New OrleansMay 1, 2014

The Big Easy Makes a Big Comeback By
May 1, 2014

New Orleans

The Big Easy Makes a Big Comeback
The good times roll as the grand marshall and jazz band lead a "second line" parade. Credit: Riverview Photography, Linda Reinike

The good times roll as the grand marshall and jazz band lead a “second line” parade. Credit: Riverview Photography, Linda Reinike

Buoyed by the popularity of meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana is thriving as a destination. The Big Easy has made a big comeback from the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina and a lackluster economy.

As New Orleans approaches its tricentennial in 2018, the city is more excited than ever about its future. “We are possibly among the top three most unique cities in this hemisphere but certainly in the United States,” opines Bonnie Boyd, CMP, DMCP, president of New Orleans-based BBC Destination Management. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and it has always been a city that people want to come to.”

The city’s special challenges in recent years have contributed to its continuing resurgence. “A lot of it has to do with the experience of the last nine years,” says Boyd. “There has been a big push in corporate give-back and bio-tourism programs. They have brought a lot of people who have seen how great the city is. A lot of them return with a faith-based group or other group to volunteer. Some have even moved here.”

New Orleans

New Orleans is as big a draw as ever for all types of meetings and incentives including those held by financial firms and insurance companies. “New Orleans is pretty popular across the board with most kinds of businesses,” says Maria W. Evangelista, travel specialist for JMJ Travel Services in the New Orleans suburb of Metarie. “In some other cities, it’s difficult to get to the main attractions. If you stay in one area, it’s a hassle to get to the popular places. But here, you have great restaurants, museums, bars, jazz — everything you want right here.”

That’s one reason why an accounting corporation held a three-day meeting in New Orleans earlier this year. About 200 accountants in one division of the company met at Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino for educational and training sessions.

The accounting firm’s meeting planner only booked one company activity because the group preferred to explore New Orleans on their own, including a trip to the Fair Grounds Race Course to watch the horse races. “Other than that, they were pretty much on their own. They loved that because in New Orleans, they could walk almost anywhere they wanted to go. Everything is so accessible. There’s the world-class dining, the historical area and there’s always Bourbon Street.”

The planner selected Harrah’s mostly for the “unbelievable” value. “The group came in over the weekend of the Sugar Bowl game, but we were fortunate enough to get them shoulder season rates, which was very unusual. It was a lot of work. I worked with Harrah’s East Coast division, and they booked me an unbelievable rate. No other hotel could touch it. I guess Harrah’s really wanted their business,” the planner notes.

In addition, the location of the hotel and its amenities were factors in the selection process. The accounting firm “enjoyed the hotel restaurants, and they were in the casino at night,” says the planner. “The hotel is located on the edge of the French Quarter, and they were able to get to the restaurants they wanted that are well-known.”

Visitors to New Orleans are known for extending their stays, and that’s what many of the accounting firm’s attendees did. Some people arrived a few days early while others stayed a few days after the event. Although the meeting was scheduled for three days, attendees averaged a five-day stay, says the planner. It was the group’s first meeting in New Orleans, and they plan to come back again.

Gearing Up for Growth

The accounting company’s attendees are among a growing number of visitors to New Orleans. The city welcomed 9.2 million visitors in 2013, up from 9 million in 2012, according to the 2013 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile study commissioned by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. Visitors spent $6.4 billion in 2013, up 4.5 percent over 2012 and the most in the city’s history. Indicative of the city’s lure, 55.4 percent of business travelers lengthened their stay for pleasure for an average of two nights.

New Orleans is undertaking major development projects over the next five years that will make the city even more attractive to planners: The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport will undergo an $826 million expansion; a new Convention Center District Development Project — which includes a new headquarters hotel, park, entertainment, cultural venues and more — will launch along the city’s riverfront; and the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO) will continue with improvements.

The MCCNO’s most recent renovation project reconfigured existing spaces into the 60,300-sf, column-free Great Hall. The project also added 25,400 sf of multiuse, 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 now has 1.1 million sf of exhibit space, 140 meeting rooms and the 4,000-seat New Orleans Theatre.

In addition to complete wireless coverage of public spaces, meeting rooms, the New Orleans Theater, The Great Hall and a prefunction area, the center is capable of supporting thousands of concurrently connected mobile devices.

Major projects will be funded partly by a new Tourism Support assessment. In February, the members of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association voted to pass the assessment of 1.75 percent of the daily room charge, effective April 1, 2014. The assessment was passed to “fund the vital sales, marketing, promotion, incentives, visitor management and special event activities that keep New Orleans’ cultural economy vibrant and put the city on a more level playing field with its competitor cities,” according to a statement by the New Orleans CVB.

Rich in Entertainment and Cuisine

Excitement is New Orleans’ calling card. The city is incredibly rich in entertainment, cuisine, architecture, hotel variety and more. That’s what attracted a financial firm to hold a six-day incentive for 1,500 employees in New Orleans in May at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.

Attendees pose with a friendly gator at a swamp party also known as a "Cajun Fais Do Do." Credit Riverview Photography, Linda Reineke

Attendees pose with a friendly gator at a swamp party also known as a “Cajun Fais Do Do.” Credit Riverview Photography, Linda Reineke

About 400 winners arrived two days before the rest of the group. The elite group enjoyed a first-class variety of New Orleans experiences. “We did a surprise Mardi Gras-style parade,” says the planner. “We had the group gather in the meeting space in front of the hotel, where a band led them down to the street where the rest of the musical and parade elements were. They included high school marching bands, a brass band, revelers and stilt walkers.” The parade continued for about four blocks to Champions Square near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The group also held a Cajun-themed party at the Sugar Mill in New Orleans, a venue that specializes in large corporate hospitality events. Attendees enjoyed Cajun cuisine, zydeco music and sipped on drinks served in mason jars. They also learned a Cajun dance called the choo-choo. Swamp animals were on display, including alligators up to four-feet long that attendees could hold and pose with for photographs.

On another night, the group enjoyed karaoke at Club XLIV, a posh private lounge near the Superdome. Club XLIV pays homage to the New Orleans Saints’ victory in Super Bowl XLIV. The club features built-in amenities including modern furnishings, illuminated bars, specialty lighting and audio-video.

The entire incentive group of 1,500 attendees enjoyed a laidback evening at Mardi Gras World, a working warehouse where Mardi Gras floats are made. Artisans were on hand to answer attendees’ questions.

Mardi Gras World is conveniently located next to the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, near the historic French Quarter. They also arrange street parades from the hotel to get the party started.

Afterwards, the group relaxed at a dock along the river, viewed Mardi Gras floats, rode go-karts and dined on New Orleans-style fare from food trucks. Later in the evening, a band played rock and soul music as palm readers and caricaturists entertained attendees.

Noteworthy Hotels

New Orleans boasts one of the best collections of meeting hotels in the nation. The city offers approximately 40,000 hotel rooms, and many hotels are within walking distance of the French Quarter. Here’s a sampling.

The Hyatt Regency New Orleans finished a $2 million makeover of its Bywater Pool Deck & Bar, which features flat-screen TVs and a menu offering grilled and fresh foods. In addition, the lobby now features four new computers that guests can use for 15 minutes for free. The property offers 1,193 guest rooms and 200,000 sf of flexible meeting space including 70 meeting and banquet rooms.

Loews New Orleans Hotel celebrated its 10-year anniversary earlier this year and, as part of a new service by all Loews properties, began offering free wireless in public spaces and guest rooms. The hotel, located just outside the French Quarter, offers 285 oversized guest rooms and 17,000 sf of function space with floor-to-ceiling windows.

The 346-room AAA Four Diamond Omni Royal Or­leans Hotel has completed a $15 million renovation, which includes revitalized meeting rooms with new carpeting, furniture and window treatments. The project also included refreshing the guest rooms and public spaces, which now feature custom furniture, improved lighting and 24 wrought-iron balconies. The hotel, which is located in the heart of the French Quarter, boasts 14,000 sf of flexible function space including the 5,284-sf Grand Salon and 17 meeting rooms.

The 1,100-room Sheraton New Orleans completed a $50 million makeover, which includes a spacious lobby featuring works by late Louisiana artist George Rodriguez. The hotel’s 105,000 sf of meeting space, including a 28,000-sf ballroom, has been renovated. The hotel increase the bandwidth of its network, and offers free Wi-Fi and free wired high-speed Internet.

The Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, is celebrating its 120th anniversary. Last fall, the hotel recaptured its classic past by reopening its Fountain Lounge, which features a raw bar, live entertainment, creative cocktails and a wide selection of wines. The property offers 504 guest rooms, including 125 suites, and more than 60,000 sf of event space including three grand ballrooms and 23 meeting rooms.

Hotel Monteleone, a four-star luxury property, was named one of the Best Hotels in the USA for 2013 by U.S. News & World Report. The property, located in the French Quarter, offers 600 guest rooms including 55 luxury suites and literary author suites, and 24,000 sf of meeting space including the 6,236-sf La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom.

The Hilton New Orleans Riv­erside, located in the central business district, has 1,622 guest rooms and 130,000 sf of meeting space with French-influenced designs. Guests can enjoy a 90,000-sf full-service health and fitness spa.

The New Orleans Marriott, located in the French Quarter, has 1,329 guest rooms and 80,000 sf of meeting space including 49 meeting rooms. The 41-story hotel features views of the Mississippi River and the city’s skyline along with the award-winning 5 Fifty 5 Restaurant.

The Hyatt Place New Orleans/Convention Center in the Arts District near the French Quarter, offers 170 guest rooms, three meeting spaces and complimentary wireless and Internet in public spaces and guest rooms.

Shreveport-Bossier City

The region markets itself as “Louisiana’s Other Side” due to its location in Northwest Louisiana along the Red River, which is less than 15 minutes from the Texas border. Shreveport-Bossier City features gaming, great restaurants, live music and year-round festivals, such as the Mudbug Madness Festival, one of Louisiana’s largest and most popular Cajun festivals featuring entertainment, events, food and fun.

The area offers more than 10,000 hotel rooms, many of them located among the several riverfront gaming properties. Hotels include the region’s newest gaming destination, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Resort Casino, which opened last summer. Other properties include the Eldorado Shreveport Resort & Casino, Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall, DiamondJacks Casino & Resort, Boomtown Casino Hotel and Harrah’s Louisiana Downs. In addition, the Horseshoe Bossier City Hotel and Casino recently opened its new $3.5 million tropical swimming pool.

Shreveport-Bossier City is a popular destination for many small and mid-sized companies based within Louisiana. The Horseshoe, a Caesars Entertainment property with 606 suites, is among the properties of choice for many insurance companies within the state.

One meeting planner in the insurance industry says that the Horseshoe is favored for several reasons. “The hotel has many things to do. I like the gaming and restaurants at the Horseshoe and the other hotels,” she says. “There is shopping in the surrounding areas. They have the space to accommodate us. I like the price, and the Horseshoe is very easy to work with. They are usually way ahead of me when I need something. We plan to continue meeting there.”

In addition to hotels, meeting space includes the 350,000-sf state-of-the-art Shreveport Convention Center and the 24,000-sf Bossier Civic Center.

Shopping is available at The Outlets at Louisiana Boardwalk. Unique meeting venues include the IMAX theater and Space Planetarium at Sci-Port: Louisiana’s Science Center, and Gardens of the American Rose Center’s Klima Hall.

Baton Rouge

Louisiana’s capital, located only 80 miles from New Orleans, is a distinctive and colorful city that touts itself as ideal for meetings of up to 2,000 people because of its affordability and accessibility. As with other areas of Louisiana, Baton Rouge’s Creole and French heritage offer planners several options for experiencing local culture.

Baton Rouge features several historical places that also are available for special events. For example, Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, a Gothic structure and National Historic Landmark, is a 160-year-old property with displays featuring former controversial governor Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in 1935. The Old Governor’s Mansion is a museum that includes memorabilia from nine Louisiana governors.

Final Thoughts

Planners seeking a European-like experience in the continental United States need look no further than the greater New Orleans area. The Big Easy is the nation’s most European of cities because of its singular cultural, architectural, linguistic and gastronomic mix. In addition, most planners agree that few other cities offer such a good time. As one meeting planner once put it, “If you don’t have a good time in New Orleans, it’s your own fault.” I&FMM


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