Twenty-one states have declared milk their official beverage, but how many cities can boast their own legislature-anointed cocktail? The “laissez les bons temps rouler” hospitality of New Orleans, coupled with its walkability, embarrassment of great food around every corner and, most of all, ease of forming and maintaining local relationships, make it a dream destination for meeting planners.
“When you want to do something different in New Orleans, the answer is always the hurricane cocktail,” says Martin E. Bay, CMP, director of meetings and expositions for the Atlanta office of Kellen Meetings. At a trade association meeting at the Hotel Monteleone, his 260 attendees enjoyed a cup of the rum, passion fruit syrup and lime juice concoction in the lobby during a 10-minute break, then returned to the meeting. “No one left the participatory session, and they were very — engaged,” he laughs.
The hurricane may be the go-to drink, but it’s not the official cocktail of New Orleans. In 2008, the Louisiana Legislature agreed that honor should go to the Sazerac, made with cognac, rye or bourbon; absinthe; Peychaud’s bitters (named for the 19th-century bayou pharmacist who concocted the drink); and simple syrup.
No one really needs reservations to eat well in New Orleans. “You can just walk into a hole in a wall and have an excellent meal and service and great conversations.”
— Jeanne Larson
The hotel’s The Carousel Bar and Lounge, with its leisurely merry-go-round seating, makes the drink with rye minus the absinthe.
Bay has brought several groups to the hotel, which he says is “very accommodating with the agreement template.” That the property is historic makes it a good choice for certain meetings, he say, though he notes that his group size was right on the edge of the number of people the hotel’s largest ballroom can comfortably hold.
The meeting included a general session, multiple breakouts and two receptions, with the attendees getting dinner on their own afterward. “Some people called weeks in advance to make reservations; others just walked around,” he says. “One of the key things clients look for in a destination is walkability and availability of dining near the hotel. Reservations are not required.”
The gathering was 90 percent about networking, and as such it was a success, Bay says. Just how much of one became evident during the one offsite event, a riverboat cruise along the Mississippi River with a full dinner and drinks. The attendees walked from the hotel through the French Quarter to the boat
“If you’re trying to force the networking, the riverboats can be kind of boring,” Bay admits. “But we had a great group. It was a beautiful night, and we had to pry them off the boat. The bar was closed, the food was long gone, but they were still sitting around having a good time. That doesn’t happen often.”
Bay also notes with approval that there’s not a lot of staff turnover at the Hotel Monteleone, something that planners at several of the city’s other hotels also have remarked on. “If I went in 2007, I was working with the same people seven years later. That kind of service is one of the key things that makes the hotel special. They’re proactive. If you’re low on something, they replenish it.”
Jeanne Larson, CGMP, the meeting planner for the Minneapolis-based Battered Women’s Justice Project and the first vice president of the Northern Lights Chapter of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals, also is pleasantly surprised to see the same faces whenever she meets at the 345-room Omni Royal Orleans. One of the bellmen, who has worked at the hotel for 45 years, gives her hugs when she returns each year. Another one brought her gumbo his wife had made. Larson describes the staff overall as “empowered.” For example, a maid took the initiative of bringing a complimentary bowl of chicken soup to one attendee who was sick in bed.
The hotel staff’s friendly attentiveness is one compensation Larson has found in her continued struggle to manage attendee meeting satisfaction, something that’s become a trifle more harrowing since 2011. This was the year of “Muffin-gate,” when the U.S. Department of Justice’s meeting spending was exposed as apparently profligate: a certain line item — the $16 muffin — featured dramatically in the discussions.
Since Larson’s association is DOJ-funded, the upshot is that attendees at her meetings, including one she held for a group of 100 members of law enforcement and other advocates for battered women, forage for their own sustenance. Even during meeting breaks. Even for coffee. Especially for muffins.
The downsides to this are more than low blood sugar and flagging attention spans. “People have to run to Starbucks in the first-floor gift shop during breaks, so there’s no mingling or networking or mentoring going on,” she laments. “We used to be able to offer lunch with a speaker, and we were kind of hoping the pendulum would swing back, but it hasn’t.”
Still, attendees know what to expect — and what not to. One of the Omni Royal’s significant draws for her association, given its mission, has nothing to do with the food. “Our organization appreciates the fact that they’re a porn-free hotel. The owner doesn’t believe in any pay-per-view that is pornography. They’re losing a revenue stream, and we appreciate that.”
And since Larson booked during a lower season for the hotel, the staff put a little balm on the sting of no food by supplying complimentary lemonade and cookies.
Though the attendees grumbled a bit about the lack of coffee, they had all the more reason to visit spots like Café Du Monde for beignets and chicory-flavored café au lait. Naturally, the hotel was ready with recommendations and reservations. Some attendee favorites over the years have been Emeril’s NOLA, Cochon and the more casual Cochon Butcher, Sammy’s Po-Boys and Frenchman Street.
But no one really needs reservations to eat well in New Orleans. “You can just walk into a hole in a wall and have an excellent meal and service and great conversations,” Larson says. “You’d think Mardi Gras was the night before.”
As easy as it is to make a beeline for the city’s busiest street, Larson recommends looking beyond the obvious. She suggests Louis Armstrong Park, right outside the French Quarter, which she says has jazz festivals every weekend (although the week of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, April 22–May 1, 2016, is best avoided by the budget-minded, Bay warns). Larson mentions crafts fairs, strolls by the river, palm readings at Jackson Square and just general walking around as ways to get a feel for New Orleans. “I would have known so much more right away had I used the CVB,” she says. “What I know now comes over five years.”
The Omni Royal Orleans continues to upgrade its meeting space tech offerings, with Wi-Fi access points in all the conference spaces, several new 60-inch HDTVs coupled with ceiling-mounted projectors, and plans to double its LED accent lighting and upgrade all meeting space audio equipment.
For her own AV needs at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, Sheryl R. Abshire, Ph.D., vice president of programs and advocacy for the Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators, opted for PSAV for her tech-heavy meeting. She appreciated the “easy access to the engineers who were managing the tech,” their responsiveness and multiple daily updates. And when the inevitable tech mishap came up, “within minutes, they were able to redirect traffic and figure out where the glitch was.”
Abshire’s association has held its annual fall conference in New Orleans since 2011, and in 2014 when they marked their 30th anniversary, 2,500 educators from Louisiana and the surrounding states as well as vendors from across the country converged on the city. “We want to draw a wide range of presenters to showcase ideas and solutions,” she says of the choice of destination. “You’re not going to get 200 or 300 companies to come to, say, Lake Charles. New Orleans has its own savoir faire; people want to come.”
Apart from the variety of transportation options that make New Orleans an obvious meeting hub, “there’s a real sense of commitment and respect for what it represents for our state — certainly after the hurricane — and people want to help the city grow and be part of that.” And once attendees arrive, there’s no need for them to drive anywhere, she notes.
As the conference’s keynote speaker, Jaime Casap, global education evangelist at Google, stirred up the crowd with his message of how the Internet is transforming education, the attendees then suited the action to the word in a series of hands-on sessions with new educational software.
Abshire planned a couple of cocktail parties as well as a luncheon where the hotel provided such New Orleans staples as crawfish pasta, boudin balls, muffuletta sandwiches and the local Abita beer.
She also engaged a school brass band — “New Orleans lends itself to that because of the Mardi Gras atmosphere 24/7/365” — and had cups, beads and lollipops made with the 30th anniversary logo.
She also planned a presidents’ and founders’ luncheon, where she passed out acrylic fleurs de lis with the logo and the executive’s years of service embossed on them.
The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau provided PR for the meeting, maps, suggestions for places to eat and special bargains. Abshire’s team put the CVB’s lists of restaurants within walking distance of the hotel into the conference bags, so attendees didn’t need to use the concierge desk or find food “by happenstance.”
Her suggestion for great meetings especially resonates for the Big Easy: “If something goes awry, don’t lose your mind and ruin the event for yourself. At the end of the day, if the people who came felt it was worthy of their time and resources, the meeting was a success. Don’t dwell on what didn’t happen; dwell on what did.”
Progress toward the city’s dream of revitalizing the riverfront via the Convention Center District Development Project — 47 acres of terrain near the convention center that the city reimagines as a hotel, entertainment and shopping hub by 2018 — continues apace. The Convention Center District Development Project represents the largest single private investment in the city of New Orleans since the 1984 World’s Fair. In addition to the linear park, key elements include a world-class anchor hotel, improved walkability, lighting and streetscaping, new premier retail shopping options, residential living, fine dining and casual restaurants and entertainment, cultural and arts venues. These plans will be accomplished in the form of a public/private partnership with a Master Developer that is expected to invest more than $700 million.
Bob Johnson, president/general manager of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center says, “This is a transformative plan to take Convention Center Boulevard, from Poydras Street to Henderson Street, and transform it into an urban park, a canopy of trees and plantings, and make it an active green space for Downtown New Orleans, both to enhance the experience for our meeting attendees and conventioneers and also the residents. It will provide an important function as the ribbon that ties the core of downtown to the new development, located upriver from the convention center.” Meanwhile, inspired by a recent green convention, the convention center has been pushing itself toward increasingly sustainable practices: composting, recycling and replacing thousands of incandescent outdoor lights with energy-hoarding LEDs and iridescent lighting with induction lighting. The center says its changes have cut its monthly electric bill in half and saved it nearly $4 million when figured annually. It’s looking toward a “meeting room of the future” that will include solar panels on the 40-acre roof.
The historic Orpheum Theater reopened in the city’s Central Business District following a $13 million renovation that includes an expanded lobby, reconstructed acoustic shell, larger seats, and more bathrooms and bars. The theater, which opened in 1918, is on the National Register for Historic Places.
Apart from the convention center, the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel remains the city’s largest meeting space, with 105,700 sf of convention space and the 28,000-sf Napoleon Exposition Hall & Ballroom that can seat 2,600 and deliver 12 breakout rooms. The Grand Ballroom at the New Orleans Marriott seats 3,600.
In mid-December 2014, the former W New Orleans showed off the first phase of its $29 million rebranding as Le Méridien New Orleans. All 410 rooms have been renovated, and there are now 22 suites among them; 1,600 sf of new meeting space brings the hotel’s total up to 20,000 sf; and executive chef Mauricio Gutierrez will preside over the new LMNO restaurant, bringing his molecular gastronomy technique to bear on the New American-meets-NOLA fare.
The 285-room Loews New Orleans Hotel also has had a nip/tuck, with more and brighter lighting in the guest rooms and contemporary artwork in the main spaces. The onsite restaurant, Cafe Adelaide, is run by the culinary dynasty behind Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace, home of the 25-cent martini and mainstay of “best restaurant” lists everywhere. After a $20 million re-sprucing, Brennan’s is open again under executive chef Slade Rushing, whose menu includes New Orleans barbecue lobster, octopus “a la Creole” (with tomatoes, sausage and olives), and smoked squab and foie gras gumbo — and those are just the starters.
The renovation of the iconic Royal Sonesta New Orleans, long a favored hotel in the heart of the French Quarter, is complete as the 483 guest rooms are newly reimagined. In addition to guest rooms, other public spaces also underwent renovation. A new fitness center is well equipped with free weights and state-of-the-art equipment. The hotel’s R Club Level has been expanded from 29 to 58 rooms and features a new R Club lounge.
The Wyndham New Orleans French Quarter has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation that included 374 guest rooms as well as the property’s exterior and parking garage.
The Hyatt House New Orleans/Downtown debuted in the Central Business District in November 2015, bringing 194 extended-stay hotel rooms to the downtown area. AC&F