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by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

The Challenge
I gave Lyndsi Armenio of Destination DC half a day to prove for the purposes of this blog that Washington DC kicked ass as a conventions and incentives destination.

“Show me a great hotel, an unusual location for a welcome function, a wow venue for a Gala,  a unique, destination-specific visitor attraction and something cool and edgy”, I said.
Pas de Probleme” she said “Be ready at 8:30. Game on!”

DC Cool


A Destination-specific Visitor Attraction

We commenced our DC deep-dive where most things begin and end in DC, at the Capitol building. There Lyndsi had arranged for us to be taken around by the marvellously loquacious Steven Livengood, Chief Guide at the United States Capitol Historical Society who, refreshingly, coloured liberally and incorrigibly outside the lines as regards his political opinions. He walked us briskly through 200+++ years of political history and architectural heritage, providing a truly stimulating take on the country’s steady march to nationhood and the individuals and political structures that got it there. Commenting on Thomas Crawford’s gargantuan Statue of Freedom which caps the immense dome of the Capitol building (the original plaster mould is located in the entrance hallway) he wryly shared:

“We placed Freedom on top of the dome in 1863, 3 years before the abolition of slavery. That’s what we do here. We make promises and then figure out how to deliver them”
“But that exactly how most things are done in the Meetings and Events business too!”, I replied.

If you visit DC then you’ve got to visit the Capitol and when you do be sure to seek out Steven’s assistance – he specialises in corporate groups and knows how to distill the visit down to the essential, keeping it engaging and humorous while drawing expertly from a seemingly bottomless well of knowledge.

DC Cool Adams

Wow Venues for Galas

The National Mall dates from the 1930s and along its two and a half miles contains some of the most iconic built heritage in the world. Besides the various presidential memorials and commemorative facilities you also have several elegant edifices which are part of the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum. Finding an impressive location for a Gala event, therefore, is as easy as finding good coffee in Italy or a good bar in Dublin.  Lyndsi mentioned the Library of Congress, the Newseum (the museum of news – currently displaying the moustachioed face of Ron Burgundy) and Constitution Hall at the Daughters of the American Revolution building where one of Lyndsi’s insurance clients, with perfect historical resonance, hired Lady Antebellum, no less, to entertain the troops.



Suitable Hotels

En route to the National Gallery of Portraiture, another outpost of the Smithsonian, Lyndsi updated us on an important recent opening, The Marriott Marquis, which brings another 1175 rooms to an existing cluster of properties around the Convention Center – the Grand Hyatt and the Renaissance, both boasting 800 guest rooms. Interconnecting with the Walter E Washington Convention Centre (2.3 million square feet of space!) the brand new Marriott brings an additional footprint of 100,000 square feet to the campus.

“It’s game changing for the city”, says Lyndsi, “allowing us  to pitch for and handle bigger conferences and events”

DC Cool Burger

Great Location for a Welcome Function

The covered atrium at the Portrait Gallery is the type of unencumbered covered space that most cities can only dream of having. With capacity for up to 4000 on a flow basis for cocktails and canapés this is quality period space in an educational / cultural facility making it particularly suitable for events limited in scope by regulations and compliance issues.

Currently hosting “American Cool”, an exhibition of photographic portraits of the 100 coolest Americans of all times, the Portrait gallery is worth a visit in its own right. You’ll be both surprised and delighted by the inclusions and exclusions on the list of cool Americans – James Dean, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen are “in”, Jim Morrison, Al Pacino and, unbelievably, George Clooney are “out”.

DC Cool Adams

Edgy and Cool

And speaking of cool, Lyndsi then took us to one of her own favourite locations, Union Market. Located outside the sanitised perfection of downtown and surrounded by wholesale warehouses and edgy urbania, Union Market is a food court for hipsters and seekers of cool. When we arrived there one end of an enormous warehouse was filled with stay-home parents with toddlers merrily singing Raffi songs while the rest was a smorgasbord of artisan food and beverage suppliers offering specially curated selections of oysters, empanadas, tacos, fresh fish and meats, hard crafted breads, unique wines, organic beers. Needless to say we loved it and could see its wonderful “event potential” as an after-hours, supper location for the culturally and culinarily (!) curious.

National Portrait Gallery

A Special Hotel

“And what about a great hotel?”

Lyndsi said there were many. Besides the big box convention properties there are no fewer than 12 Kimpton properties in the capital, bringing Kimpton’s typical frivolity and fun to what is often regarded as a serious city. She also mentioned the Loews Madison which she described as “awesome” following its recent renovation. Joe Spellman, another of our party, spoke highly of the Mansion on O Street, three interconnecting Victorian buildings which operate as an eccentric, eclectic 100 room hotel attracting musicians and other celebrities seeking anomnimity.

As it happened I was actually staying at one of the city’s truly great properties, The Fairmont Washington, on the edge of Georgetown. For a city hotel the guest room product is atypically large, decorated reassuringly in browns and beiges with great soft furnishings and lighting. In-room amenities include free wifi (you just need to sign up for the President’s Club) and Keurig Coffee Brewers (personally I prefer the George Clooney Nespresso brand!) and there’s easily accessible power sockets on the night stands. More convincing than any tangible asset of the property, however, was the intangible, imponderable benefit of a highly motivated and engaged human team. It was striking to hear Director of Sales Susan Penman speak about the Fairmont brand and how it strives for differentiation in a busy luxury marketplace. She spoke with genuine warmth about the brand and particularly about the leadership at Fairmont Washington which is empowering, hands-on and up-close-and-personal with the team.

DC Cool Rooftop


So Lyndsi easily prevailed in her challenge. In half a day she showcased enough of the city to convince us that something truly special is available here wherever you happen to be on the MICE spectrum. Special mention must also be given to the Bureau’s innovative destination campaign called “DC Cool”. Aimed at the digitally savvy, the campaign encourages and facilitates engagement around DC as a destination with most of its content being crowd sourced.

Now all they need to do is sort out the traffic!

NOTE: Lyndsi was a gracious host to three 50 somethings (Padraic, John and Joe) and a super cool Canadian (Jeff). Thanks to everyone for their scintillating company in a super city. 

DC with JD

Padraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering advice to destinations, hotels and other industry enterprises around their strategies for MICE.



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