Historical heritage is what defines the New Orleans experience for many visitors.
Some will reflect on the architecture of the Crescent City — the French Quarter, the Garden District, the elevated European-style cemeteries — as the elements that make this city so special. Others note the city’s rich musical heritage: New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and today the clubs and other venues remain well-stocked with a long roster of full-time musicians who eagerly share their talent with visitors.
For many, food is the focus, and Creole, Cajun and Southern soul cooking form the culinary backbone. But New Orleans’ sophisticated denizens have successfully lured fine chefs from other regions to set up shop and develop a food scene that is smart and trend-defying. Others will point to the city’s robust cultural heritage, where the collision of French, Spanish and African influences produce one of America’s most distinct societies.
Individually or in tandem, these are among the attributes that can be woven into a successful meeting or incentive program in this great Southern city. They are among the assets that will distinguish a New Orleans gathering from the location of any previous setting meeting groups may have experienced.
“Our unique selling points come down to food, booze and jazz,” explains Terry Epton CIS, CITE, DMCP, president of destination management company Hosts New Orleans. “It’s the culinary, the entertainment and the nightlife.” But without question, Epton adds, it’s the dining scene that remains vital to the city’s appeal as a meeting destination.
“New Orleans was always a foodie destination, but what happened after Hurricane Katrina was a proliferation of new chefs and restaurants. We’ve always been an incubator for chefs who go on to other restaurants, and we’re at the top of the food chain now.”
Visitor expectations set the bar high, but even at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, exclusive food service provider Centerplate works with the city’s star chefs to provide menus that reflect the standards of local restaurants.
“The food has to be good — if it isn’t, they won’t go to the event,” explains Epton. “They aren’t coming here to eat rubber chicken.”
Million Dollar Round Table, a global, independent association of leading life insurance and financial services professionals, has used the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center five times for its New Orleans gatherings. Jeanne Malone, CMP, director of meeting services for Million Dollar Round Table, says the convention center provides her group with a functional layout of space. Within walking distance is extensive hotel stock at various price points.
“The convention center is well laid out for our needs,” suggests Malone. “It offers unique spaces that have allowed us to create opportunities for photos, networking and recharging areas. Digital signage is available and branding opportunities are abundant. The staff is amenable, flexible and superb at their jobs.”
The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is the sixth-largest such facility in the nation, and 22,000 guest rooms lie within a two-mile arc along the north (east) bank of the Mississippi River. In 2013, the facility expanded its ballroom into the 60,300-sf Great Hall to complement its existing 1.1 million sf of exhibit space, the largest such space in the U.S., while a major project on the drawing board may expand the convention center footprint even further. The proposed $1 billion public/private development would utilize 47 acres of land upriver from the current convention center for a 1,200-room hotel, transportation hub, and a mixed-use development of retail, entertainment venues, restaurants, condos and apartments.
“New Orleans has been a great destination for our members,” explains Malone. “What draws us to return is that the city offers history, culture, incredible food, entertainment and shopping. We have held special events at various venues throughout the city for our VIP or specialty groups. Each experience was met with a warm welcome and outstanding meals. There are so many venues to select from, it’s always a challenge making a decision.”
Malone says that one of the major advantages of working with New Orleans is its CVB. “There is an incredible convention and visitors bureau. They offer great resources to assist you when planning a meeting or convention, and staff who really love their job and their city.”
Million Dollar Round Table uses the Hilton New Orleans Riverside as its headquarters hotel. Located close to the convention center, the hotel is connected through a mall and offers additional meeting space. Offering unique spaces with great views, Malone recommends getting to know the layout of the hotel ahead of an event.
“There is meeting space located in each tower. The hotel is large and laid out in a functional manner, but you need to find the shortcuts between the two towers. There are branding opportunities throughout the venue, plus wonderful restaurants and an incredible health club.
“Our sales representative and convention services manager have been outstanding. They have also been the same two people over the last couple of meetings. They understand our needs, help us to plan, are willing to accommodate our needs, and if they can’t fulfill the request, they offer an alternative solution. The staff at the hotel are hospitable and always willing to help.”
In 2017, the 1,622-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside continued a multiphase, multiyear renovation with a facelift for the 24,000-sf Grand Salon Ballroom and the entire second floor meeting space. The renovations included updated carpet, lighting, technology, and a complete redesign of the Churchill Ballroom that added airwalls, allowing the 20,000-sf room to divide into seven breakout rooms (compared to its previous three).
Although its event does not spill over into the convention center, another happy repeat client for the Hilton New Orleans Riverside is Jefferson Financial Inc. The precious metals investment conference has conducted its event at the New Orleans hotel annually since 2009, most recently in October. Emily Coia, MBA, conference director for Jefferson Financial, says the Hilton staff knows her group well.
“They remember them year after year,” explains Coia. “The employees are what make the hotel, and Ingrid Barra, director of event services, and her staff take excellent care of us each year. This year, the hotel was beta-testing group text messaging as the way for planners to communicate with the Event Services team. It was incredibly convenient to be able to summon hotel departments (like security to come lock a space) without distracting from a conversation with an attendee or an exhibitor. And, they are willing to put up with our need to flip seating in our breakout space three or four times a day in order for us to have a variety of options to offer our sponsors.”
And Coia loves the Hilton’s food and beverage program. “The banquet food is the best I’ve ever had at a hotel,” adds Coia. “The onsite restaurant Drago’s is very popular with our attendees. You must try the chargrilled oysters with French bread to soak up the drippings!”
Although Jefferson Financial meets in New Orleans annually, Coia notes several hurdles for her group. “AV costs are a challenge,” explains Coia. “While we would like to offer event Wi-Fi, the cost is prohibitive to be able to offer it for our group at this time. And the hotel has done away with its executive lounge, and instead now provides coupons good for a discount on the existing food and beverage outlets. As a planner, I missed the lounge this year, as I rarely have time for a sit-down meal while onsite. But I think our attendees may like the flexibility of the new options better.”
Coia adds that air access to New Orleans also can be a challenge. “Most of our exhibitors come from Canada, and our attendees come from all over the U.S. and the world. There are not a lot of direct flight options since New Orleans is a smaller city.”
But help is on the way, at least for the air access, as the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) has set a path for dramatic reinvention. An all new, $1 billion state-of-the-art terminal for the airport is under construction, and set to open in early 2019. Originally planned for 30 gates, earlier this year the city announced the airport would construct an additional five gates to accommodate increasing demand (the 11.1 million arrivals in 2016 was double the growth projected for the year). And the city has been successful in luring coveted international carriers to begin service: In March, British Airways launched a nonstop flight from London-Heathrow; in May, Condor Airlines debuted a seasonal flight from Frankfurt.
“We have been in the top 10 favorite destinations in U.S. for Europeans, but we didn’t have direct service,” says Epton. “Nowadays if you want somebody to come you have to give them an incentive, and the new air service from Britain and Germany have been going gangbusters.”
New Orleans has been rolling out restorations and renovations throughout the city, including major infrastructure improvements in the French Quarter.
In 2016, visitors spent $7.41 billion dollars in New Orleans, a 5.1 percent increase over the visitor spending record set in 2015. The city hosted a record-breaking 10.45 million visitors in 2016, the highest number since 2004 and a 6.9 percent increase compared to 2015. Meeting options appear to be growing apace.
In July, the NOPSI Hotel opened, the latest project to repurpose one of the CBD’s historic buildings. The 217-room luxury hotel is named after the 90-year-old New Orleans Public Service Inc. building, a nine-story brick structure abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. The project’s development team worked closely with the State Historic Preservation Office to ensure that the architectural integrity of the building was retained. The hotel offers nearly 14,000 sf of meeting space, including six breakout rooms and a 4,000-sf ballroom located in the adjacent Dryades Building. A 24-foot-high crane and track were preserved as a unique architectural element and focal point for the ballroom. The hotel’s rooftop pool and bar is helping to invigorate the city’s increasingly hip downtown lifestyle.
In 2016, the Astor Crowne Plaza New Orleans completed a full-scale, $13 million makeover. All 693 guest rooms were renovated, along with all of the hotel’s meeting spaces. The hotel has three ballrooms ranging up to 8,300 sf, and two of the ballrooms have access to balconies. Including breakout rooms, the hotel offers 32,000 sf of meeting space.
The Royal Sonesta New Orleans on Bourbon Street completed a renovation of its 483 guest rooms last year and added a new fitness center and refreshed the hotel’s famed Desire Oyster Bar. The Royal Sonesta then embarked on a remodel of its 20,000 sf of meeting spaces, overseen by Atlanta-based Design One Studio and completed last December. The 5,000-sf Grand Ballroom can accommodate up to 500 for a cocktail reception and is divisible into two spaces. The update also included a state-of-the-art upgraded banquet kitchen and upgraded audio technology for the meeting facilities.
And this month, the Jung Hotel and Residences will open at 1500 Canal Street, adjacent to the city’s medical corridor. A $140 million reimagination of the historic Jung Hotel, the property features 207 luxury guest rooms, 113 one- and two-bedroom apartments, more than 15 meeting rooms, and a 12,000-sf exhibit hall, along with retail, parking and other amenities.
For the annual sales meeting of a financial client last January, New Orleans-based Kuoni Destination Management was tasked with finding an ideal venue for an After Party following an awards dinner. Denise Ferrier Mavor, CMP, regional manager of sales for Kuoni, says New Orleans was selected both for its many hotel options as well as offsite venues that could create exciting experiences for attendees on three separate evenings. The group used the Hyatt Regency New Orleans as its base hotel, and held its awards dinner here.
“The client planned a multiple-day meeting with offsite events on three nights,” explains Ferrier Mavor. “A welcome reception was held at Mardi Gras World where a high school band welcomed guests to the party. Washboard Chaz performed on stage, and guests were able to tour the Float Den, view artists at work, have their cards read by psychic readers and take pictures with a Mardi Gras Indian. The second night’s event was held at the House of Blues, with local headliner Brass-Aholics. Guests dined on Southern favorites, and enjoyed a local craft beer station.”
For the After Party, Ferrier Mavor suggested using the SMG-managed Superdome, located next to the Hyatt Regency. While such a large facility would seem to be ill-fitting for a 550-attendee group, the centrally located Mercedes-Benz Superdome offers a surprising variety of event spaces: Turf events are possible outside of NFL season (August through January), there’s the 45,000-sf outdoor Champions Square, which features a 60-foot-wide stage, but also indoor function rooms and club lounges.
“Club XLIV (named to honor the victory by the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV) was selected for the After Party following the Awards Dinner,” says Ferrier Mavor. “The event location needed to be close to the hotel, and have a built-in ambience, a cool party vibe. Club XLIV offers a nightclub atmosphere, complete with a mix of soft seating, eclectic local décor, as well as multiple AV screens for branding and lighting. A DJ was brought in for the music/dance component.
“Located off Champions Square next to the Mercedes Benz Superdome, Club XLIV was perfect for many reasons. Location was a key factor — guests were able to walk from the hotel. The contemporary nightclub décor, seating and beverage service all helped make this decision for the client. While paying homage to the local New Orleans football team, a variety of local art and artists are also featured throughout the club. The modern mix of seating areas created intimate seating throughout, and the addition of a DJ made this the nightclub of choice.”
Ferrier Mavor cautions that using the Superdome facilities requires careful advance planning. “Start early. Ask what other events are currently scheduled. It is important to get all of the sales, operations and production teams involved early in the planning process to ensure a smooth show flow and to mitigate unexpected challenges and expenses. When working at Club XLIV, there can be scheduling issues related to the NFL season, NBA season, as well as major concerts and events that require a detailed logistical plan to coordinate all of your event elements.”
But Ferrier Mavor adds that the SMG team has the knowledge and experience to assist planners from event conception through execution.
“Jennifer Cooke Talbot, Elizabeth Brown, Tommy Gerace were wonderful to work with. From the sales process through execution, their team was always available and assisted with a smooth setup as well as event. Justin Roux from Centerplate coordinated the beverage service. He did an outstanding job, as always.
“New Orleans offers such a wide variety of quality restaurants, unique event venues and outstanding entertainment options,” says Ferrier Mavor. “The challenge arises in selecting just one from the many great choices available.” I&FMM