As one of the country’s most popular destinations, New Orleans has always been a creative combo of creole and Cajun, raucous revelry and made-in-the-south gentility, French colonial architecture and antebellum plantation homes. To sweeten the deal, there’s music ranging from R&B and jazz to Dixieland and Zydeco, and such distinctive food choices as powder-sugared beignets and spicy crawfish etouffee. It’s a city that’s forever been known for its conglomeration of contrasts — forever a meeting planner’s playground.
However, there’s more — the debut of a new airport terminal and convention center renovations on the calendar. So, if you’re a ‘think-outside-the-box’ kind of a planner and you’re tasked with taking your group to a destination unlike any other, but with the added perks of comfort and convenience, think New Orleans.
In agreement is Tami Rollins, CMP, CEM, director, Global Education and Meetings with the Alexandria, Virginia-based American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), an association which first met in New Orleans in 1899, returned in the 1980s for three meetings, in the 1990s for two meetings, and again last September. Hosting 7,000-plus attendees from more than 80 countries and approximately 250 exhibiting companies for the AAO-HNS Annual Meeting and OTO Experience over the course of four days, Rollins explains the association’s recent return. “We came back to New Orleans last year to meet the desires of our attendees who shared with us their interest and excitement for the city. Their enthusiasm was echoed by our leadership who made the ultimate decision to host our annual meeting in New Orleans once again.”
“We came back to New Orleans last year to meet the desires of our attendees who shared with us their interest and excitement for the city.” Tami Rollins, CMP, CEM
The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (ENMCC) was an additional enticement. “The convention center met our square footage requirements for exhibits and intensive space needs for 30 concurrent educational sessions, plus association offices.”
While the President’s Reception for 2,300 was hosted at Mardi Gras World, another distinctively New Orleans outing was the Board of Directors’ Dinner held at the Riverview Room. Located atop Jax Brewery on the French Quarter riverfront and managed by the New Orleans Cooking School, it was an interactive evening involving a cooking demonstration and participants’ creation of their own dessert — Bananas Foster.
Rollins’ advice to other planners considering this destination: “With more than 1 million sf of exhibit space and 20,000-plus hotel rooms, New Orleans has the bandwidth to accommodate any size group. And it will truly be a destination of convenience with the new airport and the new Omni headquarters hotel, which is online.”
Having repeatedly followed that advice is Jared Cohen, CMP, director of the National Conference & Exhibition with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), based in the Chicago area. “Being a medical meeting, we’re pretty space-intensive, so we have to use the city’s’ largest facilities. New Orleans has ample hotel inventory and one of the country’s largest convention centers, which is needed for the size of our meeting.” Most recently, the organization’s National Conference & Exhibition of approximately 15,000 attendees was in New Orleans last fall. Frequently held in New Orleans and always at the ENMCC and the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, AAP uses about 30 additional hotels for sleeping rooms.
When asked to name anything exceptional with respect to New Orleans’ F&B, Cohen responds with one word — “everything.” Proclaiming this city of more than 1,200 restaurants is hands-down favorite for dining, he explains: “From local Southern favorites to high-end steaks and seafood, I’ve yet to find a disappointing meal. And if you like bread pudding, you can’t go wrong anywhere you go. My favorite is from Redfish Grill — the double chocolate bread pudding — unbelievable.”
Off-site events included an evening at the National WWII Museum for a private event of 3,000, giving the group access to the entire downtown campus and admission to the 4-D show, Beyond All Boundaries which is narrated by Tom Hanks. There was also a family reception called AAP Kids’ Camp held at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and a 5K Fun Run alongside the Mississippi River. The association’s choice of keynotes is additionally impressive — including such luminaries from the nation’s capital as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor and U.S. Representative Dr. Kim Schrier.
A Washington D.C.-based conservative educational association and their decision maker also chose New Orleans, taking the group of 400 to The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans for the fourth time last fall. As director of conferences for this prestigious organization, which heads out for three consecutive days, three times a year, in destinations across the country, she explains the repeated selection of this by-the-bayou town. “Its location is central for our attendees — most of whom come from the East and West coasts — and you can’t beat its off-the-grid offerings from Jackson Square to the streetcars to the riverwalk. Even the cemeteries are fascinating.”
Where else can an association host its opening night reception for an assembly of 130, designated the Elite Group, in a venue like Mardi Gras World, the 300,000-sf setting where the city’s renowned Mardi Gras parade floats are constructed? Set in the warehouse’s distinctive replication of a Southern plantation home, the evening was an across-the-board hit, beginning with its walk-in welcome to the music of a live jazz band.
But coupled with the city’s offerings is the Ritz-Carlton’s appeal. “You know when you’re really wanted by a hotel?” the planner asks. “That makes a difference.” This property’s assistance — from the general manager escorting the meeting specialist through a back-of-the-house shortcut to a meeting room to the precision coordination with the U.S. Secret Service in preparation of speaker Vice President Mike Pence’s visit — the Ritz-Carlton staff was at the top of its game. “This hotel is a dream for meeting planners. They do so much of the work for me,” says the D.C. pro of this Southern hotel she considers one of the country’s best. “Whether it’s the sales staff, conference services, or housekeeping, everyone is incredibly helpful. They just never say ‘No.’” It’s all-of-the-above qualities of this hotel’s brand that explain the association planner’s practice each time upon learning the next meeting’s setting to first check if that city has a Ritz-Carlton.
Though the 527-room property opened in 2000 with a $250 million restoration of the historic Maison Blanche Building and offers 29 meeting rooms, more than 35,000 sf of total meeting space, in addition to a recent $43 million guest room renovation, it has an intimate ambiance. The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, feels as though you are not in a hotel but in a wonderful estate in the city’s Garden District.
Trade show consultant, Candy Adams, CTSM, CEM, CMP, CMM, founder and owner of The Booth Mom for Trade Show Consulting, most recently paired New Orleans with an international organization, a Middle Eastern learning institution of approximately 300 during an IEEE computer trade show. While New Orleans is known for its culinary creativity, there were food challenges for this meetings expert to appropriately accommodate the predominately Muslim group, which translated to no pork/no alcoholic beverages. “But, to attract the U.S. participants to a mutually attended evening reception, alcoholic beverages needed to be served — just not in the immediate area of the presentation,” Adams explained. “It made venue layout and menu planning interesting, but we made sure to serve appealing ‘mocktails’ and foods that did not contain pork.”
Beyond food, Adams elaborates. “As a new university situated outside the U.S., it was closely watched by its American counterparts which monitored its strategy, faculty and student acquisition, growth in various educational areas/labs, business partnerships, funding, etc. This annual event was the university’s opportunity to strut its stuff in front of U.S. peers and attract potential faculty, collaborators, researchers and staff.” Successful in no small part due to its location, Adams gives her final verdict — “New Orleans, as a whole, is a draw.”
However, Stephanie Turner, vice president of Convention Sales and Strategies, New Orleans & Company, says it simply but best: “In New Orleans, we take care of the details; the good times take care of themselves.” | AC&F |