Any association group planning a meeting with “authentic” and “unique” as part of its theme should consider New Orleans because those two words perfectly describe its singular culture, food and music.
Small and large groups that repeatedly return to the Crescent City have a different kind of good time every time. That’s because New Orleans has everything planners need, including Creole, Cajun and Southern cuisine; jazz clubs and venues; a mélange of French, African and Spanish culture; and an expanding meeting infrastructure that promises to attract growing numbers of meetings and conventions.
No wonder the number of visitors to New Orleans last year increased 5.7 percent, according to research by D.K. Shifflet & Associates for New Orleans & Company (formerly the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau). Spending on lodging surged by 12.3 percent to $1.7 billion.
New Orleans’ success stems largely from its ability to draw a variety of different-sized groups. According to Stephen Perry, president and CEO, New Orleans & Company, “New Orleans enjoys a healthy mix of every size group, from 10-[people] meetings to 20,000-[people] international conventions. New Orleans currently hosts a wide variety of meetings with 70 percent coming from associations and 30 percent from corporations. This is a great mix for us that gives a variety of opportunities to our diverse venue inventory to shine among a wide variety of industries.”
Groups that meet again and again in New Orleans have been crucial to its success. “With 80 percent of our groups having met in New Orleans before, it’s clear to us that planners and attendees enjoy its cultural uniqueness,” says Perry. “Many groups welcome record attendance, thanks to the natural appeal of the city. The types of groups we work very diligently to attract are those that have not met in New Orleans yet, as we know once they experience the charm and hospitality of our destination, they will become loyal fans.”
“We are committed to supporting our local economy, the 100,000 individuals employed in the industry, and focusing our efforts in preserving the authentic culture bearers who make New Orleans the unique destination that it is.” — Stephen Perry
Another key is the ongoing efforts by New Orleans & Company to seek feedback from planners and other partners before making improvements and changes. Says Perry, “New Orleans & Company regularly hosts a Customer Advisory Council to gain insight from valued partners and maintain our standing as a top-rated meeting destination. We also partnered with leadership from the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (ENMCC) and hosted focus groups in large association markets to gather firsthand knowledge and feedback from planners that have future meetings at the center and even tapped into those with large events with nothing on the books.”
New Orleans works relentlessly to offer planners and attendees even more. According to Perry, “We are working diligently to ensure that the continued growth of our hospitality and tourism industry is sustainable on all fronts. We are committed to supporting our local economy, the 100,000 individuals employed in the industry, and focusing our efforts in preserving the authentic culture bearers who make New Orleans the unique destination that it is.”
The uniqueness of New Orleans continues to draw groups that have never met in the city before, including the Chicago-based American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA). The organization attracted 2,700 people to its annual Marketplace and Academy event earlier this year at the ENMCC, while utilizing the Hilton New Orleans Riverside as its headquarters hotel.
“New Orleans had been on our list of highly desirable cities for years, and then in 2013, we found out they had availability in 2018 [on] our preferred dates,” says Laura Dann, ASTRA meetings and exhibit coordinator. “New Orleans represented a unique opportunity for ASTRA to book a highly desirable, first-tier city at competitive rates. The city was also going to be celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2018 and had some exciting improvements planned for its milestone.”
The Hilton turned out to be the perfect fit, partly because of its ability to adapt to ASTRA’s changing plans. Dann explains, “When we contracted with Hilton, we had just an informal meet-and-greet planned for the night before the event kicked off where attendees would get together at the lobby bar of the main hotel. But in late 2017, as planning was underway, sponsors came forward wanting to support ASTRA in making this a more official event. With the help of the Hilton team and its large, outdoor Jean Lafitte Pool Deck, the event was transformed into a successful Welcome Pool Party that attendees loved and sponsors valued.”
The Hilton staff provided an uncommon personal touch during one of her pre-convention visits. “I traveled to New Orleans with my one-year old son and had family come care for him while I worked,” says Dann. “Our Hilton sales manager went out of her way to upgrade us to a suite with more space and brought her personal supply of baby gear from her grandkids. We had a room full of toys, highchair, playmat, picnic table, you name it. This amazing kindness and service provided the added comfort and convenience that made it easier for me to focus on our event.”
The ENMCC also completely accommodated ASTRA’s meeting and convention space needs. “The convention center was easy to navigate with a big exhibit hall to accommodate our approximately 500 exhibitors plus show management booths and zones,” says Dann. “There were plenty of meeting rooms with options for various configurations and sizes, expansive lobby space for registration and showcases and the Great Hall prefunction space for our interactive Game Night reception.”
While ASTRA was a first-time visitor to New Orleans, Denver-based Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) are repeat customers. AORN held its Global Surgical Conference & Expo for 9,300 attendees at the ENMCC earlier this year after having met at the facility four times over the past 25 years. The group plans to return in 2022.
According to AORN meetings manager Emily O’Connell, CMP, the association repeatedly returns to New Orleans and the ENMCC because doing so yields good results. “AORN has found New Orleans to be a very successful city for our annual conference,” says O’Connell. “They take the time to understand both our conference needs and budget. And, they provide value with fair pricing, attentiveness and a collaborative approach to the conference’s requirements. The staff at the ENMCC is very accommodating and supportive, and they consistently go above and beyond to provide exceptional service.”
In addition, the ENMCC was a good choice because of AORN’s 80 education sessions and exhibits representing 450 companies. “Our rental contract included Halls F-J, the La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom, the New Orleans Theater and meeting rooms 260-399,” says O’Connell. “All of our conference functions fit well into these spaces. It was especially nice to have use of a unique space like the La Nouvelle Ballroom and New Orleans Theater, as they can be configured in multiple ways depending on the needs of the group.”
A bottom line for all planners is whether attendees enjoy a destination, and New Orleans passes that test among AORN participants with flying colors. “Our attendee satisfaction score for the 2018 AORN annual conference was the highest score since we started tracking it nine years ago,” says O’Connell. “Several factors determine that score, including the conference destination and venue. Attendees and exhibitors enjoyed the destination and the convention center.”
The ENMCC has been a meetings and convention magnet that promises to become even more powerful due to a five-year, $557 million upgrade underway. The project includes improvements to meeting rooms, public areas, audio-visual equipment, escalators and elevators and a new 7.5-acre pedestrian park and walkway along Convention Center Boulevard.
According to Perry, “The Convention Center District Development Project will vastly improve the customer experience for planners and attendees. The addition of a headquarters hotel will provide easy, walkable access to the upriver end of the center, and the increase in inventory will bring new opportunities for business and provide better flexibility during major city events.”
Another big project will increase the number of direct flights to New Orleans. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is building a $1 billion state-of-the-art replacement terminal, scheduled to open in May. The terminal will have 35 gates to accommodate increasing arrivals.
New Orleans’ ongoing improvements in meeting infrastructure promises to attract even more citywide meetings and conventions, such as the National Meeting of the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemical Society (ACS), which convened at the ENMCC last year. The four-day convention included more than 16,000 attendees, who occupied hotels throughout New Orleans. The ACS has held its National Meeting in New Orleans four times since 2003 and returns every five years.
According to Bethany Kashawlic, ACS assistant director, meeting logistics, New Orleans is one of the group’s favorite destinations for several reasons. “What brings ACS back to New Orleans is the relationships created with the CVB and hotel partners in the city, as well as its history, the accessibility of the airport, the convenient location of hotels in the downtown area and the incredible food,” she says. “We have had very good attendance each time our National Meeting was held in New Orleans.”
Timely service from hotels for a quick turnaround helped the ACS convention proceed without a hitch. “The level of service received from the hotel staffs was great in helping the planning team make the meeting successful from pre-planning to reviewing program details, attendee arrival and departure experiences, meeting room setups, etc.,” says Kashawlic. “ACS also effectively utilized the space contracted, and when additional space was required, we reached back out to the hotels, and they were very accommodating.”
Associations such as the ACS have their choice of more than 25,000 hotel rooms, many located in or near the French Quarter. Additional rooms are on the way. Developers are negotiating with the New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority to build a new 1,200-room Omni-branded hotel with 150,000 square feet of meeting space near the ENMCC. Existing meeting hotels include the Royal Sonesta New Orleans with its 483 reimagined guest rooms, new fitness center and more than 20,000 square feet of remodeled meeting space; Sheraton New Orleans Hotel; Hyatt Regency New Orleans; The Roosevelt New Orleans; Hotel Monteleone; New Orleans Downtown Marriott at the Convention Center and Omni Riverfront Hotel. The aforementioned hotels offer a total of more than 288,000 square feet of meeting space.
Growth in meeting and hotel space is a prime reason that New Orleans has been able to draw more meetings and conventions. According to Catherine Chaulet, president of Washington, D.C.-based Global DMC Partners, “Our company has seen New Orleans growing in popularity in recent years as a destination for meetings, groups and incentives. New Orleans is in Global DMC Partners’ Top 10 List of U.S. Meeting/Incentive Cities for 2018, falling in at No. 6.”
“This list is based on how much business they have booked with Global DMC Partners for 2018,” says Chaulet.
In addition, the number of leads Global DMC has sent to its New Orleans DMC partners for meetings and event increased to 46 in 2018 from 33 in 2015. “Some of this growth can be attributed to increased airlift from European cities such as London,” adds Chaulet.
While New Orleans is by far Louisiana’s most popular meetings destination, other cities in the state attract their share of business as well. Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital, is just 80 miles from New Orleans and offers its own unique culture, history and cuisine.
Baton Rouge’s prime meeting space is the recently expanded Raising Cane’s River Center, an entertainment complex, offering more than 100,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and 17 breakout meeting rooms. Among hotels, the 299-room Baton Rouge Marriott completed its $28 million renovation this year. The project remodeled meeting space and expanded it to 29,979 square feet. Another property, the 290-room Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center sits next to the River Center and offers 20,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.
Baton Rouge offers everything that planners need, and attracts groups that also meet in New Orleans, including the Los Angeles chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (LAAAP). More than 92 pediatricians, nurses and healthcare professionals attended the LAAAP’s Annual Pediatric Meeting last year at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Baton Rouge. It was the group’s second meeting in Baton Rouge.
According to Taryn Daigle, LAAAP’s director of education and membership, “We have a rotation that allows us to host our meeting in cities around the state. Cities included in the rotation are Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport and Lafayette.”
Value and service were among the prime reasons for selecting Embassy Suites. “We chose the hotel because of its location, competitive room rates and food and beverage prices,” says Daigle. “The value was exceptional as we received inexpensive room rates, free AV and a wonderful staff that was attentive, polite and accommodating. Our hotel sales director went above and beyond to get us the best possible room rates and amenities that were very competitive to other properties. He also coordinated our lunch, breaks and social event on Saturday to accommodate our delayed schedule.”
Meeting space was also a factor. “We were able to hold 23 six-foot tabletops in one space set classroom-style for 120 attendees and hold lunch in the Atrium for 120 people,” says Daigle. “The Atrium was the perfect space and conducive to networking and education. Following the educational sessions on Friday and Saturday, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served in the Atrium, allowing attendees and guests to socialize.”
The Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Tourist Bureau (SBCTB) promotes the region as “Louisiana’s other side” due to its location in northwest Louisiana, 300 miles from New Orleans, near the Texas and Arkansas borders. Groups are attracted to what the SBCTB calls the region’s “wide open Texas spirit” combined with Cajun cuisine and culture.
Meeting space is anchored by the 350,000-square-foot Shreveport Convention Center along with 10,500 hotel rooms. Popular properties include several 24-hour resort-style riverfront casinos offering top-level entertainment. Attractions include Gator Raceway at Gators & Friends, an adventure park and animal petting zoo. The raceway features go-carts and a challenging curving racetrack that presents teambuilding opportunities.
While Louisiana offers a handful of destination options, New Orleans remains the prime draw and one of the nation’s surest bets for a successful meeting. The Crescent City has variety of hotels with a range of large and small meeting spaces with flexible configurations along with a premier convention center. Unforgettable food, music and a cultural joie de vivre complete the package. As some New Orleans residents say, “If you can’t have a good time here, it’s your own fault.” AC&F