A Look Inside the Largest U.S Travel Conference to Date

The U.S. Travel Association's five-day IPW 2017 in Washington had the largest attendance in the conference’s 49-year history.

By D. Channing Muller June 12, 2017, 7:16 AM EDT

Photo: David Keith

IPW 2017 Opening-Night Party IPW 2017 Closing-Night Party
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The 49th annual IPW travel conference headed to Washington, D.C. June 3 to 7 for the first time in its history, and drew the largest attendance on record. Hosted by the U.S. Travel Association and held in a different city each year, the four-day conference attracted more than 6,400 people from 70 countries, including 1,300 international- and domestic-travel buyers and 530 journalists. The city won the bid for the event nearly five years ago, and has been in the throws of planning the show’s signature opening- and closing-night events for more than two years. 

“The amount of investment in [Washington] on the restaurant and hotel side is tremendous, and this is a great opportunity to come discover D.C.,” said Malcolm Smith, general manager for IPW and senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association. “Even if they've been here before, it’s like rediscovering a whole new city.” 

Smith also noted that the conference has experienced a 25-percent growth since 2010, though even with the repeat attendees each year, nearly 20 percent of exhibitors and buyers for Washington’s show are new.

The association worked closely with Destination DC, the city’s local tourism office, to market the event, and took advantage of the photos, marketing material, and promotional language of the #MyDCCool campaign the latter has been running to showcase new attractions in Washington beyond the more established National Mall and monuments. 

Even with the current political climate often casting a negative view on the city, the IPW team didn’t worry about a potential drop in attendance. “We were curious if recent news would have an impact on our attendance, but once we saw the numbers for our international registration back in February, we knew there wouldn't be any concern with the rhetoric out of Washington,” said Smith. 

In addition to travel professionals and media, attendees also included policy makers, providing an opportunity for the conference—which is expected to secure more than $4.7 billion in future business to the United States—to showcase the impact travel and tourism has on the local economy. 

Each host city is required to produce an opening- and closing-night event for all the conference attendees. To better handle the economic burden, Destination DC worked with the local D.M.O.s for nearby Maryland and Virginia to produce events that would represent the capital region as a whole. Destination DC split the event production responsibilities between local destination management companies, with Hello! Washington, D.C. handling the opening-night party on June 4, Hosts DC producing the closing-night event on June 7, and Linder Global Events overseeing logistics for the entire conference. 

Hello! Washington, D.C. took the opportunity to make history again for this conference by staging the first private event to be held on the National Mall grounds in front of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Because the grounds are managed by the National Park Service, organizers had to work around extensive logistical requirements on load-in timing, street closures for the adjacent block party, providing flooring to cover the grass on the Mall, and even opening up a portion of the event to the public. The latter requirement increased the potential attendance from 6,500 to 16,500, a number based on the conference delegates and potential draw by the headlining act Aloe Blacc.  

“We looked at his recent ticket draws to know the space we needed, and then it was a matter of figuring out the transit and health and human services component,” said Mark Wells, senior vice president of creative services for Hello! Destination Management, the parent company of Hello! DC. The design for the outdoor space took 37 versions before being finalized, he added.

The main stage on the Mall, backdropped by a view of the Capitol, was the site of entertainment from Familiar Faces and Step Afrika! before Aloe Blacc closed the show and guests departed for evening bus tours of the city. The museum remained private for IPW attendees, with access to the IMAX movie theatre, all exhibit halls, flight simulators, and numerous food stations, buffet tables, and bars throughout the two floors. 

The conference wrapped up Wednesday evening with the closing party at Nationals Park hosted by Capital Region USA, which represents Maryland, Virginia, and Washington. Organizers worked directly with M.L.B. to ensure the park would be available, which required the latter to reorganize the Nationals’ schedule to accommodate the event.

“By hosting the event at the stadium we were able to bring guests to another part of the city and allowed for that ‘celebratory party’ feel we wanted to provide,” said Taylor Hutchison, director of sales for Hosts DC, who led the production of the party in coordination with Linder Global. “We also really wanted to provide fireworks to end the night, and with the backdrop of Washington it was perfect.” 

Hosts DC incorporated culinary and historical elements from Maryland, Washington, and Virginia into the food, drink, and decor throughout the concourse level of the park. The biggest focus of the evening remained on guest-engagement opportunities like batting practice and speed pitching in the Nationals’ dugout, virtual-reality games sponsored by M.L.B., and more than 15 “living postcard backdrops” for photo opportunities. 

“The idea blossomed from the fact that when people travel, they go to a lot of different places and send home postcards with a fun image of where they are,” said Hutchison. “By building these 45-foot vignettes, people can get a photo taken with them inside the postcard.”

Multiple live bands performed from the main stage at the centerfield gate throughout the night while the Nats Pack, the Nationals’ crowd hype team, engaged guests in game-show-style competitions for prizes. The evening concluded with a fireworks display over the infield wall. 

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