After too many years away from the Crescent City, it doesn’t take long after arriving one evening to be reminded and become reacquainted with one of New Orleans’ greatest assets: music.
Live jazz music.
Stroll through the French Quarter after dusk and there’s nary a block without jazz trickling into the streets, most of it very much played live. Enter the polished confines of The Ritz-Carlton’s Davenport Lounge and, for the price of a drink, Jerry Davenport sings and plays trumpet with a fierce band four nights a week. Nearby, at the Royal Sonesta New Orleans, the Jazz Playhouse is a frequent home to Gerald French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, and to soulful singer Germaine Bazzle. At the Monteleone Hotel, the Carousel Bar has been revolving since 1949 while standards spin — live. Amble beyond the French Quarter to Frenchman Street in the Marigny neighborhood and you’ll find the Spotted Cat crowded with music fans and the Blue Nile hopping almost any night.
Even for breakfast at Café Beignet the next morning, a band effortlessly wakes the sunny courtyard with gently pulsing music starting at 9 a.m. Live music.
February marked the 100th anniversary of the first jazz recording, and the ensemble that made that historic record, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, is still based in New Orleans and operating today. For Jazz Education Network (JEN), a nonprofit that seeks to advance jazz education, promote performance and develop new audiences, could there have been a better landing than New Orleans for the organization’s eighth annual conference in January?
“New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, America’s true indigenous art form,” explains Lou Fischer, Ph.D., cofounder, past president, operations administrator and conference coordinator for JEN. “The city gave birth to the music, and to the ensemble that recorded that initial record. It made sense for us to host our 2017 conference in New Orleans,” which the group framed around the centennial of the record. “The city is always fun to visit and the weather is generally good in January. There is much to offer for those not interested in remaining onsite throughout the four days of the conference.”
For the gathering, which drew upwards of 4,000 attendees — many of them high school- and college-age musicians—JEN used the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, a 1,193-room property adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. As the hotel with the largest in-house convention facilities in New Orleans — 200,000 sf of flexible meeting space — JEN had plenty of options to choose from for its event, including two ballrooms, 80,000 sf of exhibition space, and 70 meeting and banquet rooms. Plus, the recently opened Hyatt House next door has a connecting passage into the Hyatt Regency on the second level, providing an additional 194 rooms for larger groups.
“As an organization we seek out venues where we can fit and offer all of our events under one roof,” Fischer adds. “The Hyatt Regency afforded us that opportunity. And, as expected, the convention services management and staff were quite attentive onsite.”
The hotel also has its own catering arm, 1718 Events, an onsite hotel department designed to provide DMC-style services. More than 30 other offsite venues around the city use 1718 Events, including Mardi Gras World, Generations Hall and Champions Square (right next to the Hyatt Regency).
The Hyatt’s event spaces are concentrated on the first four levels of the hotel: Exhibition space is on the ground floor, ballrooms are on the second and third, and breakout rooms are found on the second and fourth.
“Each floor of the event space is accessible by elevator and escalators or stairwells,” says Fischer. “The layout can be a bit confusing and requires a few trips up and down to familiarize oneself with that layout. But the sleeping rooms are very convenient to the event spaces, given all event spaces are on levels one through four.”
Of particular note: The 22,538-sf Empire Ballroom has one wall lined with floor-to-ceiling glass windows providing both natural light and a balcony that overlooks Loyola Avenue. At 24,564 sf, the Celestine Ballroom upstairs is slightly larger.
Fischer cautioned that “hidden costs” for some hotel services added up. “Ask all the questions you can think of ahead of time about freight elevator use, and moving equipment through the hotel — load in and load out, etc. Of course, as with any hotel, there is a substantial plus-plus service charge associated with event services such as in-house F&B and AV services. Budget accordingly to avoid surprises.”
Fischer also recommended alerting attendees upfront about incidental costs associated with a visit to New Orleans, such as airport transfers.
“The trip from the airport to downtown is expensive, as there is no rail line. The one-way city-established flat rate is $33 plus tip. If you are driving in, parking in the city is outrageously high as there is limited space. In addition, beyond the state sales tax, New Orleans imposes a flat-rate, $2-per-day tax on hotel occupancy, over and above the established room-block rate an organization may have in their contract.
“Do the best you can to alert your attendees to these types of costs ahead of time. It is paramount to the mindset of your attendees and to ensure they are in a ‘positive’ frame of mind once arriving to your event,” Fischer adds.
New Orleans is well-designed for citywide events. The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is the sixth-largest facility in the nation, and the vast majority of the city’s hotels are located within walking distance — 22,000 guest rooms lie within a two-mile arc along the north (east) bank of the Mississippi River. In 2013 the facility expanded its ballroom into a 60,300-sf “Great Hall” to complement its existing, 1.1 million sf of exhibit space, the largest exhibit space in the U.S.
One group that made good use of the convention center was the LCMS Youth Gathering, an annual citywide event held by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Drawing 25,000 attendees, the event has had a great history in New Orleans, according to Rev. Mark Kiessling, the director of the LCMS Youth Ministry.
“The city always grades well with participants in our evaluations, including scores that have improved over time,” says Rev. Kiessling. “We were able to engage with New Orleans culture through music, art, history tours, and with knowledgeable and proud citizens. The food is both outstanding and unique, and our participants love sampling the cuisine and making a memory out of the experience. And the music of New Orleans helps create an environment which is memorable and engaging. Our participants look forward to these great aspects of the city, and citizens and business owners helped our planners tie the event to the city.”
The LCMS Youth Gathering used the convention center for its daytime program options and event offices. “The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center provided ample space, flexible arrangements for various program options, and a host of amenities, such as food, Wi-Fi and connections to other tourist attractions,” notes Rev. Kiessling. “The flexible space ranged from great exhibit space to large ballrooms, plus a wealth of meeting rooms for small breakout sessions and offices. It allowed our planning team to work creatively and collaboratively. Also, participants had ample area in meeting rooms and exhibit floors to participate and navigate the space. The convention center provided technological options from Wi-Fi to audio-visual. We made a major investment in smartphone app technology, and having Wi-Fi across much of the convention center was important to our participants. The center also made program-related use of Wi-Fi cost-effective for our budget.”
Anyone planning a program in New Orleans must keep in mind that food is one of the top things that guests look forward to, and Rev. Kiessling says Centerplate, the convention center’s exclusive food service provider, offered food options that reflected the local cuisine. “Centerplate worked with us to provide food during our event lunch options. This is never an easy feat for the number of people we need to feed in a short amount of time.”
The other major site used for the LCMS Youth Gathering was the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home stadium to the NFL New Orleans Saints, an SMG-managed venue that can hardly fail to impress first-time visitors. With seating for more than 73,000, the Superdome caters to a wide variety of events — from Super Bowl-sized productions, to general sessions utilizing the facility’s tiered seating, to “intimate” corporate incentive dinners for a few dozen held right on the turf (talk about wow factor!). While the turf field is available August-January only, there are also four 13,000-sf Club Lounges offering floor-to-ceiling windows onto the field. Adjacent to the Superdome is Champions Square, a 45,000-sf state-of-the-art outdoor festival space with a stage setup, and the Smoothie King Center for entertainment and sports events — both also managed by SMG.
The LCMS Youth Gathering occupied the Superdome for 10 days. “We produced and performed four 90-minute evening festival events and a morning worship service on the last day,” says Kurt Bickel, technical producer for the LCMS events held at the Superdome. To do this, seven tractor trailers full of gear rolled in and, with stage hands and riggers from Rhino Staging Solutions, 115 hang points were installed. “The production departments of the Superdome were directed by William Dede, SMG event coordinator, who quickly formed a partnership in pursuit of an excellent experience for our young people. Justin Roux, director of suites and catering for Centerplate, personally was engaged with us and his staff to provide over a thousand meals for our crews, talent and hundreds of volunteers.
“During my 36 years producing this event, no other facility provides this level of rigorous support,” adds Bickel. “The ‘Big Easy’ makes big things seem easy. I have worked the LCMS Youth Gathering in seven convention cities, and New Orleans has this unique and wonderful supportive relationship across agencies and businesses. The convention community works together — hotels, the convention center, the Superdome, law enforcement, news media, production companies, caterers and food venues have apparently formed an alliance of cooperation and support for one another that benefits the meeting customer. The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau connected us to the multitude of people that planned and executed our unique event. It should be obvious, but they seem to recognize the mutual benefit of teamwork.”
Rev. Kiessling concurs. “The city provides a wealth of facility options for various kinds of events, and venues take hospitality to heart. New Orleans is definitely a class act in taking care of event planners and participants. The city works so well together, from the facilities to the police to the convention and visitors bureau to the entire hospitality industry. They truly make New Orleans home away from home.”
Of course, while the city’s bawdy side is a draw for some visitors, it presented a few challenges for the youth-oriented ministry. “We did take additional care in bringing a youth event into New Orleans with the lure and reputation of Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. We helped parents and adult chaperones prepare for these aspects, potential interactions, and to engage in conversation with young people. The facilities and city worked hand-in-hand in providing a safe and comfortable event experience,” adds Rev. Kiessling.
But the sights and sounds and edgier allure of the French Quarter remain a draw for other groups — as long as they can keep members focused on the meeting at hand. For the Clinical Orthopedic Society, The Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, offered a happy medium, according to Teri Allanson, the society’s manager of meetings and conventions. The group held its 2016 annual meeting at the hotel, located just outside the French Quarter.
“Know your location,” Allanson advises. “Some groups are distracted by hustle and bustle and, vice versa, some attendees like the hustle and bustle. The Roosevelt offers the grace of a Waldorf Astoria and the celebration of New Orleans all wrapped in a beautiful bow.”
The 504-room Roosevelt is New Orleans’ grand dame. Opened in 1893, the hotel is famous for the walnut-paneled Sazerac Bar, the Blue Room where Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey performed regularly, and how author Arthur Hailey checked in for two months and wrote the bestseller Hotel. After flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the hotel went through a $170 million renovation that lead to its reflagging as a Waldorf Astoria in 2009. The elegant and historic hotel has nearly 60,000 sf of meeting space, including three ballrooms.
“The Roosevelt was able to meet our dates, rates, space and concession requirements,” notes Allanson. But it was service levels at the hotel that left the greatest impression on Allanson, who said she felt the staff was genuinely happy to assist. “Every member of the hotel staff was extremely customer oriented. It wasn’t just a job to them — they actually enjoyed assisting their guests. It was quite refreshing. Never once did I receive a response to the effect of ‘we can’t do that, we don’t have that’ or ‘that’s not available.’ Every request was met with ‘no problem, we can handle that’ or ‘absolutely, glad to help!’ — all the things a meeting planner likes to hear. And, the sales team was great.
“The meeting space is extremely diverse. You can use it for several different formats. General session near exhibits, large GS with lots of breakouts or just breakouts. Guest room elevators access the meeting room floors perfectly. I also liked how the meeting space did not interfere with transient guest traffic.”
Although Allanson planned one offsite VIP dinner at the Chophouse New Orleans, which she called outstanding, The Roosevelt handled the balance of the group’s meals. “Most of the food in New Orleans is fantastic, but when it comes to specific menu pricing and having to keep an eye on budgets, sometimes the food choices in banquets gets slim. Not here. The chef created wonderful menus to meet our pricing needs.”
In the end, Allanson says New Orleans was a perfect fit for the 250 attendees from the Clinical Orthopedic Society. “The city has something to offer everyone. It is wonderfully diverse and very colorful — in every sense of the word. Our organizations are national, and everyone loves experiencing New Orleans.”
A proposed $1 billion public/private development that would utilize 47 acres of land upriver from the current convention center for a 1,200-room hotel, transportation hub and a mixed-use development is currently on hold. But another project is moving forward: Linear Park, a transformation of Convention Center Boulevard in New Orleans, will connect the Warehouse/Arts District with the historic French Quarter. The $65 million project will enhance the attendee experience at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center with a tree-lined pedestrian plaza, bike lanes, moving walkways, sleek overhangs, fountains, green walls, water walls and shaded sitting areas for visitors.
Newly opened this summer is the NOPSI Hotel, originally constructed in 1927 as the headquarters for New Orleans Public Service Inc. (NOPSI), the city’s former utility company and transit operator. Now, nine decades after it originally opened to service the city’s needs, the historic landmark has been re-imagined as a luxury hotel with a community spirit.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, NOPSI Hotel features 217 refined guest rooms, a regionally inspired restaurant called Public Service, 14,000 sf of architecturally significant indoor and outdoor meeting space, and a sophisticated rooftop pool and bar named Above the Grid.
In March, the 1,622-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside, located adjacent to the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, completed a $6 million renovation to the 26,894-sf Grand Ballroom, Grand Salon and first-level meeting space and second-level Exhibition Center. The hotel boasts a total of more than 130,000 sf of event space.
Construction is well underway on an all-new, $917 million state-of-the-art terminal for the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY). Passengers are not currently impacted by the construction project, which completely relocates the airport’s terminal, parking structure and vehicle access from the south side of the main runway to the north. The project is on schedule for an October 1, 2018 opening, according to Mark Reis, acting director of the airport. “While the current airport is easy to use, it’s not a great customer experience,” adds Reis. “They won’t complain about it, but it won’t be something they comment on favorably. The new airport — they will. It will be a very pleasant experience, and a more efficient operation.”
The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has created a new offering for groups, in partnership with Centerplate. Building on the dinner theater concept, Creole of Course is based on the history of food in New Orleans and features a voodoo priest, live jazz between food courses, and a chef doing cooking demos. Conceived to take place in the convention center’s theater, Creole of Course also can travel to other venues around the city for groups of up to 300. Separately, the convention center announced a $32 million project to train people in the culinary and hospitality industries, in conjunction with the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. An existing building in the CBD has been chosen for the facility, which will provide teaching labs, a banquet kitchen and event center.
The Royal Sonesta New Orleans on Bourbon Street completed a renovation of its 483 guest rooms last year and added a new fitness center and refreshed the hotel’s famed Desire Oyster Bar. The Royal Sonesta then embarked on a remodel of its 20,000 sf of meeting spaces, overseen by Atlanta-based Design One Studio and completed in December 2016. The 5,000-sf Grand Ballroom can accommodate up to 500 for a cocktail reception, and is divisible into two spaces. The update also included a state-of-the-art upgraded banquet kitchen and upgraded audio technology for the meeting facilities. AC&F