For many visitors, cuisine is what defines the New Orleans experience. Creole, Cajun and Southern soul cooking form the culinary backbone, but the city’s sophisticated denizens have successfully lured fine chefs from other regions to set up shop and develop a food scene that is smart and trend-defying. Others will point to the city’s robust cultural heritage, where the collision of French, Spanish and African influences produce one of America’s most distinct societies.
Some will reflect on the architecture of New Orleans — the French Quarter, the Garden District, the elevated European-style cemeteries — as defining what makes this city so special. And New Orleans’ musical heritage is undeniable: The Crescent City was the birthplace of jazz, and today the clubs and other venues remain well-stocked with a long roster of full-time musicians who happily share their craft with visitors.
“One of the key things we want to include…is New Orleans music in all its forms. …We’ve decided to use jazz as a common thread that flows through the entire forum.”
— Terry Epton
Individually or in tandem, these are among the attributes that can be woven into a successful meeting program in this great Southern city. They are among the assets that will distinguish a New Orleans gathering from the location of any previous setting meeting groups may have experienced.
Consider the plans Hosts New Orleans president Terry Epton, CIS, CITE, DMCP, is finalizing for the HGA Global Forum in June.
“The city has so many things to choose from, and if you have a mediocre event you’ll lose your attendees,” explains Epton. “One of the key things we want to include at the Hosts Global Forum is New Orleans music in all its forms. In coordination with Cara Banasch from the CVB we’ve decided to use jazz as a common thread that flows through the entire forum. It will range from school children performing to award-winning performance groups, but there won’t be any commercial jazz plug-ins.
“One night we’ll have Mardi Gras Indians with two tribes coming together at Jackson Square, followed by a jazz performance by Kermit Ruffins and Grammy-winner Irving Mayfield at Le Petit Théâtre Du Vieux Carré, the oldest community theater in America. After the performance, we’ll reveal a courtyard next door which leads into the restaurant Tableau, where we will use the entire facility. After dinner, we’ll do another parade featuring imbedded street performers.
“They’re going to get a taste of what life in New Orleans is like,” adds Epton. “But you need an awesome DMC to pull this off, a company that’s tapped into the local scene, to be able to get this kind of quality experience.”
Fortunately, not only does New Orleans have locally based DMCs, but the city’s convention and visitors bureau encourages a dialogue during the sales process, to tap into the city’s wealth of heritage.
“We have so many resources we can customize, so for something like music we find out, what are the goals,” says Cara Banasch, MBA, senior vice president of sales and strategy for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For instance, we identify where are the places we can drop in music as a surprise-and-delight moment. Most of our musicians are from New Orleans, and they can create a very authentic, welcome statement at the start of a meeting. At a coffee break, as long as it’s not too loud, why not have it as an enhancement, or to transition from one space to the next? Second lines and brass bands can also be integrated into almost any movement — it gets groups away from air horns and xylophones.”
We already know New Orleans as a one-of-a-kind in America, but these are the kind of localized touches that make the city a memorable convention and meeting destination. And the numbers bear that out.
In 2016, visitors spent $7.41 billion dollars in New Orleans, a 5.1 percent increase over the visitor spending record set in 2015. The city hosted a record-breaking 10.45 million visitors in 2016, the highest number since 2004 and a 6.9 percent increase compared to 2015. The meeting business appears to be growing apace.
“In 2015 we did about 300 corporate events,” says Banasch. “In 2016, we were up by about 10 percent, and for 2017 so far we’re already up about 20 percent.”
Over the years, New Orleans has repeatedly had to rediscover and renew itself, most notably following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2006. As Banasch explains: “There’s been a necessity to reinvent ourselves, and through that, we’ve become one of the premiere hubs for entrepreneurialism and start-ups. We’ve always had a lot of locally owned businesses and boutiques — when you’re buying clothing or art, you’re often buying it from the person who owns the store, or maybe even designed it.
“In the corporate world you hear about reinvention and disruption. But when you think about it, that’s what New Orleans is about, and I think a lot of businesses look to us as a space where they can take inspiration from the local culture.”
One asset destined for reinvention is the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. An all-new, nearly $1 billion state-of-the-art terminal for the airport is under construction and set to open in early 2019. Originally planned for 30 gates, in January the city announced the airport would construct an additional five gates to accommodate increasing demand, which has led to a 7 percent increase in seats into the airport this year. In March, British Airways launched a nonstop flight from London-Heathrow; in May, Condor Airlines debuted a seasonal flight from Frankfurt.
That kind of access is vital for many of the corporate groups New Orleans seeks to lure, and it was a key reason the city was a good fit for Sheila Fuzy, president of Fishers, Indiana-based Fuzion Training, Marketing and Communications, who has organized several programs for a luxury automotive manufacturer in the city, most recently in May.
“New Orleans was the perfect location for these events, as it is centrally located,” explains Fuzy. “The majority of our participants were able to travel in on direct flights.”
But another part of the equation for Fuzy was identifying a meeting property she could partner with over successive events, and she found it in the Hotel Monteleone, where she says the entire team was “committed to assisting us in executing our vision.” That vision involved a number of unique requirements.
“I’ll give you a few examples,” says Fuzy. “For the first program we worked with the hotel on, we decided to have a parade with our clients’ vehicles. We conducted the parade eight times over the course of the time that we were there. This required us to work closely with the hotel as they had all of the contacts we needed, ranging from city permitting to close down Royal Street, Canal Street and Bourbon Street, to sourcing bands, dancers, etc.
“In addition, we had a vision for the dinner reception that was a bit different than what the hotel’s catering team had executed in the past. We wanted it to be very free-flowing, so guests could mingle while enjoying local cuisine. The hotel executed flawlessly. There were various stations set up in the ballroom that allowed guests to sample at their leisure versus in a traditional sit-down dinner.
“For the second event,” Fuzy continues, “our concept was to project a map on the building across the street, and the Hotel Monteleone again jumped into action. We had to remove several windows in the building in order to accommodate the projection equipment. In addition, the hotel assisted in working with the owner of the building to set up a lease agreement to utilize the property to display our client’s products. This required removal of storefront glass, and permitting to shut down Royal Street. We also used the marquee above the hotel to showcase our band. This was something that had not been done before.
“Sometime hotel properties are hesitant to let you do things like this,” adds Fuzy. “The Hotel Monteleone was all about helping us figure out how to make it happen.”
Built in 1886 on Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter, the 570-room Monteleone offers more than 24,000 sf of meeting space, ranging from breakout rooms to the 6,236-sf La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom. The hotel’s famed, 25-seat Carousel Bar has been revolving since 1949 while standards spin — live.
“The event spaces at the Hotel Monteleone are traditional New Orleans, but also allow you a canvas to create a vision,” says Fuzy. “The hotel rooms are again traditional, but upscale and luxurious.” But it’s the service and level of professionalism that Fuzy says keep her coming back.
“The entire team at the Hotel Monteleone is absolutely amazing. Sales Manager Lisa Thompson is simply one of the best in the business, and I cannot say enough about how thorough Lisa is or the attention to detail she provides. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and she is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. Kent, Keith and Edie also were an absolute pleasure to work with. Their commitment to ensuring our event was a success was unparalleled and greatly appreciated. I truly feel like the entire staff was an extension of our team. From the front desk, to the doormen, valet staff, chef and catering team.”
Another group that had stringent meeting requirements was Illycaffè, the Italian coffee roaster, which held their annual North American commercial meeting for a group of 100 in New Orleans in 2016.
“Illycaffè is very exclusive brand, and they will only go to venues that rep their company, either through a café inside, or in their banquet rooms,” explains Michelle Johnson, owner of the Anchor Group, which organized the meeting. In New Orleans, just four hotels carry Illy, which narrowed the field considerably, but Johnson was delighted by her final pick, Le Méridien New Orleans. The 410-room hotel has 20 meeting rooms covering more than 20,000 sf of meeting space — all, except for the Grand Ballroom, providing natural light.
“Le Méridien met Illy’s exacting requirements for standards of excellence,” says Johnson, “the customer service levels, their knowledge and experience working with meetings, the cleanliness throughout the hotel. One of the things that impressed me, was that everything in the hotel has something to do with New Orleans. Walking in the front door, there’s a tall wall that stands two floors (high); if you look at it carefully you see it’s a topographical map that shows the evolution of the levees.”
Johnson appreciated how elevators take meeting guests straight from their rooms to the meeting space without having to navigate the lobby. The group took up the whole ballroom for its functions, which meant no dedicated space for breakfast. Instead, the hotel gave Illy the restaurant and made allowances for the group to dine at their convenience each morning. But there were still challenges.
“Illy doesn’t do anything easy,” suggests Johnson. “For them, it’s not just making coffee, it’s an art, and there’s technical and a quality team to set up a full ensemble of equipment. These are not cheap espresso machines — they come to these meetings with a $50,000 mac-daddy machine, and they require water, power, everything. We set it up the day before a meeting starts, break it down the day after — and once you set it up, you don’t want to break it down. The hotel did really well with that.”
The hotel’s main ballroom served for the general session with a stage, breakout room and an awards dinner, for which a Mardi Gras theme was incorporated to bring a masquerade ball to life. By the next morning, the room was converted back for breakout sessions.
Johnson organized two events offsite — one to visit the three other hotels serving Illy and a local Illy café. The attendees were divided up for the site visits, which included entertainment, appetizers and specialty cocktails, and then regrouped for dinner at a local restaurant.
“One of Illy’s main considerations is to try and make sure we immerse the team into the culture of the city,” Johnson adds. “So, Illy does a community service event wherever we go. In New Orleans, we did a beautification project for a school that had lost some of its funding. We used yellow school buses and took them down to 9th Ward to plant trees. It was so inspiring, and the group loved getting their hands dirty.”
One of the interesting aspects for New Orleans is that the city’s 28,000 hotel rooms are primarily located in or close to downtown, and 85 percent of them are within walking distance of each other. Many of the hotels are smaller, boutique properties brimming with character and individuality, but with modest meeting space. But although smaller events like the one for Illycaffè are common, the city has its share of big venues as well, including the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, with 1.1 million sf of exhibit space.
But you can go even bigger.
For the annual convention of an insurance client last October, New Orleans-based Kuoni Destination Management was tasked with finding a venue that offered enough space to accommodate seating for a 1,600-person awards dinner as well as a custom stage with extensive lighting, video components and the ability to host a pyrotechnics finale.
Solution: The turf field of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“The Superdome was chosen based on its size and the wow factor,” says Denise Ferrier Mavor, CMP, Kuoni’s regional manager of sales, central. “Being able to accommodate a 1,600-person seated dinner, along with having the turf down, created a unique experience that offered everything the client was looking for. They needed flexible space, extensive production capabilities, high-level food and beverage service, and an experienced event team that could work through the logistical requirements to ensure a successful event.”
The SMG-managed Superdome is a surprisingly busy space, especially when combined with the adjacent Smoothie King Center, an indoor arena that is home to the NBA Pelicans (and also managed by SMG). Turf events are possible outside of NFL season, August through January, but the Superdome has a variety of other event spaces to offer. These include the 45,000-sf outdoor Champions Square, which features a 60-foot-wide stage, and various indoor function rooms and club lounges.
During negotiations with the Superdome, the sales team informed Kuoni of another confirmed event set to transpire the day prior, right during setup for the client’s Awards Dinner.
“Since the Awards Dinner had extensive production requirements, we needed to work closely with the facility to plan the logistical schedule to accommodate the production pre-rig requirements, loading dock schedules, pre-show storage space for 1,600 chairs and the pre-rig of the pyrotechnics display,” explains Ferrier Mavor. “Jennifer Cooke Talbot, Elizabeth Brown and Katherine Miller with SMG did an outstanding job of working with us to accommodate the extensive rigging points for the production and pyrotechnics needs. The teams also worked together to blend their production schedules to streamline the conflicting load-out and load-in of the two different events, along with NFL technical rehearsals for the Saints game that weekend. This coordinated effort ensured that we adhered to our timelines and completed all required inspections to produce the event.”
Centerplate is the Superdome’s catering company, and Ferrier Mavor says Justin Roux, catering manager, and Lenny Martinsen, executive chef, presented a detailed explanation of the logistics behind preparing and serving more than 1,600 meals simultaneously, as well as how the team planned to accommodate special dietary requests. “The Centerplate catering team presented a three-course gourmet meal working from four quadrant kitchens to keep service coordinated in a timely manner within our show plan. The execution was spot-on.”
While the Awards Dinner at the Superdome was undoubtedly a highlight for the group — just stepping out onto the field under the enormous dome sets jaws agape — there were other, only-in-New-Orleans functions that the attendees will likely remember as well.
“The client had several off-property functions including transporting the 1,600 attendees on 30 Super Floats in a parade to the Fat Tuesday Extravaganza at Mardi Gras World,” recalls Ferrier Mavor. “There was an executive lunch on the stage of the historic Saenger Theater, and we had a tour program with activities ranging from swamp tours, city tours, riverboat cruises, walking tours and haunted history tours.”
“New Orleans offers such a wide variety of quality restaurants, unique event venues and outstanding entertainment options, the challenge arises in selecting just one from the many great options available,” she adds. C&IT