the webcast in the beginning, back in March and April people would say, “I’ve been through 9/11 and I’ve been through the banking recession of 2008, I even remember 1987.” We had one guy who said he remembered the Spanish flu, but I think he was joking. This is different, this is going longer, there are so many more factors that are affecting everybody for the first time in the world. How are you coaching your senior people and how are you coaching your junior people that may have a lot of different concerns and different challenges?

Elliott Ferguson: I think it’s back to the e word, empathy. One, if you’re just starting to coach then you’re behind the 8 ball, this is something that we do all the time and it’s paying off for us, the fact that we communicate. We have a weekly meeting with the entire staff on Wednesdays which we had this morning and I’m being as transparent as I can be because this is a very sensitive time. People have different stressors and as I talk to the collective group it’s all about taking care of yourself, things which we’re doing, they actually have a wine hour on a weekly basis – there we go again with alcohol. We are trying to get them to think differently and work with our creative team in terms of their area of responsibility which is extremely important.

When I’m talking to the senior team, I have an exec team which are the VPs that report directly to me and senior staff which we all meet as well. I’m charging them with being responsible for knowing the needs of the individuals that work for them, there’s a lot of sensitivity about when the offices reopen, are you required to come to the office? Am I going to make you? The answer is absolutely not, it’s all about doing the job you’re doing but at the same time there are people that are coming into the office now because they’re like, “I love my kids but I just need four hours in the office to get stuff done and to get away.” Right now there are probably five people working in here whereas we normally have 90 so I’m asking them to be understanding of people’s individual needs, make sure that they know that we care about them, because we do.

Again, it did not start in March when we shut our doors and that is the message that we’re continuing to share with the team as we’re looking at getting out of this. We’re getting a lot of positive feedback about that which is important to me.

Fred Diamond: I want to thank Elliott Ferguson and your team for getting you on today’s webcast. Great insights, great ideas, you’re deep into so many things that are emblematic of the pandemic, you’re broadcasting from DC. Thank you again for your time, I appreciate it, and for your insights. Before I ask you for your final bit of advice for the sales professionals around the globe, you’re not just a sales leader, you’re a business leader. I’m curious, how have you changed over the last six months? Again, it’s the middle of August when we’re doing this interview, we have dozens of people from around the globe, we had somebody who asked a question from Belgium, thank you to all the people who’ve asked questions. How have you changed? Is there anything that you’ve noticed about yourself that’s different from before March 13th?

Elliott Ferguson: My wife and I always talk about the fact that we’re always going in different directions and sometimes it’s like, “Is that your plane in front of me? I think you’re about to take off.” That hasn’t happened in six months and I don’t think I’ve been this grounded in terms of not traveling, not mentally, since… I don’t remember the last time because I’ve always had a job that required me to travel. This has caused me to slow down, restructure my day, make more calls, talk to people, talk to friends and redevelop relationships and also be there for the team. We have five different committees, marketing, tourism, all the various committees, I’m on every one of them now whereas before I was not always. I’d stay on it but I’m giving an update as to things that are happening, we’ve got a thousand members. This pandemic has really slowed me down in terms of the speed in which I was doing business but it hasn’t slowed me down in terms of the things we’re doing in the office.

Fred Diamond: Elliott, thank you so much for all the great insights. Give us one final thought, give us an action. It’s interesting, when I interviewed Melissa for the podcast two years ago we talked about, “Give us an idea for how you can improve your sales career.” Now people want to know something for today, something they specifically can do today. Give us an idea that we can end on. By the way, a lot of thank-yous coming in, Mason says thank you, Leia says thank you, Martha says thank you, Suzanne says thank you, Ruben who asked the question says thank you and I thank you. Give us one idea to send us off.

Elliott Ferguson: This is always the scariest part of it all because everyone can give you advice and there’s always a percentage of it that is accurate. I will tell you that when you’re looking at where you are now in your career, we’re using the word hybrid because whatever we used to do and how you used to do it, if you come out of this and you go back to doing it the way you did it then you’re going to hit some plateaus, you’re going to fall through some cracks really quickly. Use this opportunity to develop a hybrid of who you are and what you will do in terms of building relationships, going after business and being more successful. Equally as much, I think if nothing else, this has all taught us the importance of just taking care of ourselves so I’ll go back to how we started. Because you’re not traveling you’re not eating unhealthy, I would think. I cook more food and bring it to work than I ever have before and I’m probably doing more for my own physical health which also leads to mental health.

Just remember those things as you’re moving forward because these things resonate when you’re doing what you do on a regular basis. People can see when you’re happy, I appreciate, Fred, what you said about how we look and that’s important because even when I’m on a phone call, I gave my entire team mirrors years ago and they all rolled their eyes as they normally do and said, “What kooky idea are you coming up with?” I said, “Every time you pick up the phone and you talk to someone, I want you to look in the mirror and look at your facial expression, and I want you to smile when you’re talking to them and see whether or not they see a difference in how you’re talking, or I want you to see how you sound when you take that first call in the morning and you’re like, “Hello?” Because that’s how people perceive you, that’s exactly what they hear and that’s really important as we’re looking at developing our brand – because each of us are a brand – as we’re looking at moving forward and getting out of COVID. That’s my loosely knitted advice to everyone as we’re moving forward here.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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