Among its many awards, Travel + Leisure named New Orleans “Number 1 City for Food in the U.S.” in 2016 and one of “America’s Most Charming Cities” in January 2017. Also, Fox Sports named New Orleans the “Number One Super Bowl Host City” in February 2017.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the last decade and a half, perhaps no other American city suffered as traumatic an injury as the one Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans. And by most accounts, probably no other city has had as dramatic a rebirth. That this cycle has transpired without sacrificing New Orleans’ identity as a unique cultural cornerstone is almost a miracle.
“We were hanging on by a thread after Katrina,” says Terry Epton CIS, CITE, DMCP, president of Hosts New Orleans, the global chain of DMCs. “We had a lot to come back from, but whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“People…do the swamp tour, a foodie tour…but they forget about the museum. It’s been a work in progress, expanding and expanding, but the National WWII Museum has been a big hit.”
— Terry Epton, CIS, CITE, DMCP
Epton — a New Orleanian by birth — had a front-row seat for the city’s comeback when he was sworn in as chairman of the board of the city’s convention and visitors bureau a few months after Katrina. It was either the worst time to assume the leadership position, or the best — there was nowhere to go but up.
“What we had was a blank canvas to work with, to come back and figure out how we were going to reposition the brand,” Epton added. “In some cases, it was an opportunity. There were the altruistic motivations of corporate America and the industry as a whole, and we were able to parlay some of that into making New Orleans a better convention destination.”
The hard work has paid off. In 2004, the city welcomed 10.1 million visitors, while in 2006, the first full year after Katrina, visitor numbers dropped to 3.7 million. But by 2015, visitation had almost returned to pre-storm levels, with 9.8 million visitors coming to New Orleans.
Although New Orleans is celebrated for as Epton puts it — “food, booze and jazz” — the city continues to reveal new facets, many of which present fresh opportunities for the meetings industry. It’s one reason Epton strongly recommends doing a site inspection to learn about the city firsthand, or discover its new angles. One riveting asset he says some planners mistakenly overlook is the National WWII Museum.
“People come here and do the swamp tour, a foodie tour, or the ghost and spirits tour, but they forget about the museum,” Epton explains. “It’s been a work in progress, expanding and expanding, but the National WWII Museum has been a big hit.”
A meeting planner who didn’t overlook the potential of the National WWII Museum was Janice McClain, CMP, principal of J.M. McClain & Associates LLC, in Harrisonville, Missouri, who planned a successful agricultural educational forum for the Technology Exchange in New Orleans in January 2017, which was attended by 500 farmers and chemical/fertilizer product retailers. McClain utilized the museum for their “big wow” event — an incentive day away from the meeting rooms.
McClain bought out the Creole Queen, an authentic paddlewheeler with the largest “indoor capacity” of any excursion vessel in New Orleans, ideal for events of up to 800 guests. For the morning sail on the Mississippi, a local terminal operations manager provided an overview of how agricultural products are transported by barge on the river, followed by a historical tour by the captain. After lunch on the boat, the group docked and went to the National WWII Museum.
The museum offers a surprisingly wide variety of event spaces designed to accommodate all-day meetings, theater-style presentations, luncheons, receptions and seated dinners. The state-of-the-art facility has a range of AV capabilities, along with in-house musical acts, ranging from a low-key trio to a swing orchestra and the Victory Belles, a vocal trio in 1940s USO attire.
“The museum is just extraordinary,” McClain adds. As the official WWII museum, the collection of artifacts, interactive exhibits and the Tom Hanks-produced 4-D experience “Beyond All Boundaries,” there is plenty to keep guests enthralled for hours. “We gave the attendees from 2 until 6 p.m. to tour the museum, then had a dinner in the Freedom Pavilion, an atrium featuring WWII aircraft such as a B-17 bomber suspended overhead, and featuring a performance by the Victory Belles. The museum staff was so accommodating, and the chef went way off the menu to create a truly remarkable buffet. It was the big highlight of the meeting.”
But McClain was equally effusive about the host hotel for the Technology Exchange, The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “We wanted a warm weather destination, one that was easy to access, and the guys really wanted to come to New Orleans,” explains McClain. “But there aren’t many places that are both a reasonable price and warm in late January. I knew this would be a more expensive hotel, but we’ve gotten it back in spades.”
The 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 best-seller “Hotel.” The 504-room Roosevelt closed due to flooding after Katrina, and then went through a $170 million renovation that led to the hotel’s reflagging as a Waldorf Astoria in 2009. The hotel has nearly 60,000 sf of meeting space, including three ballrooms. But would a lavish historical property be the right fit for McClain’s group?
“These were farmers out of the heartland,” says McClain, who worried that the upscale setting might be intimidating to people who don’t travel often. “They’re in jeans and plaid shirts, but they might be running a 20,000-acre farm. I believe the more information you share with both sides, the better the experience you are likely to have. If the hotel knows what to anticipate, then they can be better prepared.”
And The Roosevelt was ready for McClain’s group. “We put this hotel staff through the ringer, and they responded so beautifully. There’s a great amount of meeting space, without feeling like you’re in a convention hotel. And the hotel gives you so much that you can’t put a price tag on it. The staff is seasoned, welcoming and sincere.”
One would-be challenge at the outset was a large checkout on the same day that McClain’s group arrived.
“I fully expected our people to wait on their rooms for hours, and the front desk staff can make or break a meeting. They’re the first and last contact with guests, and they don’t get a lot of recognition. So I ordered 35 pizzas for the staff that day, to thank them in advance.
“We were greeted with a smile,” McClain adds.
Marci Kleinsasser’s search for a meeting destination for the annual conference of Handyman Connection, a collection of locally owned craftsman franchises, came with clear marching orders a year out.
“We choose a different city every year, and we were coming off Orlando — our East Coast destination last year,” explains Kleinsasser, director of marketing for Handyman Connection, which is headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We asked our franchisees to vote on the next conference site, and New Orleans was the top vote-getter.”
Kleinsasser reviewed options around the country and came to New Orleans on a site visit hosted by the CVB to assess six potential properties. “The attendees have to be away from their business for three to five days to attend. And cost was definitely part of the factor” that led to choosing New Orleans for the January meeting. “We also felt like the city offered a good mix of cultural, social and business offerings.
“I chose The Westin New Orleans Canal Place for the great location in the heart of the French Quarter, the meeting space offered, the ability to offer our preferred dates and the best package overall. We also loved the fact that we would own all of the third-floor meeting space and contain our franchises and vendors to one main area. The breakout rooms weren’t all over the property.” Although Kleinsasser says her event didn’t entail any unique requirements, “there are a few moving parts that all come together at different times. We hold a Vendor Showcase with 16 to 20 vendors, our general conference and a preconference event. I suggest asking about the hotel’s conference services department and their planning process in advance. Each hotel manages this process differently, so you want to understand it in advance.”
For an offsite event, Kleinsasser says she was not lacking for choices. “Planners should know that New Orleans offers so many options in so many different areas around town. We used NOLA DMC, a locally owned destination management company, and did our social event at Pier 424 on Bourbon Street. They did a fantastic job — we were very pleased with the people, the food, and the location.”
“Take advantage of the help and support of the CVB,” Kleinsasser adds. “They are there for as much or as little as you need.”
Following Katrina, a lot of New Orleans’ rebuilding came about through large infusions of federal funds and support from relief agencies. But one of the ways the city got back on its feet and improved was entirely organic, as the dining scene not only rebounded quickly, but blossomed.
“New Orleans was always a foodie destination,” explains Epton. “But what happened after Katrina was a proliferation of new chefs and restaurants.” The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates that New Orleans had 800 restaurants in 2005, before the storm. Today the number of freestanding restaurants is more than 1,500.
“We’re at the top of the food chain now,” says Epton.
While these restaurants offer everything from gourmet repasts in elegant settings to the home-style cooking of Mother’s Restaurant, for a high-profile, 70-person executive dinner held by Automotive News during the National Automobile Dealers Association Conference (NADA) in January, Nicole Hutchison needed a special venue.
“When planning a program in New Orleans, you have to keep in mind that food is one of the top things that your guests are looking forward to,” explains Hutchison, CMP, and senior sales manager with the New Orleans branch of Access Destination Services. “New Orleans is bursting with culture, and our food is a huge part of that culture. The ingredients and flavors all tell a rich story of our regions and history, and the diversity of the offerings really do help tell a story — the story of New Orleans.”
Hutchison turned to the team at Calcasieu to deliver. A private dining room headed by James Beard Award-winning chef Donald Link, Calcasieu offers a quartet of private dining rooms with a distinctly New Orleans warehouse feel, located just two blocks from the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The rooms can accommodate groups ranging from 20 seated in the intimate Wine Room, to 150 seated, when the three main rooms are combined.
“The space has a clean and simple aesthetic, yet it still manages to incorporate an older, New Orleans vibe,” says Hutchison. “The mixture of exposed brick and stark plain walls allows for you to have simple décor, yet anything that you bring in would not clash and could work nicely in the space.”
And for those who have dined at some of New Orleans’ most celebrated venues previously — as many of the NADA executives probably have — Calcasieu offers something new, yet still refined. The food represents highlights from famed menus in the Link Restaurant Group, such as Cochon, Pêche and Herbsaint, all sourced from local farms and suppliers, with seasonal tasting menus and customized menus starting at $85 per person for dinner.
“The customer service provided by their General Manager Brandy Trepagnier was absolutely wonderful,” adds Hutchison. “She was very flexible with us and allowed us to custom create our final menu based on previous suggestions. She never told me ‘no,’ and she understood my need for quick responses.”
Needless to say, the bar is set very high when it comes to food in New Orleans, and hotel dining has to live up to the city’s reputation for exceptional meals. For Baton Rouge-based event planner Shannon K. Robertson, CAE, the Bourbon Orleans Hotel delivered the goods.
“Great food is a home run for any planner, and the Bourbon Orleans has the best,” says Robertson, who used the hotel for a client’s annual Kick Off Meeting and Masquerade Awards Gala, also in January. “The catering services were incredible. Every meal or break was executed perfectly and timely. The Masquerade Awards Gala menu selection we chose was the best banquet meal I’ve ever eaten in my 25-year planning career, and the attendees still talk about how great the food was.”
The hotel’s historic, 200-year-old Orleans Ballroom was the setting for the Kick Off meeting during the day; the ballroom was then transformed for the awards gala that evening. “We wanted to make sure that the layout of the room showcased a business meeting during the day and a black-tie event that evening. As the oldest and one of the most beautiful ballrooms in the city, it was the perfect venue to accommodate two distinct events in one day. The balcony that overlooks Orleans Street and the French Quarter was a great backdrop for beautiful photographs throughout the day and evening.”
Robertson singled out a number of people at the Bourbon Orleans who helped ensure her event was a success. “From the initial site inspection and contract negotiations with Senior Sales Manager Deepa Woods to menu creation with Alyssa Sheehan, senior catering manager, every aspect of the planning was a priority for the staff team. Mark Becker, MPS, area director of sales, and Alyssa Sheehan, senior catering director were the most welcoming and engaging professionals I’ve had the pleasure to work with in many years.”
“We also couldn’t beat the value-added incentives they provided to my client,” adds Robertson. “They even arranged for a private ‘VIP Afterhours’ in their lounge, the Bourbon O. It was a perfect conclusion to an amazing awards evening.”
Set on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the Watermark Baton Rouge opened in October 2016, repurposing the iconic former Louisiana Trust & Savings Bank, famed for being the city’s first skyscraper in 1927. Part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of individualized boutique hotels, the handsome hotel’s art deco and Greek revival architectural elements have been carefully preserved, including its marble staircase and plaster murals. The property features 2,300 sf of event space, ideal for intimate gatherings.
The year 2016 marked the second-best year on record for the recently renamed Raising Cane’s River Center and Baton Rouge Performing Arts Theater. The facility added 87 new digital monitors and video walls around the complex and introduced two new food outlets. Also in the works: plans for the refurbishment of the Performing Arts Theater that will make the 40-year-old venue a new visual highlight for downtown. Discussions also are underway for the next phase of refurbishments that will focus on the arena and ballroom, which is the largest in Baton Rouge.
Salamander Hotels & Resorts announced that the NOPSI Hotel will open this spring as the latest project to repurpose one of the CBD’s historic buildings, invigorating the city’s increasingly hip downtown lifestyle. The 217-room luxury hotel is named after the 90-year-old New Orleans Public Service Inc. building, a nine-story brick structure abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. The project’s development team has worked closely with the State Historic Preservation Office to ensure that the architectural integrity of the building is retained. The hotel will have almost 14,000 sf of meeting space, including six breakout rooms and a 4,000-sf ballroom located in the adjacent Dryades Building. A 24-foot-high crane and track is being preserved as a unique architectural element and focal point for the ballroom.
In 2016 the Astor Crowne Plaza New Orleans completed a full-scale, $13 million makeover. All 693 guest rooms were renovated, along with all of the hotel’s meeting spaces. The hotel has three ballrooms ranging up to 8,300 sf, and two of the ballrooms have access to balconies. Including breakout rooms, the hotel offers 32,000 sf of meeting space.
The Aloft New Orleans Downtown will be the pilot property launching RoomCast, a wireless personal network system that allows guests to stream content — safely and securely — from their smart devices directly to guest room televisions. Powered by Chromecast, the in-room network is equipped with a password, which guests use to access an app on their iOS or Android devices. At checkout, the personal area network password is reset for the next hotel guest, leaving no data behind.
New Orleans’ most historic playhouse, the 95-year-old Le Petit Théâtre Du Vieux Carré, located just off Jackson Square, completed a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2013. The venue seats 320 and operates seasonally for the playhouse, but the theatre is also available for special events and stage performances. Conveniently, the facility is connected to Tableau, Dickie Brennan’s newest restaurant, with a series of four restored private dining rooms upstairs that can be integrated for a special event. The dining rooms individually seat between 18 and 60 guests, and the entire restaurant can be rented for larger parties.
The 1,622-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside continued a multiphase, multiyear renovation with a facelift for the 24,000-sf Grand Salon Ballroom and the entire second floor meeting space. The renovations included updated carpet, lighting, technology and a complete redesign of the Churchill Ballroom that added airwalls, allowing the 20,000-sf room to divide into seven breakout rooms (compared to its previous three).
The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans offers Impact Experiences, providing opportunities for guests to contribute to the local community. These include working with the 532-room hotel’s culinary team to prepare meal donations to be served at St. Jude Community Center or organizing school supplies for the students at KIPP Central City Academy. Another option is working with Save Our Cemeteries, a uniquely New Orleanian non-profit designed to help restore the above-ground cemeteries, one more facet to the city’s lure and mystery. The Ritz-Carlton offers 35,000 sf of meeting and conference space.
In 2015 the W New Orleans located just opposite the Harrah’s Casino was closed and, following a $29 million renovation, was converted to Le Meridien New Orleans. The brand mingles European sensibilities with contemporary finish, and guests of Le Meridien gain free admission to some of the city’s top art museums. The 410-room hotel has 20 meeting rooms covering more than 20,000 sf of meeting space — all, except for the Grand Ballroom, provide natural light. (The smaller W New Orleans – French Quarter remains in operation.) C&IT