As tourists and business travellers return to Washington DC, new hotels, infrastructure, meeting venues and museums are ready to greet them.
It’s midterm election season in the US – the weeks where candidate signs dot front lawns and windows, television ads loudly proclaim each party’s virtues (or vices), and citizens debate each other on issues in restaurant booths. But here in the nation’s capital of Washington DC, the seat of the federal government, residents stand ready to welcome whoever gets elected, regardless of party affiliation.
After all, DC has seen a “changing of the guard” many times throughout its 232-year history as the country’s capital, and a switch of presidential administration or Congressional control rarely changes the public service-oriented demeanour of the District. Residents liken it to a A Tale of Two Cities – the federal government side, which creates the laws and policies for the whole country, and the District itself which continues to run like any other major American city, regardless of who currently sits in power at the national level. In fact, in a city where most businesses are directly or indirectly tied to government work, it often helps to leave politics at the door.
“The perception is all we do is talk about politics and what you see on the news, but that’s the last thing even those folks who work on the Hill want to talk about,” says Elliott Ferguson, president and chief executive of Destination DC. “Several senators and members of Congress live on my block, and it never comes up,” he adds.
Of course, the November 2020 election unsettled centuries of precedent when Donald Trump refused to concede the election to the newly elected President Joe Biden. The world watched as Trump’s supporters rallied at the Capitol building on January 6, when Congress was set to formalise the election results, and broke through the police force to unlawfully enter the building.
The incident resulted in multiple related deaths and injuries, and continues to be investigated by government committees. While the riots were unsettling to residents, many of whom laid low for a few weeks, the city returned to its typical patterns, and the right to free speech remains as strong as ever – albeit through peaceful means. “The first amendment right that people exercise in DC is something we encourage,” says Ferguson.
Though the riots themselves didn’t strongly impact tourism, the pandemic certainly did, with 2021 visitors reaching only 77.6 per cent of 2019 levels, driven predominantly by domestic travel. In 2022, Destination DC predicts domestic visitors will reach around 20 million people, still short of the 22.8 million of 2019, but progress in the right direction. International travel is not expected to return to its 2019 numbers until 2025. The organisation continues to eye the return of both business and international visitors, with a slew of infrastructure projects poised to help.
The silver lining
The DC rapid transit system, known locally as the Metro, has always been an easy way to get around the District’s major neighbourhoods, but air travellers have long lamented the lack of rail transit to Virginia’s Dulles International airport, one of the region’s three major flight hubs. The latest expansion of the Silver Line connecting Dulles to the heart of the city is set to open imminently.
This will be especially welcome to overseas travellers – ten times more international passengers land here compared to Reagan National, the more central airport (connected to the city by the Metro’s Blue and Yellow Line) located in nearby Arlington, Virginia. Dulles airport has also embarked on a US$500-800 million renovation featuring a brand-new concourse, with construction expected to begin in 2023 and complete in 2026.
Slow but steady progress
DC has always had a large transient community, with government officials and staffers only in session during parts of the year. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, nearly 30,000 people moved out of the city (more than 17,000 than the previous year). That paired with remote working left the District quieter than usual, but activity is creeping back.
“Our Embassy Row neighbourhood is starting to see diplomats return to their embassies three days a week versus remote work for the past 36 months,” says Dennis Hernandez, a decades-long DC resident, and director of sales and marketing at Kimpton Banneker Hotel. “These changes are slow yet exciting,” he adds. Hernandez notes that international visas for tourists and business travellers are still seeing long delays from some parts of the world compared to pre-pandemic, which is preventing some visitors from coming to the country for business or to work.
Locals have also changed their long-standing patterns, as hybrid work continues to be the norm here. “Tuesday and Wednesday rush hour and local foot traffic is heavier than other days of the week,” says Hernandez. “What used to be known as Thirsty Thursdays – the happy hour, when many commuters, locals and 50,000 university students would commune in local restaurants and bars – have now morphed to Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”
Back to business
According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, business travel was hit harder in Washington DC than in any other city in the US, with the exception of New York City, and it has been slower to come back with a full recovery not expected until 2024.
The federal government took a strict stance on who they let into buildings during the pandemic, which meant people who normally travelled on government-related business couldn’t make typical trips.
About 25 per cent of DC’s labour force works directly for the federal government, and most of the rest is employed in contracting for building products specifically for the government. But technology companies are increasingly claiming their stake and buying up cheaper real estate during the in-office lull.
In addition to an existing DC location, Google snagged a sub-lease for a large block in downtown and plans to staff up by the hundreds. Meanwhile, the DC suburb of Arlington famously won the bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, known as HQ2, in 2018, and already has more than 5,000 employees assigned to the location. The massive headquarters building is still under construction, with plans to open to employees in 2023.
Meet at the museum
As in-person events start to return, DC has also seen a strong rebound in its citywide conventions. There have been 19 so far this year, which is back to the 19 to 25 range the city has seen in more typical years. While events are held at venues throughout the city, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown offers more than 65,000 sqm of space.
Destination DC was initially concerned that convention attendees may opt for a virtual experience, but visitor numbers have been higher than expected. “We’re seeing stronger corporate requests for meetings, as the corporate market is rebounding as well with new products and the need to bring their teams together,” says Ferguson. “We’ve got the infrastructure with three airports in the region, ease of getting into great hotel inventory, and you can supplement a meeting with a trip to the Hill, so that’s always a positive.”
DC remains a popular city for in-person meetings precisely because it’s such an interesting experience for visitors, who can not only see the famous federalist architecture of the government buildings and monuments, but enjoy the multiple free museums and zoo of the Smithsonian Institution.
“If you’ve never been to DC before, you absolutely have to see the National Mall,” says DC-based employment lawyer Ayesha Whyte. “If you just go to the park itself and stand in the grass, you can see almost all the Smithsonian museums, the Capitol, all of those pieces that are fantastic. And you’re within walking distance of some great restaurants.”
Museums here aren’t typical art and sculpture museums (although there are those too). The National Air and Space Museum has famous aircraft and rockets on display. It is the most popular museum in the entire country, with 8 million annual visitors, and it just completed a seven-year-long renovation. Improvements include eight newly renovated galleries, a reimagined planetarium and new artefacts, including a Star Wars X-wing Starfighter and the aeroplane flown by the first woman to break the sound barrier.
Congress also passed legislation in late December 2020 to create two new Smithsonian museums: the American Women’s History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino, the contents of which can be currently previewed at the 418 sqm Molina Family Latino Gallery within The National Museum of American History.
Out on the town
Wining and dining is part of both the business meeting and lobbying scene in DC, and people-watching is always on the menu.
One of the best new areas to do all of the above is The Wharf, a new mixed-use development in the Southwest Waterfront along the Potomac River. The first phase opened
in 2017, and the second was completed in October with the new Pendry Hotel, additional shopping and restaurants, a marina, and public parks along the waterfront.
Like much of the rest of the United States, DC benefited from an increase in outdoor dining spots during the pandemic when restaurants had to get creative about seating. The city has always been a dining destination, as one of the only cities in the US with a dedicated Michelin Guide. Four new one-star winners made it into the 2022 update, including Middle Eastern-inspired Albi, vegetarian-friendly Oyster Oyster, and the Latin-meets-Mediterranean Chef’s Table at Imperfecto (the fourth, Georgetown-located Reverie, remains temporarily closed due to fire damage).
While DC doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive regional cuisine, long-time residents will say you have to try a half-smoke – a smoked sausage topped with chilli sauce. Grab one from one of the many hot dog carts along the National Mall, or seek one out at the original spot, Ben’s Chili Bowl in the U Street corridor.
If that’s not your thing, you can’t go wrong slipping into one of DC’s many bars and ordering a dirty martini with blue-cheese stuffed olives. “You just never know who’s going to be in the restaurant with you,” says Whyte. If you want a prime people-watching seat, she recommends Old Ebbitt Grill, located just steps from the White House.
After all, part of the appeal of coming to DC is all about being in the “room where it happens”, the place where power and policy intersect. And in true American spirit, anyone has the chance to leave a lasting mark on this ever-evolving city.
Waldorf Astoria Washington DC
The former Trump International Hotel gets a facelift as the first Waldorf Astoria in DC’s history. Located within the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and Capitol, the 263-room property retains old-world glamour, Michelin-starred dining at Sushi Nakazawa, and event space dedicated to famous American politicians Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. hilton.com
Pendry Washington DC – The Wharf
As part of the second-phase opening of DC’s latest mixed-use development The Wharf, this 131-room property offers easy access to the latest riverfront shopping, restaurants, and parks. The rooftop lounge has two areas for those looking for different vibes: the South side promises buzzy nightlife with live DJs, while the North has a quieter fireplace scene for more intimate meetings. pendry.com/washington-dc
AC Hotel Washington DC Capitol Hill Navy Yard
Just four blocks from the Capitol Building, this 225-room Marriott property has sprawling views of the National Mall from the rooftop bar and deck. Luckily, the retractable roof and heaters make it an all-season destination. marriott.com
The Morrow Washington DC
Part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, this new LEED silver-certified spot sits in the emerging NoMa neighbourhood in the north-eastern part of the city. The property has 203 rooms, 1,533 sqm of indoor and outdoor meeting space, and three spots for eating and drinking. The hotel is taking bookings from December 2022 onwards. themorrowhotel.com ; hilton.com
Take me there
You can book your next trip to Washington DC with United Airlines at united.com. This winter, it is operating twice-daily nonstop flights to Washington Dulles from London Heathrow. Customers travelling in United Polaris® business class can enjoy access to the United Clubs℠ at Heathrow’s Terminal Two and the newest Polaris lounge in Washington.
Words: Lindsey Galloway