It’s no accident that New Orleans is among the most popular and beloved major meeting destinations in the U.S. Year after year, the Crescent City, so named because of its location on the Mississippi River, draws enthusiastic attendees from across the U.S. to meetings large and small. And its reputation for letting the good times roll invariably precedes their arrival.
“New Orleans is a city that is attractive to a vast majority of Americans,” says Bob Whittemore, manager, marketing campaigns, at St. Louis-based Aclara, which supplies hardware and software to public utilities. Last April, the company hosted its annual AclaraConnect customer and industry conference for 1,000 attendees in the Crescent City.
“It scores very highly in meeting and convention magazines as a desirable destination,” says Whittemore, who used the New Orleans Marriott as his hotel. “So those realities do a lot of our work as planners up front when it comes to using New Orleans as a destination. It’s also easy to get to because the airlift is good. And the city offers top-notch dining and entertainment. So for us, that means the city checks off all the boxes we need to make it work for us.”
The natural and strong appeal of New Orleans is rendered even more important by the fact that AclaraConnect’s attendees come to the meeting voluntarily and pay their own way. “Even more important than that, for us, is that we compete with other conferences in our industry,” Whittemore says. “So we have to deliver a strong value proposition in addition to an appealing destination. And New Orleans did that for us.”
The result? Aclara tied its all-time attendance record.
Not all companies are so easily attracted to New Orleans. Some harbor concerns about its randy reputation.
Although pharmaceutical supplier McKesson had used New Orleans successfully for a meeting more than two decades ago, it had long been removed from consideration because of management concerns that its reputation as “Party Central” meant it was not a family-friendly destination, explains manager of events marketing Ashley Fisher, who relocated to New Orleans two years ago from the company’s San Francisco headquarters.
“So when I was living in San Francisco and planning this meeting five years ago,” Fisher says, “I contacted family members in New Orleans and said, ‘I need you to come up fast with a list of family-friendly things to do in town.’ And once I had that information and showed it to people, they realized New Orleans would be an exciting destination that actually was very family-friendly.”
In July, McKesson hosted its annual ideaShare conference for independent retail pharmacy owners in New Orleans — and attracted more than 5,000 attendees, more than doubling its previous attendance record. That success cannot be solely credited to the destination, but the appeal of the city played a major role, says Fisher, who used the Hilton New Orleans Riverside and Sheraton New Orleans as her co-headquarters hotels.
Cara Banasch, MBA, senior vice president of business development and strategy at the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, is not at all surprised to learn of the initial concerns McKesson management held about the destination not being suitable for family-oriented meetings. “We hear that concern all the time,” Banasch says. “That’s one of the core conversations we have with planners. And it’s true that for most people, at least at first glance, New Orleans appears to be an ‘adult’ destination. But the truth is, once you realize all the things we offer, in addition to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, you realize we are a wonderful family destination that’s a lot of fun. We just have to educate people.”
What makes New Orleans truly special as a destination, Banasch says, is that it is a place of authentic and unique history, culture and character. “There is no other place like it in North America,” she says. “Our food, our music, our architecture, our history, our culture, our people — all of those things make us a one-of-a-kind place. So when it comes to meetings, what happens is that once attendees have been here and experienced the city, they go home realizing they have experienced something very special that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Because New Orleans is one of the top destinations in the country for citywide association conventions that draw thousands of attendees to a single event, its meeting infrastructure is second to none, Banasch notes. “And because of our stature as a major destination, there is perpetual re-investment in our infrastructure, like hotels. That means that all of our hotels are constantly doing whatever it takes to remain fresh and on top of their game.”
Although the city boasts a vast and diverse collection of hotels, from small properties to major convention hotels, its most well-known and typically considered properties include the New Orleans Marriott, JW Marriott New Orleans, Hilton New Orleans Riverside, Sheraton New Orleans, Hyatt Regency New Orleans, Loews New Orleans and The Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The two properties most often used in the French Quarter are the Royal Sonesta and the Hotel Monteleone, a landmark noted for its historical connections to renowned writers including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Truman Capote. “The Monteleone is a gem,” Banasch says.
The city’s newest properties are the Ace Hotel New Orleans, located in the Warehouse District, and the NOPSI Hotel New Orleans, which is operated by Salamander Hotels & Resorts and located in an old utility building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The other big news in New Orleans at the moment is the new $807 million replacement terminal underway at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Due for completion in October of next year, it is being hailed as the most important project in the city since construction of the New Orleans Superdome in 1975.
Yet another factor in the ever-growing popularity of New Orleans as a meeting destination is its globally celebrated dining scene. Although best known for its Cajun-Creole landmarks such as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s and Galatoires, which have all been around for at least 100 years and have since been joined by equally praised newer establishments such as Commander’s Palace, where celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and the late Paul Prudhomme got their starts.
“Our dining scene is constantly evolving, especially since Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” Banasch says. “We now have more than 1,200 restaurants in every conceivable category. And before Katrina, we only had about 800. So our dining scene is just thriving. And it’s no longer just about the old places like Antoine’s or Arnaud’s.”
Hot new restaurants recently opened include Trinity, a new Emeril Lagasse eatery called Meril’s, and Curio, located in the French Quarter and serving what it calls “American cuisine with Creole flair.”
Just as its food scene is one of the factors that makes the city a major draw for meetings, its eclectic list of offsite venues and things to do enhances its appeal.
Even though the Aclara conference included no official offsite events, many attendees, during their free time, ventured into the French Quarter and the city’s other famous neighborhoods, such as shopping and arts district Magazine Street, to experience the unique culture and flavor of the city, Whittemore says. “And on the opening day of the conference, before it officially began that evening, we did offer offsite events such as a walking food tour and a tour of the National World War II Museum,” he says. “And each of the five events we offered was well attended.”
In order to take full advantage of the uniqueness of New Orleans, Fisher and her colleagues planned offsite evening events and activities throughout the city. “Two of the real highlights were an event at the National World War II Museum and our closing night party at Mardi Gras World,” Fisher says.
“Once we realized the kind of attendance we were going to have for the meeting, we realized we needed to move our closing night party to a bigger venue,” Fisher says. “And Mardi Gras World was perfect. We had about 3,000 people at the party. We had live entertainment and stilt walkers greeting people, and we used the Float Den, where the Mardi Gras floats are, as a major backdrop. It was also a beautiful night, so we used the plaza alongside the river. We also staged a mini-Mardi Gras parade. We brought in all sorts of family-friendly activities like face painters and alligator handlers. Then we ended the event in the venue’s ballroom with a concert. And the feedback we got on the Mardi Gras World event was the most positive we got on anything we did.”
A third highlight of McKesson’s meeting was a Mississippi River cruise on the historic paddle wheel boat Creole Queen, which departs from the French Quarter. Fisher did a buyout and drew 700 guests.
Tony Leggio, account executive at local destination management company Hosts Global New Orleans, stresses that in order for a meeting group to truly experience and enjoy New Orleans, they must go offsite for some events.
One unique and extraordinary option is Preservation Hall, an intimate and historic venue located at the heart of the French Quarter. Its mission is to preserve the culture of live New Orleans jazz, played by some its most celebrated elders as well as a younger generation, by showcasing the world-renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band. “What’s really great about doing an event at Preservation Hall, for small groups of up to 75–80 attendees, is that it can be the start of an evening,” Leggio says. “You can do a cocktail reception and concert before you then head out to a dinner somewhere else in the French Quarter.”
Another unique venue Leggio likes is the Old New Orleans Mint, built in 1835, which is in the French Quarter. Today, it includes a small jazz museum in addition to its historical exhibits.
Another French Quarter venue Leggio favors is Bourbon Vieux, a private event venue on Bourbon Street, that features the largest wrought iron balcony on the central thoroughfare of Mardi Gras. “It has very much of an old New Orleans feel on the inside,” Leggio says. “It’s just a spectacular venue,” and, he adds, “You can throw beads from the balcony on the busy Bourbon Street, which is the epitome of a NOLA experience.”
An outdoor venue Leggio often recommends to clients is Crescent Park, which skirts the locally beloved Faubourg-Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. “It’s right along the Mississippi River and it has a beautiful covered space, so you can do a wonderful evening along the river,” Leggio says. “And for meetings, the park can be rented from the city. And it can accommodate groups from small to huge, in the thousands.”
Yet another factor in the success of New Orleans as a meeting destination is its CVB, which provides a wide range of support and attendance-building services.
“We worked very heavily with the CVB,” Whittemore says. “I always work very closely with the local CVB for the AclaraConnect event. And the New Orleans CVB was very helpful. In particular, they helped us promote the conference and build attendance. They are a very talented group.”
Fisher also applauded the CVB for its role in supporting her meeting. “We worked very heavily with the CVB,” she says. “For example, they were very helpful in arranging the event at Mardi Gras World. They also were very helpful in contracting the additional hotels we ended up needing. We started with three, and ended up with 12, so we definitely needed the help. The CVB also provided a concierge-style support desk for attendees in the convention center so people could make dinner reservations or book shows or find out about attractions. The CVB really did a great job.”
Based on their experiences as planners, and the enthusiastic feedback they got from their attendees, both Whittemore and Fisher give high marks to New Orleans as a destination.
“A year after a meeting, no one is going to remember the food,” Whittemore says. “But they are going to remember the destination if it’s a good one where people have fun. And that’s why New Orleans is such a successful destination and why it worked so well for us. It’s fun, it’s unique, and people remember it because they have a great time.”
Adds Fisher, now an enthusiastic resident, “It’s such a vibrant city. The food and music are great. It’s very friendly. The people are great. The culture is amazing. The city is also very walkable. And there’s so much to do that each attendee can create his or her own personal agenda. It’s just a great destination for a meeting.” C&IT