LouisianaJanuary 31, 2022

New Orleans, Baton Rouge Ready for Events By
January 31, 2022


New Orleans, Baton Rouge Ready for Events
The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is undergoing a $557 million improvement plan. It offers 1.1 million sf of exhibit space, 140 meeting rooms, a 4,000-seat theater and a 30,000-sf ballroom. Courtesy photo

The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is undergoing a $557 million improvement plan. It offers 1.1 million sf of exhibit space, 140 meeting rooms, a 4,000-seat theater and a 30,000-sf ballroom. Courtesy photo

We’re all trying to peer into the future to see what it holds. Associations are rebooking canceled conventions, and booking and planning new conventions. Destinations are taking whatever steps are necessary to welcome clients back safely. As one of the most popular convention destinations in the country, New Orleans is well into a reboot, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s state capital, sees many positives in current trends.

Stephen Perry, president & CEO, New Orleans & Company, says the pandemic notwithstanding, communication between the CVB and clients never stopped. “Our team has spent the last 18 months proactively connecting with customers, and keeping lines of communication open as we all navigated the constantly changing landscape. While we can’t predict the future, we’ve been a trusted resource, providing information on industry trends, updates on what was happening within the city and helping planners make the best decision for each meeting. And we continue to navigate the return to in-person events. We’re conducting in-person and virtual site visits, continuing to provide local and industry updates, and working to accommodate the changing needs of each of our customers and partners. We’re seeing ongoing increases of in-person events, with virtual components continuing. Each meeting, convention, trade show or event is unique, and New Orleans is prepared to work with each customer to plan and execute safe and effective meetings.”

The North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) Tradeswomen Build Nations annual conference was to be one of those meetings. It was set for last fall, but the organization cancelled the face-to-face event in late summer due to spiking COVID-19 cases. Bobby Crider, NABTU director of operations, says the conference at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside [was] to be fully in-person, with an expected attendance of 1,500 to 2,000. “The location and off-site activities are why this destination [was] a good fit,” Crider says. “It [was] a destination that many of our delegates have never been to.”

The CVB early on assisted with safety elements and with economical restaurant recommendations for attendees. Crider says one reason for originally setting the event at the Hilton Riverside is that it’s large enough that the group [could have had] accommodations, convention meetings and functions all in one place. And there [was] the location. “What stood out to us,” Crider notes, “is the size of the meeting space and the proximity to the French Quarter.”

A Fluid Situation

In Baton Rouge, Geraldine Bordelon, CMP, director of destination sales and experience for Visit Baton Rouge, is seeing in-person meetings coming back, but not yet at full capacity. “We’re finding that associations are holding in-person meetings,” she says, “but it all depends on how attendees and leadership decide to move forward. Of the in-person meetings we’ve held or bid on, we’ve noticed that the number of the attendees is less than pre-COVID.”

Bordelon says planners are also booking meetings closer to their home base, where many of their members are located or are within driving distance. “We’ve noticed planners choosing familiar destinations and venues because of their relationship with the DMO or venue representatives in order to get their preferred rates and the flexibility of cancelling without penalties. Some associations are also choosing to hold more smaller meetings rather than one large meeting as a way to keep attendance numbers down,” she says.

The Raising Cane’s River Center in downtown Baton Rouge includes more than 200,000 sf of new and renovated meetings and events space.

The Raising Cane’s River Center in downtown Baton Rouge includes more than 200,000 sf of new and renovated meetings and events space.

Bordelon thinks the trends of groups choosing drive-to destinations and smaller cities will continue — a positive for Baton Rouge. She says, “With the rise of smaller meetings, we’ve seen an increase in interest from association meeting planners who would not or may not have considered Baton Rouge in the past. If associations need to host their meeting in Louisiana, based on a geographical rotation, we’re seeing that Baton Rouge is considered as an option. I believe smaller cities, such as Baton Rouge, will be more attractive to meeting planners due to the experiences that can be had, while also feeling safe.” And, she adds, “with predictions leaning toward in-person meetings not fully resuming until late 2023 or 2024, drive-to meetings will likely continue to increase until then.”

After more than a year of no meetings, the desire to meet and enjoy what a city offers remains strong, says David Piscola, GM of Hilton New Orleans Riverside. “As we move forward in the next stages of recovery, I find that the great things New Orleans has always offered to travelers is in much demand — great food, great culture, great experiences and a laid-back attitude. Attendees not only want to attend events, they’re also turning these trips into long-needed vacations away from home, and New Orleans is a perfect spot for this.”

That said, Piscola thinks hybrid meetings are likely here to stay, at least for now. “While everyone is tired of Zoom meetings and desperate to get back to travel, a hybrid component to meetings may be around for a while. We all know that much of the advantage of in-person meetings is in the personal connections and networking done, in addition to formatted programming. But we’ve also seen that planners who have successfully integrated online components are able to reach an even greater audience than in the past.”

Michael J. Sawaya, convention center president at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, also points to the positives of hybrid meetings, noting that while in-person meetings are definitely not going away, “The hybrid component will provide more options for planners; for example, more speakers might be available that couldn’t travel to the event but could present virtually.” This, he says, will also lead to expectations for a higher level of technology. In general, however, Sawaya thinks meetings going forward will be very similar to what they were before COVID, but “with everyone being more mindful of fellow attendees’ personal space.”

Bordelon is seeing a range in the approach associations are willing to take. Some are willing to get back to in-person meetings, while others are more hesitant. “And while hybrid meetings are frequently mentioned,” she says, “meeting planners have indicated that this can be expensive, and not cost effective for the association. If an association has a large revenue stream with its vendor base, then hybrid meetings could be an option.”

However, if a group does opt for a hybrid element, Bordelon says Baton Rouge is ready. “Baton Rouge is well suited and has the necessary capabilities for hybrid meetings. Our venues give associations an option of using the vendor of their choice, giving them flexibility of not having exclusivity. Several associations did hold their meetings this year, and did so without any problems,” she says.

New Orleans is a favorite of meeting planners and attendees because it offers a unique culture highlighted especially by its music and food, and much more. Photo by Chris Granger

New Orleans is a favorite of meeting planners and attendees because it offers a unique culture highlighted especially by its music and food, and much more. Photo by Chris Granger

Creating Lasting Memories

Needless to say, whether or not a group adds a hybrid element to a meeting in no way diminishes all that New Orleans offers. “New Orleans is built to host world-class meetings and events. Welcoming visitors is truly part of our culture,” Perry says. “Planning and preparing for meetings and entertaining attendees are our specialty. Our hospitality professionals, community, cultural bearers and musicians create an experience so iconic that memories of our city stay with visitors and meeting attendees long after they leave. Hosting a meeting in New Orleans means working with some of the best professionals in the entire industry. New Orleans is, and has always been, a world-class travel destination — a feast for the senses that will inspire stakeholders, attendees, exhibitors and partners.”

Bordelon agrees with Perry’s view of New Orleans, and points out that Baton Rouge has its own desirable attributes, making the pair good neighbors for one another. “We’re proud to have New Orleans, a world-renowned city, in our state. We embrace New Orleans by encouraging association planners to include pre and post excursions to New Orleans as part of their programming, or to offer the option for attendees to come in early or stay late.”

Baton Rouge, she continues, “is known for being an affordable city, and for some meeting planners this creates a better choice for budget-conscious associations. Affordable hotel rates and parking — the majority of our hotels offer complimentary parking — make Baton Rouge an attractive option for the individual attendee who plans to bring family along. Baton Rouge has the honor of being the state capital, which offers a variety of historical, family friendly and unique experiences for all ages. We’re quickly becoming known for our diverse and vibrant food scene as well.”

Baton Rouge also has a lot for planners to draw on in terms of providing outdoor experiences, which are still encouraged. “We offer some unique outdoor experiences that association meeting planners can incorporate into their programming or offer to attendees during their free time. Free live concerts, festivals, biking, kayaking, walking tours, food tours and the like are great opportunities for attendees during a convention, or before or after if they extend their stay with family or friends. And Baton Rouge is one of America’s cities located on the Mississippi River, a great escape for a run, walk or stroll to take in the sights of this scenic treasure.”

Bordelon says the city also offers plenty for groups that want to incorporate giving back to the community into their meeting. “With two major universities located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University and Southern University, there are many options to consider.”

Like other cities and venues across the country, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the meeting hotels and venues within them are justifiably proud of their response to the pandemic and ability to ensure that as meetings come back, planners, attendees and presenters will be safe.

At the convention center, what was put in place for COVID safety will remain. “First and foremost, we have the health and safety of our visitors as the first priority,” Sawaya says. “We’ve led the way in establishing COVID protocols and all of the procedures implemented for cleaning and sanitation will become standard practice for us.”

Hilton New Orleans Riverside hosted the first major in-house meeting, first gala event and first city-wide convention since the pandemic lockdowns. Piscola says all were handled in a safe manner thanks to the brand’s Clean Stay and EventReady protocols. “We’ve been at the forefront of safe travel. But perhaps more importantly, we were able to do these events with the same great level of hospitality and care that we’ve always delivered. And as much as some things have changed during COVID,” he adds, “the heart of the hotel remains the same: A tenured team dedicated to providing the best meeting experiences in the business, backed up by our genuine New Orleans hospitality.”

That same passion to maintain what has always made Louisiana a superb destination remains true across the board, even in the midst of monumental change. “Safety is important to us. We’re currently open and following all CDC, local and state-government guidelines. Our brand hotels follow brand standards and guidelines for healthy in-person meetings,” Bordelon says. “Additionally, however, our city and our DMO have a very high standard of customer service. Our staff looks for opportunities based on meeting planner’s needs and wants to customize an experience with Louisiana flair.”

The Higgins Hotel New Orleans, Curio Collection by Hilton at The National World War II Museum offers more than 18,000 sf of meetings and events space.

The Higgins Hotel New Orleans, Curio Collection by Hilton at The National World War II Museum offers more than 18,000 sf of meetings and events space.

New & Improved Venues

If there was an upside to the shutdowns in 2020, it may be that cities and venues had time to work on multiple developments, renovations and upgrades over the course of the year, so that groups coming for a meeting in 2022 and beyond may well find much that’s new. “New developments in the city continue to elevate the meeting experience,” Perry says. “The recent completion of the state-of-the-art airport terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, as well as an on-going $557 million improvement plan for the interior and exterior of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, are just a few of the amazing projects happening around the city. We’re all excited to now be getting back to meeting in-person and planning live events in New Orleans.”

The city’s immediately recognizable Superdome is also undergoing extensive renovation and a change in name. As of last summer, it became known as Caesars Superdome, reflecting the new partnership between the New Orleans Saints and hospitality giant Caesars Entertainment. Renovations will wrap in early 2025, just in time for Superbowl LIX. The facility offers more than 160,000 sf of events space, plus premium lounges with high-end furnishings and advanced technology.

As for new hotels, the list includes The Higgins Hotel New Orleans, Curio Collection by Hilton at The National World War II Museum, the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot, Four Seasons Hotel + Residences and The Virgin Hotel New Orleans.

During COVID, Piscola says, construction was completed on a linear park that spans the length of Convention Center Boulevard, starting at the Hilton. “It has created a safer and more diverse experience for visitors and residents. The pedestrian park project scope includes the newly opened transportation center connected to the convention center via a covered walkway, as well as outdoor entertainment spaces, seating areas, public art and a water feature. It really is a terrific new addition to the experience around the center.”

Prior to 2020, the Hilton had completed a renovation of all meeting space, and just as the pandemic hit, a renovation of guest rooms was underway. In spite of delays during COVID, the renovation is back on track.

Baton Rouge has a handful of new hotels and new additions to its Mid-City venue, Electric Depot, including Red Stick Social, a new site for live music, indoor and outdoor concerts, food and more. “A new development project in Mid-City is set to include more unique event venues, a garden nursery, a new outside restaurant and more exciting stops for people to enjoy while they’re in town,” Bordelon says. That multimillion-dollar project recently opened, and Bordelon notes that the city continues to see growth in the number of businesses that have opened.

The St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans’ French Quarter has long been an iconic city landmark. It is the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States.

The St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans’ French Quarter has long been an iconic city landmark. It is the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States.

Think Outside the Box

If there’s one thing she wants planners to know, it’s that the Visit Baton Rouge staff is all about customization. “Our staff is available to customize a Louisiana experience for attendees by providing the necessary resources to incorporate into a program. Our staff will also customize our monetary resources to help with experiences such as entertainment and transportation, and we’re willing to work with an associations’ preferred concessions. We’re excited and encouraged by the unique ideas that meeting planners have asked for our assistance on, and we feel now, more than ever, is a great time to be creative and ‘think outside the box.’”

Sawaya encourages planners to “put attendees, sponsors and exhibitors in a position to fully enjoy and appreciate what the city of New Orleans has to offer in every nook and cranny.”

Piscola advises flexibility. “The situation continues to progress rapidly,” he says. “Just a few short weeks ago, many groups were planning on lower attendance, limited food and beverage, and a much different meeting experience. Now, many are planning their first major gatherings since March of 2020 with attendance numbers far exceeding expectations, and everyone wanting to see friends and colleagues they haven’t seen in many months. However, flexibility is key. As we’ve seen, things change, and we need to be ready to regroup and adjust accordingly. But that’s what we do in New Orleans and at Hilton.”

The city stands ready to help. “When you plan your event, work with our team at New Orleans & Company to source hotels, venues and everything you need to execute your meeting successfully,” Perry says. “Our world-class convention sales, services and group PR teams will be by your side every step of the way to provide local expertise, counsel and assets to leverage our amazing destination to build your attendance and surpass your business goals. Take a new look at this historic city and see how hosting meetings and events is truly part of our DNA.

“No matter the situation,” he continues, “New Orleans & Company’s team becomes an extension of yours, from sourcing to planning, to marketing to executing. New Orleans is about optimal performance and making memories that last a lifetime. We lead the nation in health and safety protocols and processes, as well as innovation. Our entire community is adept at flexibility and making adjustments on the fly for customers to achieve their goals.”

That, in a nutshell, is exactly what makes this destination so attractive. As Perry says, an extraordinary level of hospitality is deeply embedded in the DNA here. That alone sets New Orleans and Baton Rouge apart — but there’s also so much more. | AC&F |

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