For 20 years, mornings at the American Guest House, a boutique B&B in downtown Washington D.C., have begun around a communal dining table with guests breakfasting in the company of strangers. 

In Lucia Rosan’s telling, the owner who gutted, renovated, and redecorated the 19th century building in the early 2000s, the ritual made it stand out among a slew of local business-friendly hotels. Now, it’s an unconscionable health hazard, one eliminated along with face-to-face check-ins and daily housekeeping visits as she welcomes back guests for the first time since March. 

Not that Rosan has many guests — Washington D.C.’s business travel has come to a standstill.

While no corner of America’s $1.7 trillion travel industry has been unscathed by the impacts of coronavirus, few cities are as reliant on a model that combines business and leisure tourism as the nation’s capital. In 2018, the city welcomed a record 23.8 million visitors with business travelers making up 39 percent and a hefty 57 percent of spending.  

The numbers detailing coronavirus’ damage on Washington D.C. business travel make for stark reading; $2.8 billion lost in travel spending, hotel revenue down $407 million in H1 compared to 2019, and 33 major meetings and conventions cancelled to the tune of $268 million. 

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And in respect to events, the city’s destination marketing organization, Destination D.C., expects the situation to deteriorate further before it improves. 

For Friends Meeting of Washington, a grand Colonial Revival building in the city’s cosmopolitan Dupont Circle neighborhood, coronavirus has jeopardized its plans to pay off renovation costs through revenue generated by the weddings and conferences held in its intimate rooms and gardens.

Aside from applying for a loan from the federal government, as part of a program extended to small businesses and nonprofits, it’s changing its event offerings to create elopement and micro wedding packages — compliant, of course, with local mask wearing, hand sanitizing, and contact tracing regulations. 

“We’re also exploring options to open to those tired of working at home,” says Event and Rental Manager Brian Lutenegger, “our historic spaces and gardens will help these workers’ creativity and productivity. In short, we’re finding ways to rebrand what we offer to meet current needs and trends.”

Washington D.C. Business Travel

Washington D.C. was on course for a decade of sustained visitor growth before coronavirus hit. Image: Destination DC.

Yet for many of the city’s larger event venues with limited outdoor spaces, like the 65,000-square-foot Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, which hosts upwards of 2,000 events annually, such stopgap measures are simply not feasible.  

Given the strong evidence pointing to coronavirus’ airborne transmission in crowded indoor spaces, the revival of Washington D.C.’s vibrant event and conventions calendar seems a distant reality, a point reflected in the recovery strategy of the city’s destination marketing organization

“Promoting DC for tourism will start with visitors in our backyard and the region,” says Elliott Ferguson II, President and CEO of Destination DC, “We’re lucky to have a significant drive market with 50 million people who live within 250 miles of DC and we’ll also be positioning DC as a great value, focusing on the fact that DC has 100+ free things to do.”

In recognition of the depleted marketing budgets of local stakeholders, Destination DC is working to secure funding to promote the city and attract visitors. The return of day trippers from the larger Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area will be welcome news for many of the city’s travel-reliant vendors, but it’s little comfort to the complex of hotels and event spaces that supported 8.5 million business arrivals in 2019. 

There may be no short-term remedy for Washington D.C. business travel stakeholders, but starting local and focusing on the controllables — introducing safety mechanisms and messaging with clarity — offers a path forward for a deeply disrupted sector.