Louisiana is arguably one of the most unique destinations in the United States because of its matchless mix of cultural influences, music, cuisine, hotels and venues. The state is home to perennially popular New Orleans as well as increasingly popular destinations, including Baton Rouge and Shreveport-Bossier City.
Last April, the 100 attendees at a telecommunication company’s incentive visited Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, a 38-acre antebellum jewel located about 60 miles outside of New Orleans. “We did a beautiful seated dinner on the front lawn at Houmas,” says David Rome, director of Sales, BBC Destination Management, a New Orleans DMC. “Ladies were decked out in antebellum dresses and men wore civil war uniforms of the North and South. We had one long table for everyone with one long tablecloth. There were several toasts of thanks to attendees. We had a full orchestra playing a mix of big band music during dinner and dance music afterwards. Everyone took a picture together in front of the plantation.”
The incentive group also enjoyed a dinner in New Orleans at Mardi Gras World, the leading maker of Mardi Gras floats, sculptures and props. “We picked them up from The Ritz-Carlton in a float, welcoming them with a band and had a parade in their honor,” says Rome. “They sat on floats with deejays playing and throwing beads to people on the roadside. When they arrived at the venue, they had a cocktail reception. We had extra lighting in the warehouse and glitter on the tables that picked up the lights from the floats and the tables. A band played zydeco music, and we had a seated catered dinner.”
Mardi Gras World figured prominently in another group’s experiences in New Orleans, which remains Louisiana’s superstar destination. Automotive Events Inc. selected New Orleans for a recent three-day business conference for 1,200 Subaru dealers nationwide. During one evening the group held a themed party at Mardi Gras World, complete with floats, costumed figures, a jazz band and food stations featuring local cuisine.
On another evening, according to Iain Dobson, senior vice president of automotive events and manager of the Subaru account, the dealers witnessed the exciting debut of the Subaru BRZ at the recently opened NOLA Motorsports Park. Just 20 minutes from New Orleans, the race track, which offers road racing, go karts and drag racing, also sports impressive meeting and event facilities. “Usually when we do these introductions, we have a vehicle in a large room with drapes over it that we lift to reveal the vehicle. This time, we chose to use a race track,” Dobson says. “The track, coupled with a great meeting venue at the nearby Hyatt Regency New Orleans, and an entertaining and iconic city, all added up to a unique package that doesn’t occur anywhere else.”
The Big Easy is the heartbeat of Louisiana’s effervescent culture. New Orleans is known worldwide for its mélange of French, Spanish, English, African, Creole and Cajun cultures; jazz; Mardi Gras; and the French Quarter with its hundreds of restaurants, music venues and bars.
Seven years after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, New Orleans is attracting a growing number of visitors. The city received 4.9 million visitors in the first half of 2012, a 2 percent rise over the same period in 2011, according to the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center’s 2012 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile. Visitors spent $3.4 billion, up 11 percent over the first six months of 2011.
Nikki Moon, vice president of sales, New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, says New Orleans’ popularity is growing as a meeting designation. “Out of all our meetings, going into the future, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent, are smaller meetings,” says Moon, vice president of sales, New Orleans CVB. “We have a great package of hotel offerings, from big hotels and chain properties to wonderful independent hotels, and a citywide renovation program has been in effect in anticipation of the Super Bowl. Every single hotel has been refreshed, even after they were rebuilt following Katrina.”
New Orleans’ singular culture makes it a big hit with corporate meetings. “We are very much a popular corporate meeting city because we are so culturally endowed,” says Carling Dinkler, president, Custom Conventions, a New Orleans-based DMC that handles corporate meetings, incentives and conventions. “We are the most European city in the U.S. Corporate groups can come and have an exotic time without leaving the country.”
The plethora of cultural offerings in New Orleans allows planners to choose just the right activities to reach their meeting and incentive goals. “We weave New Orleans culture into the goals of corporate meetings and incentives, which is to get attendees excited about coming, and we have so many must-see and must-do things to get them excited,” says Dinkler.
An online encyclopedia company enjoyed a big helping of New Orleans culture during its three-day meeting at The Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in January 2012.
The 250 attendees enjoyed a French Quarter-themed dinner party in a warehouse that serves as a meeting venue. “We tricked out the warehouse with street lamps, street signs, tarot card readers, sketch artists and a mime to make it look like the French Quarter’s Jackson Square,” says Dinkler. “We had creole food and a jazz band. At the end of the night, we did a second-line parade in which the band comes down from the bandstand and a grand marshal leads everybody in a parade around the meeting space waving their handkerchiefs. It went over big,” he says. The group also held a dinner in a private dining room at world famous Antoine’s restaurant.
New Orleans entertains attendees while bringing out the best in them. That’s the view of Seth Adler, general manager of Catfish Entertainment, a New York-based meeting and event planning company. “Everything about the culture of New Orleans lends itself to creativity and entertainment because it’s unlike any other city. It’s our job to make sure that the meetings and events are not only thought-provoking but extremely entertaining. If you are looking for that combination and you have the ability to choose the city you want, then New Orleans should be at the top of your list,” says Adler.
The Big Easy was at the top of the list for a media and entertainment company that held a strategy, networking and thought leadership meeting in the city in October around Halloween. The two-day meeting, which was the group’s first in New Orleans, included about 150 top executives. Attendees met at the 285-room Loews New Orleans Hotel, which offers 17,000 sf of meeting space. Adler and his staff brought in the famous Rebirth Brass Band for entertainment during sessions held in the hotel ballroom.
Outside of the hotel, the group gathered for dinner in Jackson Square at ever-popular Muriel’s restaurant, which serves some of the finest Creole cuisine in New Orleans. Attendees also visited Frenchman Street, home of a joyful enclave of jazz clubs, restaurants and bars. The group was wowed by the many revelers who took to Frenchman Street in wildly exotic costumes to celebrate Halloween, says Adler.
New Orleans offers so many alternatives that groups can have difficulty deciding what to do. That’s one reason why Dinkler sends sample activity programs to potential incentive and meeting clients. The sample programs include a wide range of popular activities. “We have the World War II Museum, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Mississippi River cruises on the beautiful Steamboat Natchez,” says Dinkler.
The sample programs also include walking tours of New Orleans. Such tours are popular among corporate groups, Dinkler says, “The cool thing about New Orleans is that we do a lot of walking because everything is so close. Corporate groups love that. They also love it when we move them from the hotel to a venue with a second line parade or with carriages.”
Many distinctively Louisianan activities are available outside New Orleans. “They can go fishing in the morning and then have a cocktail party where we serve what they caught,” says Dinkler. “We also have scavenger hunts using seaplanes. Some groups go to venues in bayou country for a Cajun pig roast called a cochon du lait; or they can visit a Creole plantation.”
No matter what activities groups choose, there is one that is always at the top of the list — dining. Planners can choose from several world-famous New Orleans restaurants such as Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Muriel’s and Arnaud’s, all of which feature spacious private dining rooms for groups.
Mix New Orleans’ food, activities and culture with the Super Bowl and corporate groups have all the ingredients for successful incentives and meetings. New Orleans, along with Miami, is the nation’s most popular home for the Super Bowl. The 2013 game on Feb. 3 was the 10th played in New Orleans, tying the city with Miami for the city hosting the most Super Bowls.
Once again, this year’s game attracted scores of corporations looking to entertain and reward employees, clients and business partners. During the game, corporations entertained in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s several renovated Club Lounge areas, each of which accommodates up to 500 people.
The 1.1-million-sf New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — the sixth largest convention center in the nation — opened The Great Hall in late January 2013. The $50 million project encompasses 86,000 sf of flexible function space, including: the 60,300-sf, column-free Great Hall, the largest ballroom in New Orleans; 25,400 sf of multi-use prefunction space; a 4,660-sf junior ballroom with a 3,420-sf rooftop terrace called The Rivergate Room; a multipurpose lounge; and an open-landscaped pedestrian plaza. The Great Hall, named for the 1984 World’s Fair exhibit space of the same name, can be divided into multiple configurations, allowing for several concurrent but independent session rooms. The Great Hall debut follows $140 million of other post-Katrina upgrades to the 27-year-old facility.
New Orleans offers more than 35,000 hotel rooms and most of them have undergone renovations. For example, the Hyatt French Quarter opened in May 2012 following an $18 million makeover. Renovations included all 254 guest rooms, lobby and hotel exterior as well as the pool and deck area. A Hard Rock Café is scheduled to open in the Hyatt French Quarter in early 2013.
In 2012, the French Quarter’s Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans spent nearly $18 million in upgrades and improvements. Renovations included new furnishings and carpeting in all of the third-floor guest rooms; a brand new second-floor Acadia event space; new furnishings and carpeting in Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse; and an updated Fleur de Lis Suite. High-speed wireless Internet access was expanded and is now available throughout the hotel. Last May, chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto opened the highly anticipated Restaurant R’evolution, a fine-dining establishment. The Royal Sonesta offers 483 guest rooms, 35 suites and 20,000 sf of meeting space.
Also last May, the 570-room Hotel Monteleone, with 24,000 sf of meeting space, completed a $10 million renovation that included updated guest rooms and meeting space, and the Criollo Restaurant and Lounge. In March, the hotel celebrated the grand reopening of its famous rotating Carousel Bar, which added a second, new stationary bar.
Following a $275 million redesign and revitalization, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, featuring 1,193 all-new sophisticated guest rooms and suites and 200,000 sf of state-of-the-art, flexible event space, and expansive food and beverage offerings, reopened in 2011. The 32-story hotel — in the city’s downtown district and adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — offers two 25,000-sf ballrooms, 64 versatile meeting and banquet rooms, 19 executive-level meeting rooms, seven permanent boardrooms, and more than 80,000 sf of exhibition space, highlighted by a new 50,000-sf exhibit hall. In addition to revitalizing its 1,193 guest rooms, including 95 suites, five meeting planner suites and four presidential suites, other highlights include 8 Block Kitchen & Bar, a 360-seat, full-service restaurant and bar; Vitascope Hall, a media/action bar outfitted with 42 flat-screen TVs; and Borgne, the latest restaurant by chef John Besh. Additional culinary options include a 65-seat Starbucks; Lagniappe Exchange, a 24-hour fresh market and convenience store; Whole Hog Café, featuring award-winning barbecue; and Pizza Consegna. “The re-opening of Hyatt Regency New Orleans is symbolic as it represents the end of a journey and the beginning of a new chapter for Hyatt and the city of New Orleans,” says Michael Smith, general manager. “We spared no detail in positioning ourselves to be the quintessential hotel for conventions, leisure and business travelers alike.”
New Orleans also is upgrading its transportation infrastructure. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is undergoing a $300 million modernization, including expansion of Concourse D and the addition of six new gates.
Unique venues are a New Orleans specialty. Examples include legendary Preservation Hall, which offers top jazz bands five nights a week and accommodates groups of up to 125 people. The Cabildo, built in 1799 to house the Spanish municipal government, features reception space on three floors and a courtyard overlooking the Mississippi River. Smaller groups may enjoy The Musée Conti Wax Museum in the French Quarter, which accommodates groups of up to 200.
The National World War II Museum (formerly known as the National D-Day Museum), located in the Central Business District on Magazine Street, was designated by the U.S. Congress as “America’s National World War II Museum” in 2003. The museum is undergoing a $300 million expansion project — “The Road to Victory: A Vision for Future Generations” — which will eventually quadruple the size of the original museum.
The new 1,500-acre BioDistrict in downtown and mid-city New Orleans is home to a collection of biomedical research and development facilities, teaching facilities, clinics and hospitals. Completed projects include the BioInnovation Center and Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium. The U.S. Veterans Affairs Hospital, currently under construction, is scheduled to open in 2015; and the University Medical Center, also under construction, will open in 2014.
Located 80 miles from New Orleans, the popular city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital and most populous city, combines Creole culture, the charm of the Old South and urban style.
Baton Rouge is a popular destination. “We are coming off one of our banner years. We had an increase in leisure travel,” says Paul Arrigo, CDME, president and CEO of Visit Baton Rouge, the city’s CVB. “Our hotel tax receipts from leisure travelers are up over 25 percent over the last year. As the brand of Baton Rouge becomes more familiar and recognized, we will do considerably better in meetings, a lot of which center around Louisiana State University (LSU) sports, particularly football, which attracts corporate groups,” he says.
Baton Rouge’s growing meetings infrastructure is a plus for potential meetings. In late 2011, the 256-room Renaissance Baton Rouge Hotel opened near the LSU campus. It was the first newly constructed full-service hotel to be built in Baton Rouge in about 40 years. The Renaissance provides 13,000 sf of meeting space, including a 7,500-sf ballroom.
The city’s main convention facility, the Baton Rouge River Center (BRRC), is located a short walk from downtown. The BRRC offers more than 200,000 sf of new and renovated meeting and exhibit space, including the new 70,000-sf Exhibition Hall and 17 breakout rooms. There also is a state-of-the-art, 1,900-seat Theatre of Performing Arts. “The River Center was expanded to include a certain amount of public space about year ago. There is more versatility in the meeting space and we now have about 100,000 of exhibit space on one level,” says Arrigo.
Last year, Visit Baton Rouge premiered a new website, VisitBatonRouge.com. The site was launched in conjunction with the state changing the name of the Baton Rouge Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to Visit Baton Rouge. The site features special offers, hotel rate listings and deals from local restaurants and attractions. Planners also can download the free Go BR mobile app and access customized itineraries.
Baton Rouge’s offsite venues reflects its Old South, Creole and modern influences. For example, the Magnolia Mound Plantation’s Hart House accommodates up 50 guests and its French Creole barn can host up to 250 people. The Old Governor’s Mansion offers a classic ballroom that provides an elegant setting for meetings. The LSU Museum of Art offers 14 galleries, including two that can accommodate 200 and 400 people, respectively.
Kerri Morgan, CMP, global account manager for Hotels for Hope, an Austin, TX, for-profit hotel booking company for planners and businesses that also matches clients’ contributions to selected charities, recently scheduled a three-day meeting in Baton Rouge for about 100 attendees of Professional Marketing International, a Lehi, UT-based real estate investment and online business consulting firm. The meeting, which involved intensive training courses, included about 24 room nights at various Baton Rouge hotels since most of the attendees live in the Baton Rouge area.
Morgan’s meetings are typically booked on a short turnaround of about four weeks prior to the meeting, and she often deals with groups that have people staying in several different hotels. That’s why Morgan finds CVBs such as Visit Baton Rouge to be very helpful. “We use them every time. They make sure that my RFPs get into the hands of the hotels on time. And they have all the connections to make sure we get sufficient bids from all the hotels we are considering. That’s very important for my clients. Plus they are experts on the city and a great resource for any additional information about the town,” says Morgan.
Shreveport and Bossier City, two municipalities located on opposite banks of the Red River, draw cultural influences from their locations in the northwest corner of Louisiana near the Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas borders. The slogan of the Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Tourist Bureau (SBCTB) is “Louisiana’s Other Side.” The SBCTB’s website describes the people of the area as “East Texas Cowboy with a Cajun Twist,” and suggests that “It’s that unique combination of two great American heritages that sets Shreveport-Bossier apart.”
Groups (of 10 or more) visiting Shreveport-Bossier may arrange a private Mardi Gras party on the parade route. The party includes food, band, specialty bead and T-shirts all under a covered, climate-controlled tent.
Aside from its singular culture, Shreveport-Bossier City offers approximately 10,000 hotel rooms and the second largest convention center in Louisiana — Shreveport Convention Center (SCC). The facility features more than 350,000 sf of meeting space including a 95,000-sf, column-free main exhibit hall, 15,000 sf of meeting rooms and the 18,000-sf Capt. Shreve Ballroom. The SCC is connected to the 313-room Hilton Shreveport Hotel. In addition, the Bossier Civic Center (BCC) provides 24,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space with an additional 7,500-sf banquet hall that can be divided into three breakout rooms.
Shreveport-Bossier’s offsite venues include five riverboat casino hotels open 24 hours a day on both sides of the Red River. The casinos are Horseshoe Hotel & Casino, DiamondJacks Casino & Resort, Sam’s Town Hotel & Casino, Boomtown Casino & Hotel and Eldorado Casino Resort & Hotel. Additionally, Harrah’s Louisiana Downs offers a horse-racing track and casino. Most of the properties are located just a few miles from the BCC, and they all have meeting space. The sixth casino hotel, the new Margaritaville Resort Casino, is expected to debut in the summer of 2013 on the banks of the Red River near the Louisiana Boardwalk. Developers say the project will feature a 396-room, 18 story hotel, a 900-seat entertainment venue, spa and fitness center, outdoor pool deck and dining area, and four food and beverage outlets, including the trademark Margaritaville Restaurant. Jimmy Buffett is expected to appear at the grand opening.
Offsite venues include the Sci-Port: Louisiana Science Center where groups can dine, enjoy an IMAX show and an open-access space planetarium. Attendees can enjoy plays and musicals at the renovated Strand Theater and hold receptions in the venue’s elegant foyer. Plentiful shopping is available on Line Avenue, a five-mile stretch of specialty shops, boutiques, antique stores and restaurants.
Louisiana’s destination trifecta — New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport-Bossier City — offers everything that planners need for a small or large meeting or incentive. Good times, sublime cuisine, elegant hotels and a one-of-a-kind culture bring joy and lasting memories to attendees. C&IT