Elliott Ferguson speaks at a fundraiser for the American Experience Foundation (AEF). AEF provides DC-area young people with trips, scholarships, and internships in an effort to build the next generation of hospitality professionals. (Jason Dixon Photography)
‘Wake up and Move on’
Born on the West Coast, Ferguson came of age in Savannah, Georgia, graduating from Savannah State University and kicking off his career in 1989 as director of sales at the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau — the first person of color the CVB had ever hired in management.
“Being Black and working in that environment and working with people that just did not know how to manage me managing them, especially if they were older, that really set the stage for me to learn more about dealing with people who might not respect who you are simply because of the color of your skin,” Ferguson said. Back then, working in a Southern city like Savannah came with “a lot of interesting dynamics,” he said. There were the “blue bloods of downtown, and then there was the rest of the city. You go outside of that area and it’s totally different.”
Ferguson said that even though his experience working at the Savannah CVB was mostly positive, he just couldn’t foresee a path forward in a place that felt behind the times. “You almost had to wait for [the old guard] to die out in Georgia, because they’re not going to change,” he said. “Unfortunately, that was the only way you would really see change. And that was kind of the way we saw it.”
After a few years, he moved on to the Atlanta CVB. In that more progressive setting, he hit his stride, becoming vice president of sales and “learning a lot about leadership — and myself.”
Although his 10-year run in Atlanta was full of “great experiences” and “amazing people,” Ferguson said he felt “that every opportunity that I had in Atlanta, I deserved and I earned. However, to a certain extent it was managed, where there was this sense of, ‘This is as far as you’re going to get.’”
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Still, Ferguson said, “I learned a lot about myself in terms of … not to ever accept a ceiling that someone else might create for you.” And when 9/11 happened, something stirred in him.
“I started thinking about how many times I accepted what I was told and did not look at it through the lens of, ‘I don’t accept this and therefore I’m not going to stay,’” said Ferguson, a veteran who served in the Air National Guard. “But after 9/11, my wake-up [call] was, ‘I’m not going to accept this and I’m going to leave.’”
That next week, he received a call from Destination DC — “on my short list of places I would move,” he said, chuckling, — to join the bureau as vice president of convention sales.
“I’ll never forget what I was told by someone, a senior-level person at the Atlanta CVB, which really solidified why I made the right decision and why I really woke up. And the comment was: ‘But Elliott, you bought a house.’”
Ferguson had bought and been living in a house in the Atlanta area — for almost a decade. “The way I interpreted it is that, ‘You’re doing really well … based on your community. Why would you want to mess up a good thing? You own this house?’ And my reaction was … ‘Well, actually, I didn’t just buy a house — I bought a house nine years ago. And, like you, if I bought a house on Monday and decided to sell it on Wednesday, I can still do that as well.’”
That conversation, Ferguson said, “solidified the mentality of the environment that I was in, and the recognition that they only saw me going up to a certain level. I had a lot of amazing experiences in Atlanta, but I made the right decision to really wake up and move on.”