| Destination - April / May 2008
By John Buchanan
For Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (NOCVB), selling association meeting planners on his city is not a job. It is an all-consuming passion, a singular mission for which Perry and his staff are renowned far and wide 3½ years after the unprecedented devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which wiped $3.3 billion worth of business off the books almost overnight. But against all odds — and those odds
|The National Association of Realtors (NAR) was one of the many major associations that held a conference in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. NAR’s four-day national Realtors Conference & Expo drew 23,500 attendees. They used 25 hotels and 150,700 net square feet of exhibit space at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center.
Photo courtesy of the National Association of Realtors
were extraordinarily daunting in the beginning — Perry has revived the longstanding reputation of New Orleans as one of the premier convention destinations in the U.S.
“New Orleans has always been one of the preferred destinations in the association meeting and convention market,” Perry said. “Association meetings really are the bread and butter of New Orleans.”
Now, that bread and butter is back on the table. “To give planners an idea of how well we’ve recovered,” Perry said, “the amount of business we’ll book this year is probably about an 8 to 10 percent growth for 2008 over 2007. But at the end of 2007, we already had more business on the books for 2009 than we had for the entire year in 2007, with two more years to book — which tells you how big 2009 will be. It will be pretty close to our pre-Katrina level of business.”
Given the Herculean efforts of Perry and his staff, not to mention the broader hospitality community, there has also been a silver lining to the post-Katrina storm clouds that hung over New Orleans for many months. “We have always been known for big, citywide conventions,” Perry said. “But our fastest-growing segment right now is small association meetings. We expect to book somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 to 800 small meetings this year that will come to town over the next 24 months. With our success with citywide meetings before, for many years we just didn’t have the availability for small and mid-sized meetings. Now, we do.”
Librarians Lead The Way
Deidre Ross, MHA, CMP, director of conference services at the American Library Association (ALA), is not at all surprised by the success New Orleans has had since Katrina brought its meeting business to a temporary halt. In June 2006, Ross and the ALA earned the distinction of being the first major association to return to the city after the hurricane for an event, which had been booked 12 years earlier. The ALA’s six-day annual conference drew 16,964 attendees and filled 20 hotels, including a trio of headquarters properties — the 1,616-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside, 1,110-room Sheraton New Orleans and 1,329-room New Orleans Marriott.
After internal deliberations and numerous site inspection trips that began in October 2005, just two months after Katrina, the ALA — which had last been in town for its 2002 Mid-Winter Meeting that drew more than 10,000 attendees — made the decision to honor its commitment to New Orleans as a gesture that would help it get back on its feet. Ross never had any regrets.
“The city and the CVB were so excellent that I can not even tell you,” Ross said. “I gave them a list of all of my concerns and they put together task forces to address every single one. They changed their rules for taxicabs, for example, so we’d have enough cabs because we don’t rent cars. They did everything we asked to help make the meeting a success.”
In November 2006, Sue Gourley, vice president, convention group, of the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors (NAR), became another major planner who ranked among the earliest of the loyal major association customers who returned to New Orleans. NAR’s four-day national Realtors Conference & Expo drew 23,500
|Mardi Gras is just one of the many exciting New Orleans festivals during which attendees fill the balconies and streets of the French Quarter for a firsthand look at the spectacle.
Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau
attendees. Gourley’s headquarters hotel was the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. She used 25 other hotels, as well as 150,700 net square feet of exhibit space at the 1.1 million-square-foot New Orleans Morial Convention Center, one of the largest facilities in the U.S., which also features a 4,000-seat conference auditorium, 140 meeting rooms and two ballrooms.
Gourley faced some early trepidation over NAR’s date with destiny in New Orleans so soon after Katrina. Like Ross, she experienced the extraordinary service that helped ensure her success. “We had just had our annual meeting in San Francisco, and then we went down in December 2005 to look at New Orleans and assess whether we could do it for the 2006 meeting,” Gourley said. “The CVB was fabulous — they brought together the Army Corps of Engineers, the hotel GMs. They brought everyone together and did a full tour of the city. And by the time we finished, we were convinced that New Orleans was going to be ready for us the following year.”
New In Town
Since those challenging early days of post-Katrina uncertainty, New Orleans has enjoyed the benefit of some very important association meetings that have enhanced its reputation as a survivor and time-honored standard-bearer for A-list destinations.
Trish Keppler, senior meeting manager at Philadelphia-based association management company Fernley & Fernley, planned this year’s annual meeting for the AMC Institute, an association of association management companies (AMCs) that is also headquartered in Philadelphia. The four-day February event, housed at the Sheraton New Orleans, drew 160 attendees from 60 AMCs, including international attendees from the Netherlands, Scotland, England, Canada and Belgium.
Keppler and AMC Institute made the decision to use New Orleans in early 2006, and signed the contract in late 2006 after months of site inspection trips. After the fact, Keppler has nothing but praise for the city. “For me, the New Orleans experience is one of a culture like no other,” Keppler said. “You’ll never go to any other city in the United States and get the warmth and Southern hospitality that you find in New Orleans. All of our service staff at the hotel and everyone we encountered in every single restaurant or anywhere else welcomed us. They love their city and they’re proud of it. They’re proud to show it off. And you just can’t match the cuisine and the ambience of New Orleans. It truly is an experience like no other.”
The devastation of Katrina played a key role in AMC Institute’s decision to go to New Orleans. “Because all of our members are in the meeting industry, and we all work for association management companies,” Keppler said, “we knew from the time that the storm hit that in order to show our support for the rebuilding and rebirth of the city we would go to New Orleans for our next open meeting so we could help bring it back.”
Gourley said the management and membership of NAR felt the same way. “Realtors are really about building communities,” she said. “So, we went all out to draw attendance and participation to support New Orleans.” However, Gourley added, NAR’s decision should not be construed as sympathy business. “New Orleans is a popular destination for our attendees,” she said. “The restaurants and the nightlife are very enjoyable. It’s also a very comfortable city, in terms of getting from the hotels to the convention center. So, it has always been an attractive city for us. And it’s a fun destination.”
|The 1.1 million-square-foot New Orleans Morial Convention Center, the sixth largest convention center in the U.S., features a 4,000-seat conference auditorium, 140 meeting rooms and two ballrooms measuring 30,487 and 36,448 square feet.
Photo courtesy of New Orleans Morial Convention Center
Everything Looks The Same
Ross stressed that planners who have never used New Orleans, or are unaware of the remarkable extent of its recovery, should acquaint themselves with the facts. “First of all, everything that was there before Katrina is still there,” she said. “It’s not like a tornado came through and flattened all the buildings. Everything looks exactly like it did before. And the French Quarter and the restaurants and all the places that conventioneers go to look great. The other thing is that the hospitality employees in New Orleans are true professionals, and they do a professional job. New Orleans wouldn’t be as successful as it is as a convention market if it didn’t have excellent facilities and excellent people. And they’re all still there. They were doing great meetings for years before Katrina and they’ll be doing great meetings for years to come after Katrina. And that is what we were confident of when we decided to go through with our event. And we were right. We did not have one single complaint about the service that our attendees and exhibitors got anywhere in the city. We had everything we could ever want in a destination.”
Pamela McDonald, CMP, LES, senior assistant to the executive vice president for administration of the Southern Medical Association (SMA) in Birmingham, AL, enjoyed similar satisfaction after hosting SMA’s three-day annual meeting for 1,000 attendees at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside late last year. SMA, which represents physicians from 16 states ranging from Maryland to as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, had last come to town in 2004.
“My assessment of New Orleans is that they have come a long way since Katrina,” said McDonald. “The city was cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. I couldn’t believe it. That was really a very big surprise. I think that everyone in New Orleans is going out of their way to make it the kind of destination it was before the hurricane. I had a wonderful group of people that I worked with at the Hilton. I never heard the word ‘no.’”
It’s not just national and regional associations that love New Orleans. Even locals from around Louisiana beat a
|More than 2,000 attendees participated in community service projects when the National Association of Realtors met in New Orleans. In addition to a variety of volunteer projects, they built seven homes for Habitat for Humanity.
Photo courtesy of the National Association of Realtors
path to the fabled French Quarter every chance they get.
Steve Buser, director of business recruitment and retention at economic development firm Greater New Orleans Inc., planned the three-day annual summit that the Louisiana Industrial Development Executives Association (LIDEA) held last December for 160 attendees at the 423-room W New Orleans Hotel, with 10,000 square feet of meeting space. LIDEA visits New Orleans every other year. “The culture and cuisine of New Orleans are what make this our best attended meeting of all the meetings we do,” Buser said. “We draw a larger crowd in New Orleans than anywhere else in the state. And that has to do with the ambience of the city and the many things you can do in New Orleans.”
Among the highlights of LIDEA’s meeting was a private cruise aboard the riverboat Delta Queen. “The topic for our meeting was transportation,” Buser said. “So something unique that we did was book the Delta Queen to go up and down the Mississippi and take a tour of the Port of New Orleans. We had the port director on board to give a presentation. But it was fun, too. We had an open bar and hors d’oeuvres.”
Another highlight was LIDEA’s opening night reception at the Plimsoll Club. Located atop the scenic World Trade Center Building, the club offers five elegantly appointed dining rooms that can accommodate groups of 10 to 700. “It’s a great venue,” Buser said. “The view is just incredible. It was at sunset and we had a view down the Mississippi River, down towards Canal Street.”
McDonald also hosted an event at the Plimsoll Club, an invitation-only reception for 75 members of SMA’s 1906 Society, a fund-raising organization named for the year of SMA’s founding.
Another popular activity for LIDEA’s biannual excursions to New Orleans is golf. At the top of the list of preferred courses is Chateau Estates in nearby Kenner, LA.
|The sky’s the limit when planners use their imagination to elevate their conventions and special events from ordinary to spectacular at the Louisiana Superdome, which has completed a post-Katrina renovation, including four new 20,000-square-foot ballrooms.
Photos by Toby Valadie, courtesy of the Louisiana Superdome
While New Orleans meetings have always been known for gumbo and good times, since Katrina there is a new game in town — community service projects that help rebuild the city’s neighborhoods. In fact, New Orleans has been a major catalyst for a new phenomenon that is now sweeping the global travel industry — voluntourism.
For its meeting, AMC Institute tackled a restoration project at New Orleans City Park. Forty attendees signed up. “We asked for a donation of $50 per participant to help with the cost of supplies,” Keppler said. “We were supposed to do a gardening project, but rain prevented that from happening, so we did an indoor project, which was sanding and varnishing the doors of their casino building.” Although AMC Institute typically does community service work as part of its smaller meetings throughout the course of the year, this was one of the few times they have ever incorporated such an activity into their annual meeting.
NAR did a full week of community service projects, with more than 2,000 attendees participating. Its voluntourism activities spanned two days before the start of the meeting to one day after. Attendees helped build seven homes for Habitat for Humanity, worked with an organization called Rebuilding Together to renovate existing homes, volunteered at Second Harvest Food Bank, painted classrooms at two public schools and pitched in with the continuing efforts at City Park. For years, NAR has been a national sponsor of Habitat for Humanity, contributing $10 from every registration fee for its annual convention and volunteering for work, but the New Orleans experience eclipsed any previous effort. “We have worked with Habitat for a long time,” Gourley said. “But nothing before ever compared to this.”
For its part, the ALA chose to make a unique contribution to the community. It helped restore the city’s libraries. “Helping to do that was one of the reasons we wanted to go to New Orleans,” said Ross. “We literally took possession of the New Orleans public library on Friday and did an extreme makeover. Our attendees worked for two days and we had professionals do the rest of the work. We redid their children’s resource center, then gave the library back to the city on Tuesday.” In all, more than 1,000 attendees participated at libraries, local schools and universities.
Like her peers, however, Ross pointed out that the ALA’s loyalty to and enthusiasm for New Orleans should not be construed simply as acts of charity. The destination also makes good bottom-line business sense, she said. “We like New Orleans because truthfully, we always make money there,” Ross said. “Things are more reasonably priced than they are in some of the other destinations that we use, even though the other destinations, like Washington, DC, draw more attendees. Even though we might have 28,000 attendees in Washington and in a good year only have 23,000 in New Orleans, we still make money. In other markets, hotel rooms and F&B and labor are more expensive. So, New Orleans is a very cost-efficient destination for us for our major convention.”
That is a message, along with a constant reinforcement of New Orleans’ status as a truly unique place on American soil, that Perry and his CVB colleagues want to get out to association planners who, for whatever reason, have never used New Orleans — or have been reluctant to return since Katrina.
That effort will get a big boost next January when the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) comes to town for its much-anticipated annual conference, which draws more than 3,000 meeting professionals, many of them association planners. “That is going to be huge,” Perry said. “Probably only about 25 to 30 percent of those planners would have already been back to New Orleans since the storm, so we are hearing from many of them that they are so excited about coming back to New Orleans for that meeting because it will give them a chance to see the city firsthand. We get the Super Bowl — and for us, PCMA is the Super Bowl of the meeting industry. It’s an extraordinary gift for us.”
In the opinion of planners such as Keppler, Gourley, Ross, McDonald and Buser, as well as the thousands of their peers who have experienced New Orleans over the past two years — even at its lowest moments after Katrina — that gift is richly deserved.
“I highly recommend New Orleans,” said Gourley. “It is a city that can handle a major convention and the people there are really wonderful. They are what make the city what it is, whether you’re at a restaurant or enjoying the nightlife or just walking down the street. It is the people of New Orleans that make it so special. So, to be able to go and support them is a great thing to do. But you will also have a great meeting because the hotels and the convention center and all the things that made New Orleans a great destination before are still there to be had.”
New and Noteworthy
New and renovated hotels include the 250-room Hilton New Orleans-St. Charles Avenue, formerly the Monaco, which opened in the central business district last June, with 13,380 square feet of meeting space. In September 2006, the new 450-room Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel & Casino, with 7,200 square feet of meeting space, made its much-anticipated debut in the central business district. In early 2009, the former Fairmont New Orleans is expected to reopen as the 500-room Roosevelt Waldorf=Astoria, and by the end of next year, a restored and updated 1,184-room Hyatt Regency will reopen next door to the Louisiana Superdome. Previously, the property offered more than 120,000 square feet of meeting space.
Since 2005, more than $400 million has been spent on hotel renovations in New Orleans. The 1,616-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside, with 135,000 square feet of meeting space, is beginning a $66 million renovation that will be completed this year. The 1,329-room New Orleans Marriott, just around the corner from the French Quarter with more than 80,000 square feet of meeting space, completed a $38 million renovation last October. The 527-room Ritz-Carlton, with more than 46,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 251-room Chateau Sonesta, with more than 10,000 square feet, have reopened.
Offsite venues in New Orleans abound. To stage an event any time of year that captures the world-famous magic of Mardi Gras, the New Orleans venue of choice is Mardi Gras World, which can accommodate a sit-down dinner for 600 or a party extravaganza for 1,000, including a full indoor Mardi Gras parade, with floats and police escorts on Harley-Davidsons. For smaller events, a newly popular choice is the Contemporary Arts Center in the emerging Warehouse Arts District. For more intimate gatherings, planners favor Latrobe’s on Royal, an historic structure in the French Quarter. For a unique taste of New Orleans culture and history, Mississippi River Delta plantations such as Laura Plantation and Houmas House Plantation and Gardens are perennial favorites.
Dinner is the ticket. No aspect of New Orleans culture has more impact on more meetings than its legendary restaurants. Top among them in the French Quarter are Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, The Court of the Two Sisters, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and Galatoire’s, with many less well-known but equally spectacular choices just around the next corner. In the Garden District, Commander’s Palace is generally rated as one of the best restaurants in the U.S. For its February annual meeting, AMC Institute created its first-ever dine-around program, with 160 attendees spread among 10 of the French Quarter’s most notable eateries. “You get food in New Orleans of the kind you’re never going to experience anywhere else,” said Keppler. ACF