Rediscover New OrleansJanuary 1, 2014

'There's No Other Place Like It in America' By
January 1, 2014

Rediscover New Orleans

'There's No Other Place Like It in America'
New Orleans Skyline. Credit Alex Demyan/

New Orleans Skyline. Credit: Alex Demyan/

By now, there aren’t many meeting planners who are not familiar with the formidable reputation New Orleans enjoys as a singular and spectacular destination for both meetings and incentive programs. And it is particularly popular with insurance and financial planners — so much so that FICP will come to town again this year when it hosts an educational conference there this summer.

The primary reasons why the Crescent City is so wildly popular are its people and hospitality, says Emily Coia, conference director at Metairie, LA-based Jefferson Financial, which has been hosting its annual New Orleans Investment Conference for about 1,000 attendees there each October for 40 years.

“New Orleans is a unique city,” Coia says. “When you’re there, you just know you’re in a place that’s not like any other city. It feels totally unique because it is.” And playing major roles in that uniqueness equation are the city’s legendary local food and music scenes.

“New Orleans is a unique city. When you’re there, you just know you’re in a place that’s not like any other city. It feels totally unique because it is.”

— Emily Coia, Conference Director, Jefferson Financial, Metarie, LA

Diane Lyons, CMP, DMCP, owner and president of top local destination management company Accent on Arrangements, a DMC Network company, notes that New Orleans also delivers a big helping of something harder and harder to find these days — authenticity. “We are the real deal,” Lyons says. “The culture of New Orleans is unique to New Orleans. There’s no other place like it in America. We also have the best food and music in the country.”

The city’s temperate climate is also a key factor in its success, Lyons says. “We are a year-round destination that offers a good alternative to places like Florida and Southern California in the winter,” she says. “Our ‘winter’ season, which is October through April, is really spectacular, because we have warm, sunny days so often. The weather has been a huge factor in our success as a meeting destination. And we don’t talk about that enough.”

Shane Watkins, CMP, SMMC, director of travel at Alfa Insurance in Montgomery, AL, is another loyal longtime user of New Orleans. He cites a benefit not usually associated with the city. “One of the things that is often missed about New Orleans is that it is a family destination,” says Watkins, who has been using the destination for at least one meeting each year for the 12 years he has been on the job. “There are a lot of things to do there for families. It gets more attention for its nightlife scene and that’s great, too. But we take families there all the time and they love it.”

Watkins adds that in the tight-budget, post-recession era, the value proposition New Orleans offers is another big factor in Alfa Insurance’s loyalty. “The hotel rates,” he says, “are consistently better than we get in other major destinations we go to.”

Hotel Inventory

Aside from the value it offers, New Orleans also boasts a broad and diverse hotel inventory built to accommodate the many major citywide association conventions it hosts each year.

“We have a lot of great hotels,” Lyons says. “And like the city itself, a number of them are unique to New Orleans. And they’re all within walking distance of the French Quarter. That’s one of the things people like best about the city. You can walk everywhere. So for planners that means you’re not putting people on a bus and incurring those costs or making attendees travel anywhere. That’s another huge factor in our success.”

Among the most important hotels to return from the severe damage done by Hurricane Katrina is the AAA Four Diamond Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which reopened in late 2011 after a $287 million rebuilding.

Among the city’s most unique properties are the Hotel Monteleone, located in the heart of the French Quarter, and The Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and another famous landmark located just outside the French Quarter off Canal Street.

“The Hotel Monteleone is not only spectacular,” Lyons says. “It’s one of the few family-owned hotels left in the country.” The hotel completed a major renovation in 2012.

The Roosevelt debuted a new dining room and bar last year.

The fact that New Orleans hosted the 2013 Super Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome prompted a citywide wave of hotel renovations that meant virtually every major hotel in town has undergone a facelift within the last 18 months. In addition to the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, other significant redos include a $20 million renovation of the Hyatt French Quarter; a $38 million renovation of the Marriott New Orleans; a $15 million renovation of the Omni Royal Orleans; a $30 million renovation of the W Hotel New Orleans; and an extensive renovation of the Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans, one of the most cherished properties in the French Quarter. The Loews New Orleans Hotel will complete a major renovation this year.

As his hotel of choice, Watkins has favored the Hilton New Orleans Riverside for more than a decade. “That’s our favorite hotel in the city,” he says. “And we’ve used it for 90 percent of our meetings in New Orleans over the 12 years I’ve been planning them.”

Why so popular? “The hotel has great sleeping rooms and great meeting space,” Watkins says. “And the room rates we get there are also very competitive. The riverboats are parked on the Mississippi right outside the hotel, and Audubon Aquarium and the French Quarter are in walking distance.”

Coia has used the property for the last four years for her annual conference. “The size is perfect for us,” she says. “And the staff is very familiar with our event. We also have a lot of repeat, and they’re really familiar with the hotel and know their way around, so that’s another plus.”

The hotel, which completed a $20 million renovation in 2012, also has just the right configuration of meeting space for Coia’s event, she says.

“I couldn’t believe how easy the CVB was to work with and what a great job they did. They also made me feel like my meeting was the most important meeting going on in New Orleans, even though I only had a couple of hundred attendees.”

— Wendy Powell, Assistant Director of Marketing, Medical Assurance Company of Mississippi, Ridgeland, MS

Wendy Powell, assistant director of marketing at Medical Assurance Company of Mississippi in Ridgeland, MS, has hosted the last three of the company’s biannual continuing medical education conferences in New Orleans in 2009, 2011 and last year.

She used the landmark Windsor Court Hotel in 2009. “I give it an A+,” she says. “We picked it because in addition to being able to do a good educational meeting, we wanted a nice boutique hotel that would appeal to our physicians. And they all know the reputation of the Windsor Court, so it was an easy sell to our attendees. And we also got a very good room rate.”

Windsor Court completed a $22 million renovation in 2012.

In 2011, Powell used the Hotel Monteleone. “We had outgrown the Windsor Court, and we needed to move to a hotel with larger meeting facilities,” she says. “But we still wanted a ‘boutique’ feel so we could feel like a small group. And Hotel Monteleone was great.”

Last year, she opted for the Sheraton New Orleans. “For the third meeting, as attendance grew, we said, ‘OK, if we’re really going to do this meeting in New Orleans for the third time, we really need to do it right,” Powell says. “So we decided on a corporate-level meeting hotel. We wanted a bigger hotel that could accommodate a bigger meeting. And the Sheraton also offers a great location, on Canal Street right by the French Quarter. It’s right in the middle of everything. And people can walk everywhere.”

The Sheraton New Orleans Hotel completed a $50 million renovation last year.

The Fabled Dining Scene

Although the city is also famous for its music — it was the birthplace of jazz — its renowned roster of local restaurants is the big draw for meeting planners and attendees.

“When you go to New Orleans, you go to eat,” Powell says with a laugh. “The quality of the restaurants is always a great excuse to go there.”

The extraordinary quality of New Orleans food is another major reason why Watkins and Alfa Insurance go there so regularly. “The restaurants are absolutely off-the-chart good,” he says. “And there’s an endless list of options.”

Watkins often creates dine-around programs. “We are well known for our dine-around programs in New Orleans,” he says. “It’s one of the best places on earth to do a dine-around program. But if it’s an incentive program, we allow people the opportunity to go out on their own and find a good restaurant they like. We also recommend restaurants so people know the very best places to go.”

Lyons strongly recommends dine-around programs for planners who want to deliver the penultimate New Orleans experience. “We do a dine-around for almost every program we do,” she says. “It’s just the best way to really take advantage of the city’s dining scene. And you can choose hot and trendy new restaurants, or classic places.”

The hottest new restaurant at the moment is Tableau, located near the Royal Sonesta Hotel, Lyons says. “It’s classic New Orleans food and it’s really spectacular,” Lyons says.

Another super-hot and spectacular new restaurant is Restaurant R’evolution, which opened in the Royal Sonesta 18 months ago. It specializes in sophisticated modern interpretations of classic New Orleans fare.

“We love R’evolution,” Coia says. In fact, Jefferson Financial held its 2012 Christmas party there.

A longtime favorite of meeting groups is Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District, where a number of future celebrity chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse got their starts.

And perhaps the most famous local eatery of all is legendary Galatoire’s Restaurant on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. “I adore Galatoire’s,” Lyons says. “It’s my favorite place. It’s so New Orleans.”

She also highly recommends Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, for its take on a New Orleans specialty, chargrilled oysters. “They do chargrilled oysters that are to die for,” Lyons says.

Sunday jazz brunches are also popular for groups that are in town for the weekend. “And Commander’s Palace offers one of the best,” Lyons notes.

Offsite Venues

New Orleans also can claim a robust and eclectic assortment of offsite venues, ranging from small and intimate to large enough for thousands of attendees.

One of Lyons’ favorites is Mardi Gras World, a vast complex where Mardi Gras floats are actually created. “You can do events there for up to 4,000 people, but it’s also a great venue for small groups,” Lyons says. In the Mardi Gras Den, attendees can see where floats are made.

Watkins experienced the venue last year when he worked with Lyons and Accent on Arrangements, which has been Alfa’s DMC for more than 20 years, to stage a spectacular evening. “We set up a Mardi Gras parade with a marching band and our people on floats, and we marched from the Hilton Riverside to Mardi Gras World, where we had dinner, and then back to the hotel,” Watkins says. “It was just an amazing experience. Our attendees loved it.”

Watkins used that experience to also characterize the creativity and support he gets from Lyons and her team. “I’ve been working with them for the entire 12 years I’ve been here,” he says. “They just do a fantastic job for us.”

Lyons offers some additional recommendations on the offsite venues she considers the most unique and exciting in the city.

“The World War II Museum is another great one,” she says. “And it’s great because it offers so many options. It’s also a unique venue. And the food is fabulous. It’s a truly unique complex.”

Another of her favorites is the Louisiana State Museum complex at Jackson Square, which includes the historical landmark where the Louisiana Purchase was signed and an adjacent building known as the Presbytere, which sits next to famous St. Louis Cathedral. “That was originally built as a house for the priest,” Lyons says. Both individual venues and the entire complex are available.

The Old U.S. Mint on the edge of the French Quarter is another unique and spectacular venue, Lyons says. “It’s a fabulous building with a beautiful jazz theater in it and also an entire exhibit about the history of jazz.”

Yet another superb venue is historic Preservation Hall, where catered events can he hosted before or after dinner and include the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Lyons likes to do pre-dinner receptions there with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and live music before heading out to dinner.

Another excellent option is one of the historic homes in the French Quarter. “There are fabulous homes that are museums today that can be used as offsite venues,” Lyons says. “One is Madame John’s Legacy, which is small but spectacular. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the Mississippi Valley.”

The Old Ursuline Con-vent is another fantastic, little-known venue that Lyons often uses.

Making It Easy to Meet in the Big Easy

Yet another advantage of doing a meeting in New Orleans is its highly respected convention and visitors bureau, which garners rave reviews from planners who work with it.

“When we decided to use New Orleans for the first time back in 2009, I thought I’d have to get on the phone and start doing some work,” Powell says. “But I contacted the CVB first, and within a few days, I had a response back that they were following up. And within a matter of days, I started getting responses from hotels and restaurants saying, ‘Please come to New Orleans.’ So that just made the process very easy for me.”

The immediate support she got from the CVB played a major role in her decision to go back in 2011 and again last year.

“They just made it so easy to come to New Orleans,” Powell says. “They went out of their way to give me a variety of hotels to choose from. And any question I had, I would just email them, and they would reply immediately. The service I got in 2009 was unmatched by any experience I’ve ever had. I couldn’t believe how easy they were to work with and what a great job they did. And especially how quickly they responded when I needed help. They also made me feel like my meeting was the most important meeting going on in New Orleans, even though I only had a couple of hundred attendees.”

Better Than Ever

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, many experts questioned whether the city itself — much less its meeting and convention industry — would ever recover.

In 2014, the message for meeting planners, Coia says, is that not only is New Orleans back, but it is better than ever.

Lyons wholeheartedly agrees. “For example, before the storm we had about 700 restaurants,” she says. “Now we have 1,400. And dining is an integral part of the New Orleans experience. Music is, too. There’s live music everywhere, whether that’s in restaurants and clubs or out in the street. And you won’t find friendlier people anywhere. So we’re back and things are better than they’ve ever been.”

Any meeting planner who has not yet discovered the joys of New Orleans should come for a visit, Lyons says. “Once you discover it, you love it. That’s always been true. And it’s truer than ever now.” I&FMM

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