New Orleans, perennially hailed as one of the country’s most popular meeting destinations, has held onto its accolades for so long for two simple reasons. It is one of the most unique and endearing cities in the world. It also offers an ever-increasing range of options for meeting planners and attendees.
“For meeting attendees, New Orleans is a destination that has something to offer to all types of people of all ages,” says Cindy Hayes, CMP, DMCP, director of sales at PRA New Orleans. “There’s the French Quarter and the Garden District. There’s shopping and dining along Magazine Street. There are great museums and other activities. And, there are unique outdoor activities like tours of the bayou.
“New Orleans is not just Bourbon Street and the party scene. There is so much more to it than that,” she says.
And, one of the factors that makes the Crescent City such a successful meeting destination, Hayes says, is that it is eminently walkable.
“That’s really one of the things that makes us so popular with meeting planners and attendees,” she adds.
Evelyn Behrend, a director at global accounting and consulting behemoth PwC in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, chose New Orleans for the first time last November for one of the company’s most important meetings, an annual four-day, three-night conference for almost 600 client attendees from around the world.
Why New Orleans? “It was simply a matter of selecting a location that we thought would be interesting for our people to go to,” Behrend says. “It was also a matter of going to a destination where we felt there would be fun activities for our attendees.”
“There’s the French Quarter and the Garden District….There are great museums … and unique outdoor activities like tours of the bayou. New Orleans is not just Bourbon Street and the party scene. There is so much more to it than that.”
— Cindy Hayes, CMP, DMCP
Most of her attendees pay their own way to the conference, Behrend says, so the drawing power of the destination is also a key factor in her decision-making.
“We alternate between resort-style destinations and city center destinations,” she says. “And in this instance, we opted for a city center destination. Part of the reason we selected New Orleans was the relatively warm climate in November. The other, more important factor was the relative value we got for the spend for this conference. And then, of course, we knew that New Orleans was a place where people would want to go.”
Jackie Gee, events director at Alviso, California-based financial services firm World System Builder, also chose New Orleans for the first time, for a four-day, three-night, citywide meeting that attracted 13,000 attendees from the U.S. and Canada in March 2017.
“We’re based near San Jose, California, and in the past, we’ve had all of our meetings there,” Gee says. “But by last year’s meeting, we had outgrown San Jose, so we started looking elsewhere. We were invited to New Orleans for a site visit by the CVB, and we looked at all the venues, including the convention center and the major hotels. We liked the convention center very much, and we also liked the hotels, so we decided to go there.”
World System Builder booked 20 hotels, including the city’s major meeting hotels, such as New Orleans Marriott, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel and Hilton New Orleans Riverside. Company staff stayed at the Hyatt Place New Orleans Convention Center, located across the street from the facility where Gee hosted her exhibitors and meeting sessions.
She worked with destination management company Hosts New Orleans, of the Hosts Global network, to plan a spectacular opening night dinner event for 800 attendees at Mardi Gras World, an indoor-outdoor venue that features an outdoor pavilion. Mardi Gras World is home to much of the work done to stage Mardi Gras, including the creation of many of its famous floats. The facility can host groups of up to 5,000.
“That event was really fun,” Gee says. “Mardi Gras World is a great venue.” The next night, the company hosted its annual awards banquet at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, widely hailed as one of the best in the country. On Saturday night, with the help of Hosts New Orleans, Gee staged a sensational Mardi Gras parade through the streets for attendees.
“We had a marching band and floats and everything you’d see at Mardi Gras, which had ended just before we got there,” she says. Hayes notes that such parades, known as “second line” parades, are wildly popular with corporate meeting planners because they epitomize New Orleans culture and tradition.
“In New Orleans, we hold parades for all kinds of things, including funerals,” she says. “And a ‘second line’ parade is the second group that follows whoever is leading the front end of the parade, which is typically a band. The second line includes a smaller band that plays New Orleans jazz. It’s among the most popular activities for groups because it’s so participatory. And, what we do for corporate groups is add all kinds of elements to the parade, such as a high school marching band, stilt walkers or Mardi Gras floats that people can ride. They offer such a unique experience, and they deliver the wow factor.”
For meeting groups, the parades typically march from the hotel to a location in the French Quarter, such as world-famous Pat O’Brien’s bar or Bourbon Street. As a planner, one of the things Gee liked most about New Orleans is its convention center. She used one hall for her 50 exhibitors and another for general sessions and extensive breakouts.
“The convention center is an awesome venue,” she says. “The service is amazing. They really stay on top of things. And, both the exhibit space and meeting space are excellent.”
She also praises the city’s vast hotel product, which evolved over decades as a result of the clout New Orleans has in the citywide association meeting market.
“All of the hotels were fantastic,” Gee says. “One of the nice things about New Orleans is that there are so many excellent hotels within walking distance of the convention center and the French Quarter.”
She also cited the city’s famous dining and entertainment scene as a major factor in the success of her meeting.
“After our events were over each night, a lot of our attendees went out on their own,” she says. “Among the places I heard the most about were the famous places like Brennan’s and Arnaud’s restaurants. According to the feedback I got from people, all of the restaurants in town serve really great food and have great service. And, people also liked going to the bars on Bourbon Street. What I can say for sure is that all of our attendees really enjoyed New Orleans. It’s just a fantastic destination.”
She also praised the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau for the assistance and support it offered.
“The CVB did a great job when I was planning the meeting,” Gee says. “During my site visit, they had the people from Hosts New Orleans take us on a tour of the city. They showed us multiple venues as options for our opening night event. They helped us find a great band for our parade. The CVB also gave us a lot of great information that we could pass on to our attendees about all the things to do in New Orleans in their free time. The CVB went all out to make us feel welcome.”
Based on her experience in New Orleans, and those of her attendees, Gee credits the destination with making her first venture outside of California with her annual meeting a major success.
“Everyone had an awesome time,” she says. “And, because we were arriving two days after Mardi Gras ended, some of our people chose to come in early and experience some of those festivities. They just loved it.”
Behrend’s excursion to New Orleans was her first, as well, and every bit as successful as Gee’s. Behrend also worked with the New Orleans CVB from the time the destination came under serious consideration, and she went on a site visit. The level of attention and support she got from the CVB ultimately played a key role in finalizing New Orleans as the destination.
“They were able to provide a lot of great ideas about what to do with people once they got to the destination,” Behrend says. “They really know their city. And, that expertise proved to be enormously helpful in planning the conference.”
Behrend chose the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, located adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as her hotel.
“It was just a matter of getting the dates, number of rooms and meeting space we needed, and meeting our budgetary requirements. But another factor was that we also wanted a hotel that we knew would appeal to our client attendees.”
Behrend hosted her opening night event on the pool deck at the hotel. She also staged an offsite event at the National World War II museum, the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction. PwC did a partial buyout of the complex, and the facility catered the food and beverage.
“One of the pavilions we bought out was the one with all of the planes so people can walk around and see them, which is amazing,” she says. “What’s interesting and fun about the museum is that people can walk around in the various pavilions and explore. You learn a tremendous amount about the history of World War II. And, it also provides an excellent opportunity for people to mingle and network.”
Like Gee, Behrend also opted for a second line parade that led attendees from the Hyatt Regency to Champions Square, an outdoor festival space also located near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“After the parade, we had a nice dinner that was catered by the hotel,” she says. “We also brought in some food trucks and had a band on the stage. It was a beautiful evening, weather-wise, and a lovely event.”
Although much of the eternal fame, or infamy, of New Orleans is tied to Bourbon Street — home to one of the finest meeting hotels, the Royal Sonesta New Orleans — Mardi Gras and its year-round wild party scene, Hayes counsels meeting planners who are considering the destination that it is much more than that.
“Many groups today are very interested in the unique history and culture of New Orleans, such as the fact that jazz and Cajun and Creole cuisine were created here,” she says. “We’re now celebrating our 300-year anniversary as a city this year. Partly for that reason, and partly because New Orleans is just such a unique place, The New York Times recently listed us as the No. 1 tourist destination in the entire world for 2018.”
Among the activities she encourages clients to consider is a morning or afternoon tour of Magazine Street, a showcase of the city’s history and culture.
“Magazine Street offers one of the most authentic experiences you can have in New Orleans,” Hayes says. “It’s a very long, very old street that runs parallel to St. Charles Avenue. And along the way, you see residences, as well as boutiques, galleries, antique stores and excellent local restaurants.”
She also advises clients to escape the city limits and explore the area. “For example, out on the bayou, you can do boat tours or overflights in helicopters or sea planes. When you go outside the city limits and realize that we are surrounded by water, you realize that there are many things to do in terms of fun and unique outdoor activities.”
Popular outings include swamp tours that allow attendees to see alligators and other local wildlife. Bayou Barn, on the edge of the bayou, is a one-of-a-kind offsite venue where groups can enjoy a Cajun-style seafood boil and live music, as well as canoe or airboat tours into the swamp.
When it comes to dining options, Hayes says that the city’s time- honored classical eateries remain the most popular with groups. The holy trinity of French Quarter restaurants are Arnaud’s, Antoine’s and Galatoire’s. Antoine’s, opened in 1840, is the oldest family-run restaurant in the U.S. And Galatoire’s, beloved for its extraordinarily fresh Gulf seafood, has been a local favorite of French Quarter foodies for more than a century. The other member of the local dining hall of fame is the Garden District-located Commander’s Palace, where celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and the late Paul Prudhomme got their starts.
Given its singular history and formidable reputation as a haven of fine-dining and entertainment, it’s no surprise that New Orleans retains its status as a top meeting destination year after year, decade after decade.
“New Orleans is a world-renowned city, known for its food, music, history and culture,” Hayes says. “There is no other place like it. And, it’s a lot of fun. For meeting groups, it really delivers the wow factor.”
As for why Gee and her attendees liked it so much, the answer is simple. “The Southern hospitality,” she says. I&FMM