Louisiana boasts three distinct meeting experiences. New Orleans offers boisterous non-stop revelry, omnipresent jazz and some of the world’s finest restaurants. Baton Rouge oozes Southern charm and provides a variety of unique meeting venues. Shreveport-Bossier, whose slogan is “Louisiana’s Other Side,” is home to a bevy of riverboat casinos.
But New Orleans remains the main driver of Louisiana’s expanding meetings industry. The Big Easy will be 300 years old in 2018 and is more popular than ever as borne out by key measures such as repeat visitation.
During 2014, 62.6 percent of visitors indicated they were making a return trip, according to the 2014 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile study. In addition, 57.8 percent of business and convention visitors extended stays by an average of two nights, up from 55.4 percent in 2013.
“Some people may not want to do the Bourbon Street scene. They may want something quiet in a private home in the garden district with a three-piece trio. There’s something for everybody.”
— Bonnie Boyd
Accolades keep pouring in for New Orleans. In October 2015, the city was named the No. 5 Big City in the U.S., according to Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards 2015. In July 2015, Travel + Leisure named New Orleans the No. 2 city in the U.S. and Canada after Charleston, South Carolina.
In April, the San Diego-based ISU Insurance Agency Network held a three-day meeting in New Orleans for 280 insurance agents and executives. It was the group’s first meeting in the city, according to Andrea H. Glenn, ISU vice president and meeting planner. The meeting was a hit for everyone, including those who had never been to New Orleans and originally had doubts about coming. “I was surprised at the number of people in our group who had never visited New Orleans,” says Glenn. “Our members range in age from late 20s to mid-60s. There was some concern that some may not like the Bourbon Street scene. I emailed people information about the city, and they saw that there was a lot to do besides partying. Everybody said they had a good time.”
The group chose New Orleans for two reasons. “I poll the group every year on where they would like to go and New Orleans started coming up a lot,” Glenn says. “Also, my priority was making sure people have time to socialize and get to know one another outside of a business setting, and New Orleans has lots of places for that.”
The fun networking activities started during the group’s registration at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans. “I had two alligators with handlers set up in one of the meeting halls,” says Glenn. “That was an icebreaker. There was a social media booth set up so people could take their pictures with the alligators and show them to each other. They used the booth to send pictures to friends and coworkers who weren’t there. We also had a Twitter account set up for people to post pictures.
A welcome reception was scheduled to be held outdoors on The Ritz-Carlton’s grounds. “But it rained so we brought it inside,” says Glenn. “We hired look-alikes from the TV show “Duck Dynasty” through a talent agency. People posed with them for pictures while a Cajun band performed.”
Other events included a cocktail reception with jazz music in The Ritz-Carlton’s Crescent View meeting room, which offers a scenic view of New Orleans. During another function, a dinner in a Ritz-Carlton ballroom, entertainment was provided by Bronkar, who combined comedy, jugging and music. Bronkar bills himself as “the world’s only rhythmic juggling beatboxer.”
Off-property activities included a gala dinner at the World War II Museum, a popular venue. “It started with cocktails in the French Quarter room at the hotel as a Second Line parade band performed, says Glenn. “The band led us outside to buses in front of the hotel. At the museum, we had a cocktail buffet with musical entertainment by a 1940s USO-type show we booked through the museum. Attendees took pictures with three women who were dressed in a 1940s vampy style and sailors attired in uniforms from the era.
The museum also hosted a dinner this year for 160 attendees who were staying at The Ritz-Carlton for an insurance company incentive. “We took them over by bus and they saw a movie about World War II narrated by (actor) Tom Hanks,” says Bonnie Boyd, CMP, DMCP, president, BBC Destination Management, a New Orleans DMC. “We brought in a 92-year-old World War II veteran to speak about his experiences. They had exclusive use of the museum’s Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, which was set up for a buffet dinner. They also danced to the band.”
An international financial firm also held its first meeting in New Orleans — a three-day incentive for about 100 executives at one of the city’s luxury hotels. New Orleans’ music figured significantly in the decision, says Diane Lyons, CMP, DMCP, president, Accent on Arrangements, a native New Orleanian who founded the New Orleans DMC. “The group included a lot of Europeans, and they love New Orleans because of jazz,” she says. “We wanted to tie that into their meeting by having jazz musicians in their activities.”
Activities included a parade to a restaurant. “We put them on Mardi Gras-type floats in front of the hotel,” says Lyons. “Each float had 30 people and a jazz trio. They were greeted in front of Emeril’s Delmonico restaurant by costumed revelers. After dinner, they went to a private club on Bourbon Street for cocktails and desert. Afterwards, a jazz trumpet player performed as the group threw beads to people.”
The group also participated in a Corporate Social Responsibility program (CSR) by spending a half-day at a food bank preparing and distributing meals. Attendees watched a film depicting how the food bank helps people, and then they passed out box lunches to families.
Corporate Social Responsibility programs continue to be very popular among corporate groups, especially those that provide help to hospitals, homes, schools, food banks and playgrounds.
Last year, many of the 400 attendees at an insurance company incentive planned by Boyd spent a day building bookshelves at three New Orleans-area charter schools. “People came with an expectation of doing something to make a difference,” says Boyd. “They believed they exceeded their expectations. It was a very warm and fuzzy feeling for them. Later, we showed a video of the effort at the awards dinner. We also had survivors of Katrina talk about their rebuilding experiences.”
Several major construction projects are underway that New Orleans officials believe will attract even more meetings. “It has been 10 years since Katrina, and we are going gangbusters,” says Boyd. “Our comeback will not fizzle out, and that is what is so exciting about the city’s future. There is a fair amount of building and expansion going on.”
The fastest growing airport in the U.S., Louis Armstrong International Airport, will begin construction on a new terminal facility to be completed in 2018 and has added a variety of new flights.
New Orleans offers about 40,000 hotel rooms with some of the most popular properties within walking distance of the French Quarter. The city has picked up where it left off before Katrina hit, continuing to build new properties and expand existing ones, including the following:
Le Meridien New Orleans has completed a $29 million renovation that includes 410 redesigned guest rooms; a new destination restaurant and two other new food and beverage outlets; and 1,600 sf of additional meeting and event space, bringing the total to 20,000 sf. The transformation also includes improvement of existing meeting space, and a redesigned front desk and port-cochere valet entrance.
The 346-room AAA Four Diamond Omni Royal Orleans Hotel has completed a $15 million renovation. The makeover includes guest rooms, improved lighting, custom furniture and 24 wrought-iron balconies. Other improvements include refurbished meeting rooms with new furniture, window treatments and carpeting. The property’s 14,000-sf of function space includes 17 meeting rooms and the 5,284-sf Grand Salon.
The Omni Riverfront Hotel, formerly the Riverfront New Orleans, has reopened following an $8 million renovation of all guest rooms, which now include new carpet and furniture, 42-inch, flat-screen televisions, and black-tiled bathrooms. Located near the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the Omni Riverfront offers 202 guest rooms and 4,000 sf of meeting space.
Loews New Orleans has finished a $4 million renovation of its 285 guest rooms and suites as well as Café Adelaide. The property updated and refreshed its corridors and made improvements to carpeting, art, lamps and sconces.
The 166-suite Homewood Suites by Hilton New Orleans Downtown opened in the Central Business District with 2,500 sf of meeting space.
The Wyndham New Orleans French Quarter’s completed renovation encompassed 374 guest rooms, parking garage and the property’s exterior.
The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO) has been in talks with a group of developers to build The Trade District, a Convention Center District Development Project, which would include an MGM Grand hotel, more than 1,400 residences, a 250,000-sf building dedicated to retail space, a needle-shaped structure with views of the Mississippi River and much more. The development site sits just upriver from the MCCNO, which recently transformed existing spaces into the 60,300-sf, column-free Great Hall. The MCCNO also added 25,400 sf of prefunction space, a 4,660-sf junior ballroom, a 3,420-sf rooftop terrace, a 5,700-sf executive club lounge and a 980-sf indoor balcony. The MCCNO currently offers 140 meeting rooms, 1.1 million sf of exhibit space and the 4,000-seat New Orleans Theatre.
Elsewhere in New Orleans, the historic World Trade Center building will begin construction next year on a $360 million redevelopment project, which will be the home of the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences New Orleans. Plans call for 350 guest rooms, two signature restaurants, more than 20,000 sf of meeting space, a Four Seasons spa and fitness center, and a roof-top pool and deck. The two-story rooftop cupola, which at one time was a restaurant in the round, will become a spectacular sightseeing attraction.
In addition, the historic Orpheum Theater has reopened for the first time since 2005 in the city’s Central Business District following a $13 million renovation that includes an expanded lobby, reconstructed acoustic shell, larger seats and more bathrooms and bars. The theater, which opened in 1918, is on the National Register for Historic Places.
The Orpheum is an intimate concert and performance space with perfect sight lines and unparalleled acoustics from each of its seats, which range in number from 1,500 to 1,800 due to the customizable floor seating. Three levels of seating, private VIP boxes at the gallery level and six bars round out the audience space, while six green rooms and a full-service kitchen are available behind the scenes.
The new adjustable floor allows the space to be utilized for meetings and banquets. The floor plan can accommodate receptions for 800 guests or seated dinners for 300 guests. The theater is equipped with state-of-the-art sound and lighting, a projection screen and displays for presentations or branding, green rooms that can be used for small meeting breakouts and VIP spaces for a fully adaptable event experience. The space can accommodate live music, private parties, corporate meetings and events, comedy acts, Mardi Gras balls and more.
According to the New Orleans CVB, cruising from New Orleans has become increasingly popular, and the industry is experiencing a boom: American Cruise Lines added a second riverboat to its river cruise offerings from New Orleans in April 2015, and Carnival Cruise Lines will expand its capacity in New Orleans by replacing the Carnival Triumph with the Carnival Elation in April 2016.
Also, the New Orleans Steamboat Company and Gray Line Tours will build a new Mississippi riverboat for New Orleans. The new boat will complement the Steamboat Natchez, offering harbor cruises, dinner cruises and private charters beginning in 2017.
Viking Cruises also will launch two new luxury riverboats on the Mississippi River in New Orleans in 2017, making New Orleans Viking’s first homeport in North America.
The region’s Southern flavor reflects the influences of its location — Northwest Louisiana along the Red River less than 20 miles from the Texas border. Shreveport-Bossier City combines fine dining and Cajun entertainment with events such as the Mudbug Madness Festival and gaming.
The area is known for its riverfront gaming properties, including The Horseshoe Bossier City Hotel and Casino, a Caesars Entertainment property with 606 suites and a new $3.5 million tropical swimming pool.
Other gaming properties include Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Resort Casino, the Eldorado Shreveport Resort & Casino, Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall, DiamondJacks Casino & Resort, Boomtown Casino Hotel and Harrah’s Louisiana Downs.
Hotel rooms and meeting space are plentiful. The region provides more than 10,000 hotel rooms, with many located along the riverfront. The region’s biggest meeting space is the Shreveport Convention Center, a 350,000-sf, state-of-the-art facility, followed by the 24,000-sf Bossier Civic Center.
When it comes to great golf, Shreveport-Bossier boasts several top-flight courses. These include Olde Oaks Golf Club, designed in collaboration with golf pro Hal Sutton and the Golf Club at Stonebridge, designed by the popular PGA pro Fred Couples and Gene Bates.
Like all destinations in Louisiana, Shreveport-Bossier offers tasty cuisine prepared with a mix of cultural influences. The area boasts its own distinctive take on Cajun and Creole dishes and offers traditional Southern dishes with a Shreveport-Bossier twist.
Louisiana’s capital, located 80 miles from New Orleans, offers its own version of cultural attractions, restaurants and nightclubs flavored with Creole, French and Spanish heritage. Baton Rouge is an affordable and sophisticated city that specializes in meetings for up to 2,000 attendees. The 12,000-seat Baton Rouge River Center is a multipurpose entertainment, convention and meeting facility.
Many larger groups use the Baton Rouge River Center (BRRC), a multipurpose entertainment, convention and meeting facility. The BRRC includes 17 breakout rooms, a new 70,000-sf Exhibition Hall, Arena and Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Baton Rouge offers a range of historical, cultural and government venues for special events. Popular sites include Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, a 160-year-old National Historic Landmark and Gothic building featuring displays honoring former governor Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in 1935. The Old Governor’s mansion is a museum with displays and memorability showcasing nine Louisiana governors.
The Museum of Art offers a 13,000-sf gallery that accommodates up to 400 guests. The Shaw Center for the Arts, a 125,000-sf mainstay of the revitalized downtown, offers several venues that planners can reserve for gatherings.
The fine-dining scene continues to prosper. Popular restaurants include Beausoleil Restaurant & Bar, Dolce Vita, Blend, The Cove and Juban’s — all of which offer dining space that can be reserved for small groups.
New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport-Bossier City can meet the needs of just about any meeting or incentive. That’s especially true of New Orleans. “In the end, what’s important to stakeholders is good returns on investment for sending people,” says Glenn. “Higher-ups who may not go to the meeting want to know that people are having a good time and achieving the goals of the meeting.”
Louisiana’s diverse amenities and cultural offerings also can help any meeting achieve its goals. “You can tailor the experience to each group depending on what they want,” says Boyd. “Some people may not want to do the Bourbon Street scene. They may want something quiet in a private home in the garden district with a three-piece trio. There’s something for everybody.” I&FMM