The Big EasyFebruary 1, 2014

Better Than Ever, New Orleans Is a Model for Creative Reinvention By
February 1, 2014

The Big Easy

Better Than Ever, New Orleans Is a Model for Creative Reinvention
La Raza

Jessica Mayorga (right), director of marketing, integrated marketing and events for the National Council of La Raza, promoted her New Orleans conference on local television. Credits: NCLR

New Orleans is a brilliant testament to persevering through challenging times. It’s a model for embracing change, creative planning and for calling on its top thinkers and doers to help it emerge better and stronger than ever.

Associations have faced their own challenges in recent years, including an economic downturn impacting everything from meeting sites to membership numbers, which makes The Big Easy a perfect setting for association conferences. NOLA’s indomitable spirit and success in reinventing itself easily provide inspiration for meetings, members and leadership.

“Our city is thriving,” says Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In 2014, we will host major events such as the NBA All-Star Game and WrestleMania XXX.”

That’s on the heels of 2013, an incredible year starting with Super Gras, when Super Bowl XLVII was held during Mardi Gras, and finishing with a fall 2013 convention calendar up 60 percent from the previous year.

“Major initiatives over the next five years, leading up to the city’s tricentennial in 2018,” Perry says, “include a new world-class airport, a new riverfront development, incredible enhancements at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, a wonderful Convention Center Boulevard and so much more.”

The CVB is one of the city’s best assets, voted by its customers among the top five convention and visitor bureaus in the country. That’s no surprise to many planners.

“The New Orleans CVB was a wealth of information and communicated every step of the way,” says Jessica Castillo, CMP, senior manager of meeting services for the North American Spine Society (NASS), which held its 28th annual meeting in NOLA in October with 6,794 in attendance. “The marketing tools they offer as a complimentary service to planners are a great resource; those tools help ensure that their services are above and beyond those in many other convention cities.”

And the praise was not just for pre-conference assistance. “My experience has been that CVBs spend a great deal of time with you before you sign on the dotted line, after which they are available when needed but not so proactive,” says Kristen Penczek, interim executive director of the International Dyslexia Association, whose annual IDA Reading, Literacy & Learning Conference in November attracted 2,000 attendees. “We spent as much time working with the New Orleans CVB after contract, leading up to and after our conference. Our every need was met or exceeded, from a quick response to creation of a microsite to offers to assist in various ways. Seriously, we were spoiled.”

Tina Gaerlan, CMP, conference and events manager for IMA, the Institute of Management Accountants, which had its annual conference and exposition for nearly 1,000 attendees in June, appreciated the CVB’s efforts to save her group money. “The CVB took us around the neighborhoods and showed us great places for dining. They provided us with magazines and guides of New Orleans, which included discounts…and they solicited discounts on our behalf from local restaurants, bars, museums and tours to offer our attendees and their guests.”

“The city provided all the key ingredients for a successful experience: warm and welcoming people, a great destination for conference-goers and their families, and a robust and well-preserved culture.”

—Jessica Mayorga

Director of Marketing
Integrated Marketing and Events

National Council of La Raza
Washington, DC

When the National Council of La Raza brought its conference and National Latino Family Expo to New Orleans in July, attended by 4,500 and 20,000, respectively, it needed connections. “The CVB did an amazing job helping us connect with the community and leaders throughout New Orleans,” says Jessica Mayorga, director of marketing, integrated marketing and events for the organization, “which was so important considering our interest in not only attracting a national audience to our conference but also attracting a local audience to our expo.”

Of course, the city itself, declared by National Geographic Traveler as one of the 21 must-see destinations in the world for 2014, is a huge draw for attendees. “We have found that when it comes to our attendees, there is a higher draw when the site is cost-effective to travel to and has destination appeal,” Penczek says. “New Orleans offered both of these to us. Beyond this, our attendees love to learn, are very interested in history, and New Orleans has so much rich history to offer.”

Mayorga also points to New Orleans’ diversity as a draw. “The city provided all the key ingredients for a successful experience: warm and welcoming people, a great destination for conference-goers and their families, and a robust and well-preserved culture deeply rooted and influenced by the contributions of some of the first American Latinos, which is so fitting to the work and identity of our organization.”

And, of course, there’s the celebrated nightlife. “It’s not a city that shuts down at 5 p.m. as some convention cities do,” Castillo notes.

Service to the Max

New Orleans’ centerpiece facility is the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, with 3.1 million total square feet. Last year, a new grand entry was constructed and the 60,300-sf, column-free Great Hall opened to acclaim. This year, the center debuted a high-density wireless network throughout public spaces and meeting and function areas that supports 20,000 attendees’ concurrently connected devices.

But a convention center is only as good as its staff. “I can’t say enough about (convention center) event manager Wen Lu, his team and their level of service,” Castillo says. “Wen is one of the best event managers I have ever worked with. There were often times when he was steps ahead of me, anticipating a question or an issue that could potentially arise and was working to solve it before it even happened. He and his team are an integral reason that our meeting ran so successfully.”

Mayorga’s convention included high-profile guests. “The convention center was quick to respond to any needs we had,” she says, “and worked with our team to handle intricate coordination of logistics, especially around the security and related needs of our VIP guests. First lady Michelle Obama spoke at our conference, which meant a lot of preparation and coordination for which the convention center staff was a strong partner.”

Penczek praised the staff for communication while noting that sometimes when you think communication is clear, it isn’t. “The crew at the convention center was constantly checking in, making sure everything was set, and was very responsive when we had questions or needed assistance. But we had miscommunication on the food vendors. We understood they would be open; they were not. It was rectified by day three, but day one was very rough in the complaint department.”

Location, Location, Location

With more than 37,000 hotel rooms in the metro area, New Orleans has choices. Hotels conveniently located in the Central Business District and French Quarter include Hotel Monteleone, Hyatt Regency New Orleans, Hyatt Place New Orleans/Convention Center and New Orleans Marriott, among others.

National Council of La Raza primarily booked the New Orleans Marriott, which has 1,329 guest rooms and 80,000 sf of meeting space. “The Marriott has a great location in the French Quarter and was therefore attractive to our attendees,” Mayorga says. “It had the size and spaces we needed not only in terms of sleeping rooms but also venues for the receptions and the gala dinner we held at the hotel.”

During planning, Mayorga stayed at the Marriott several times over the course of one year. “I started getting to know the housekeeping, registration, restaurant and bell staff by name, and I was so impressed with what a wonderful collection of friendly professionals are employed at this hotel. The staff seems to love their work, and it showed in their attention to detail and willingness to do whatever was needed to resolve challenges and ensure that our experience was nothing but pleasant.”

Penczek, Gaerlan and Castillo booked the Hilton New Orleans Riverside in the Central Business District, a 1,622-room hotel with 130,000 sf of meeting space.

IMA staged all core events at the Hilton. “It’s a great location,” Gaerlan says. “It is walking distance to the French Quarter, and there was a trolley just outside of the hotel. It is also close to Harrah’s Casino, so attendees had a lot of options for activities nearby.”

She gives the hotel kudos for customer service and food. “What worked well was serving local foods such as gumbo, muffulettas and king cakes,” she says. “You hear about New Orleans’ great food, and the catering team did not disappoint us. Also, they were flexible in working with us. We requested custom cupcakes and desserts with our logo, and we wanted them to be served on models with table skirts. They took care of everything.”

The North American Spine Society has a long history with Hilton. “The brand recognition,” says Castillo, “along with the fact that we were able to contract a large number of rooms for our block, valuable concessions offered and proximity to the convention center were all factors in choosing this hotel as our headquarter.”

Historically, the group has had positive experiences with Hilton, but this time Castillo faced a situation planners dread: Her convention services manager left the hotel just weeks before the meeting, and the 11th-hour transition negatively impacted attendees and exhibitors.

“The issues that arose were due to lack of communication,” Castillo says. “As a society, we are very specific in all of our details that we give to meeting facilities to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The more information our key contacts have, the better they can service our meeting. A lot of that information wasn’t passed along, and our meeting suffered because of it.”

The take-away for Castillo is that next time she won’t take anyone’s word that critical information has been relayed. “If this happens again in my career, and I assume it will, I will facilitate a conference call with the DOS who booked our group, as well as the new CSM, prior to getting onsite. During the call, I will give background information on our attendees, outline our expectations and hit upon key items regarding our meeting. I will review and reiterate all the information that the original CSM and I went over.”

“The New Orleans CVB was a wealth of information and communicated every step of the way.”

— Jessica Castillo, CMP

Senior Manager of 
Meeting Services

North American Spine Society
Burr Ridge, IL

Eating Out and Entertaining

One of the city’s newest entertainment venues is the historic Saenger Theatre, which reopened in October and already counts Jerry Seinfeld and Bonnie Rait among its headliners. And the Big Easy’s restaurant scene continues to explode, though old favorites still deliver a memorable experience, too.

Several well-known eateries worked well for IMA’s VIP functions. “We brought people to Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace,” Gaerlan says. “Both groups raved about these restaurants, and I can’t say enough about Kaitlin Crabtree, Arnaud’s private dining coordinator. Our teams also enjoyed Manning’s and Grand Isle in the nearby Warehouse District, which are great for groups. We booked the second floor of Acme Oyster House, where we enjoyed the seafood and watched passersby from the balcony, and ventured to Coquette in the Garden District, where the food was amazing.”

Castillo booked a combination of restaurants and private-event space. “We used Commander’s Palace for our board of directors dinner, Calcasieu for our past-presidents dinner, Mardi Gras World for our opening reception and Generations Hall for our president’s reception,” she says.

Calcasieu is a Warehouse District event space for up to 275 guests, operated by James Beard Award-winning chef Donald Link, the name behind Cochon. Mardi Gras World is part tour, part event space, and part float-building studio, giving attendees a behind-the-scenes peek at a beloved New Orleans tradition. Generations Hall, a converted 19th-century sugar refinery, features artwork depicting the history of New Orleans jazz and an aesthetic that captures a bygone era, but complete with today’s technology.

“Mardi Gras World stood out and put on a great event,” Castillo says. “It’s a piece of New Orleans history that our attendees and exhibitors really enjoyed. Generations Hall worked well for our president’s reception because we have a NASS band (Axial Pain) that played during the event. It was a great venue to showcase the band, and the event team was wonderful to work with.”

New Orleans Hotel News

In August, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans completed a $2 million renovation to its Bywater Pool Deck & Bar. Complementing the saltwater pool are flat-screen TVs and a menu featuring fresh and grilled selections. Guests also now have 15 minutes of complimentary use of the lobby’s four new Mac computers and two printers.

Hotel Monteleone was named one of 2013’s Best Hotels in the USA by U.S. News & World Report. Winners are calculated based on industry awards, reputation, ratings and opinions of travel experts and guests.

In January, Loews New Orleans Hotel celebrated 10 years and, along with all Loews hotels, launched a new initiative offering complimentary wireless in all guest rooms and public spaces.

At The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, what’s old is new again. The property’s 1930s-era Fountain Lounge reopened last fall in a modern iteration melding its glam past with contemporary appeal. Once described as “casual and carefree as a night in Paris,” the Fountain Lounge of today features inventive cocktails, wines, small plates, a full raw bar and live entertainment.

Sheraton New Orleans Hotel completed an extensive revitalization in May 2013, especially apparent in the inviting, open lobby. Works of late Louisiana artist George Rodriguez, famous for his Blue Dog paintings, provide a vivid backdrop. Most meeting spaces were also refreshed, with the remainder to be completed in 2014. The 24/7-access fitness center was expanded as part of the brand’s partnership with Core Performance.

A $15 million renovation was completed at Omni Royal New Orleans in April. Guest rooms and public spaces feature a new color palette (ice blue, gold, chocolate brown and rust), custom furniture and enhanced lighting, and 24 wrought-iron balconies were added. Meeting rooms were refreshed with new furniture, carpeting and window treatments.

Baton Rouge

Louisiana’s capital is an appealing amalgamation of colorful history and a sizzling food scene. Eighty miles from New Orleans, its location at the junction of I-12 and I-10 makes it highly accessible.

“Baton Rouge is an ideal city for smaller associations that bring in about 2,000 attendees and that need an affordable city, and everything is within walking distance, all located on the banks of the Mississippi River,” says Paul Arrigo, CDME, president and CEO of Visit Baton Rouge. In 2013, the city hosted 150 state, regional and national associations; in 2014 it will host more than 200.

French and Creole heritage is infused in Baton Rouge culture, food, music and language, giving planners multiple ways to weave an authentic sense of place into meetings. Agendas should include time for attendees to sample beignets, step-step-pause to a thrumming Zydeco beat, and dig into rich and tasty gumbo.

Among the best places to experience regional history are Louisiana’s Old State Capitol and the Old Governor’s Mansion. The first is a Gothic edifice and National Historic Landmark. The 160-year-old “castle-on-the-river” provides a glimpse into the razzle-dazzle life of Huey P. Long, Louisiana’s revered and reviled governor who was assassinated in 1935. The Old Governor’s Mansion, built by Long in 1930, is now a museum with evocative architectural details and featuring furnishings and artifacts from nine governors. Both venues are available for special events.

The greater Baton Rouge area has more than 900 restaurants. Highlights include the Food Truck Wround Up, a Wednesday event featuring food trucks and music in various locations, and Al’s Chicago Dogs, served up by a local blues musician. For a retro vibe, there’s Huey’s Bar, a nod to the infamous governor. Among its old-school beverage specialties is the Ramos gin fizz, Huey’s cocktail of choice.

Shreveport & Bossier City

Sometimes called “Louisiana’s other side,” these two cities on opposite banks of the Red River near the Texas border are as much Lone Star state as Louisiana. It’s apparent in the music, cuisine and deeply rooted culture unlike that in the rest of the state.

When it comes to the biggest cultural and entertainment influence here, however, the casinos shine brightest — literally, with miles of neon lighting the skyline. Six Vegas-style casinos provide a hip, cosmopolitan vibe; think Vegas with Southern overtones. It’s a recipe that offers groups a singular mix of laidback charm and pulsing nightlife.

There’s one long weekend each spring when Shreveport goes all Louisiana. Mudbug Madness celebrates crawfish and the ever-popular crawfish boil, along with Louisiana music and art. It’s one of the state’s largest Cajun festivals, and a fine time to schedule a meeting here to be part of the tasty revelry. The festival gives planners budget-friendly options for no-host meals and entertainment.

From New Orleans to Shreveport & Bossier City, Louisiana welcomes associations with its engaging culture, food and music, its diversity and its ability to meet diverse needs, whether the need is for affordable venues or an all-out citywide with parades, celebrity chefs, top entertainers and spectacular ballrooms. AC&F

Back To Top