Meeting planners love Louisiana for its perfect mix of work and play. From Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium, which gave Elvis the platform to launch his career, to Baton Rouge’s wealth of history, culture and food, to New Orleans’ epic night life, Louisiana offers a plethora of venues and locales for association meetings and events of all sizes.
Exploring New Orleans
New Orleans rose two spots on Cvent’s “Top Destinations” list last year, coming in just outside the Top 10 at No. 11. While it has always been a top tourist destination, the need to host more “experiential” events and the blending of business and leisure travel have both helped to put New Orleans on the map as a great destination for association meetings and events.
As Rachel Andrews, director of meetings & events at Cvent, explains, besides the popular notable attractions like the French Quarter, New Orleans stands out for its deep history, unique culture, extensive food offerings, and a walkable/condensed downtown area. Most of the city’s 22,000 hotel rooms are located in and around downtown and the French Quarter, so meeting planners have no problem arranging convenient lodging for attendees; and the average hotel rate comes in around $148, less than seven of the top 10 hotels on Cvent’s list last year. “New Orleans offers a diverse variety of venues — from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to more intimate meeting rooms of a historic boutique hotel, or even the special ambience of a Mississippi River steamboat. And its DMO, New Orleans & Company, is consistently recognized as one of the top five destination marketing organizations in the country — which is a huge draw for event planners who are looking for that extra helping hand to make their event a success,” Andrews says.
The city also has the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (ENMCC), often recognized as one of the top convention centers in the United States. In the midst of a 5-year, $557 million restoration and renovation set to wrap up in 2023, it offers 1.1 million sf of exhibit space. Planners know it for its cutting-edge technological features, such as state-of-the-art lighting, video and audio-production facilities, satellite linking, video conferencing and webcasting capabilities — which will be in high demand for hybrid events.
According to Stephanie Turner, senior vice president of convention sales & strategies at New Orleans & Company, New Orleans has a long history of hosting world-class meetings. Welcoming visitors is truly part of the city’s culture. “Planning and preparing for meetings and entertaining attendees is our specialty,” Turner says. “Our 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.”
Marla Everett, CMP, CMM, CITP director, consulting solutions at Event Travel Management, says, overall, the temperate weather, central location and short drive from the airport to the city center make New Orleans a great destination. On top of that, it has capacity for very large groups, which only a few cities can accommodate. “The French Quarter also makes it very unique,” Everett says. “The abundance of entertainment and the ability to walk for blocks makes it feel like one big street party with amazing food, music and street artists. Often attendees opt to arrive early or stay late for meetings so that they can experience the city on their own. Having done this personally, I recall running into other meeting attendees along the way, which created a built-in networking opportunity that was not part of the agenda and remains memorable.”
Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, president of PRA New Orleans, says one of New Orleans’ biggest draws for meetings and events is its centrality within the United States. As O’Hara explains, New Orleans has a long history of hosting large events — not just large association meetings, but huge sporting events, including College Football National Championships, NCAA Final Fours and 10 Super Bowls. “And that little event called ‘Mardi Gras’ brings over a million visitors a year. So we have a lot of practice,” O’Hara says. “All of the logistical expertise required to execute these large events means that when meeting planners come to New Orleans, they are in expert hands when it comes to everything from event transportation and shuttles, off-site activities and state-of-the-art meeting facilities.”
From the attendee standpoint, New Orleans is known as “America’s Most Walkable City,” so when their meetings are over, it is easy for visitors to get out and experience the city’s world-renowned cuisine, entertainment and history. Indeed, Michael Vaughan, a New Orleans-based event planner at HeraldPR, says the “Crescent City” has been a popular venue for meeting, collaborating and recreating for more than 300 years. The close proximity between hotels, meeting facilities, downtown venues, the historic Garden District, and the iconic French Quarter makes New Orleans one of the most explorable cities in America. Vaughan usually orchestrates trade shows, conventions, team-building meetings and retreats, seminars, product launch events, and board member/shareholder meetings. “Whether you choose to travel on foot or via streetcar, you’ll be able to experience a good variety of what the city has to offer,” Vaughan says.
New Orleans’ convention center is one of the largest in the country and is located just steps from more than 1,500 famed restaurants, where visitors can taste for themselves why New Orleans was named the No. 1 city for food in the U.S. by Travel + Leisure magazine.
New Orleans also is known for its strong association with jazz music, universally considered to be the birthplace of the genre, and, arguably, no other city loves music more. “Attendees can listen to a local band on Frenchman Street, dance along with a second line in the French Quarter, and feed their souls in New Orleans with the rich history and culture of our 300-year-old city,” Vaughan says.
The No. 1 most memorable experience O’Hara recommends meeting planners explore is the ability to transfer a group to an off-site event with a Mardi Gras parade, known as a “Second Line.” “No matter how well traveled the group is, when I see them come out of the hotel to the police sirens, marching band firing up and all of the people in the streets stopping to watch their procession, their faces light up like nothing else,” O’Hara says. “People tell me years later that it is the most exciting thing they have done at a convention.”
What’s “New” In New Orleans
While meeting and event attendees have been away due to the COVID-19 pandemic, industry professionals in New Orleans have been busy, with new developments in the city that continue to elevate the meeting experience. The new state-of-the-art airport terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport offers an even higher capacity for handling large groups of passengers in a safe and clean environment, with space for social distancing, thanks to more than 100 check-in counters and a consolidated security checkpoint that stretches 17 lanes wide.
The improvement plan underway at the ENMCC, includes interior modernizations, renovations to its 140 meeting rooms, restroom renovations and a complete makeover of its exterior. The venue recently installed new digital signs for each meeting room, and there is a new, centrally located transportation center to allow shuttles, taxis and ride-shares to more efficiently move attendees. The Shuttle Hub is equipped with digital signage to help attendees easily identify their shuttles. Last year, wayfinding kiosks were installed throughout the lobbies, and the new linear park, turning 7.5 acres of Convention Center Boulevard into a lush pedestrian area, will be completed this year.
Several new hotels have joined New Orleans’ robust inventory, including The Higgins Hotel New Orleans, Curio Collection by Hilton at The National World War II Museum, as well as boutique properties such as Maison de la Luz hotel, a distinctive new luxury guest house, the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot and the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences, which are also coming online this year.
Harrah’s New Orleans is set to undergo a $325 million renovation that will add a new, 340-room hotel tower by 2024 to the newly named casino-hotel property Caesars New Orleans. This expansion adds a second major hospitality-industry project to the foot of Canal Street.
O’Hara and other regional meeting planners are very excited that the Four Seasons will add to New Orleans’ luxury market when it opens. The restoration of one of New Orleans’ most iconic buildings along the riverfront is being transformed into 341 guests rooms and 92 private residences. It will host two signature restaurants, with award-winning chefs, and have event space ideal for small meetings. “Also, meeting planners interested in outdoor spaces has increased due to COVID. New Orleans has mild weather year-round, so it is an ideal destination for planners who want to have an event or sessions outside,” O’Hara says.
Kitchen in the Garden in the New Orleans Botanical Gardens is a lovely event space, and PRA has reimagined some of the downtown festival spaces, such as Lafayette Square and Woldenberg Park, to create beautiful outdoor venues, all within walking distance of hotels and the convention center.
According to Andrews, New Orleans has also invested billions of dollars over the past five to 10 years to enhance nearly every aspect of the city and its offerings — and those efforts continue to this day. “A new ferry terminal and parkland areas are also in the works to expand and redevelop nearly 39 riverfront acres around the convention center, which means a lot of great outdoor space for future events,” Andrews says.
What Baton Rouge & Shreveport Have to Offer
While New Orleans is often considered the preeminent Louisiana locale for meetings and events, Baton Rouge and Shreveport-Bossier are other state gems that are sure to please attendees. Shreveport-Bossier — often referred to as ‘Louisiana’s Other Side’ — boasts a wealth of unique attractions for groups of all sizes. In addition to ideal hotel and convention venues, Shreveport offers wonderful experiences that will allow attendees to work some and play some. For example, Shreveport’s American Rose Center offers visitors a chance to learn about the history of the world’s most popular flowers, while seeing rare varieties that will inspire and delight. Elvis fans will revel in backstage music tours at Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium, the city’s most iconic performing arts venue.
Of course, Shreveport-Bossier is also known for its gaming, great food and entertainment. In addition, the region offers more than 10,000 hotel rooms — from bustling downtown hotels to charming, and historic bed and breakfasts.
Karron Alford, director of marketing at Visit Baton Rouge, says Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s Capital City, is complete with several full-service hotels that can meet the needs of meeting planners by breaking meetings into groups to adhere to social distancing guidelines. “Given that we are a smaller city, providing exceptional experiences with a focus on the details are what Visit Baton Rouge and the hotel staff members focus on when working with clients,” Alford says. “We’re often complimented for the assistance we provide as it’s individualized for the meeting planners’ needs.”
Early last year, Visit Baton Rouge made it an initiative to connect virtually with meeting planners, and the CVB team provides clients with virtual tours of hotels and attractions. “We are also working closely with the hoteliers and our convention center on the virtual tours that they are offering to the clients — a real-time, virtual walk-through of the meeting space needs as identified in their RFPs,” Alford says. “With over 70 hotels in East Baton Rouge Parish, our hotels are also going above and beyond in terms of cleanliness standards and protocols.”
Baton Rouge has seen what much of the rest of the country has seen in cancellations and rescheduling of meetings. “Our hotels have worked with meeting planners that were able to offer a hybrid meeting. We have also worked with clients that have opted to go with a full virtual meeting by providing them with a Baton Rouge experience to incorporate into their meetings,” Alford says. This includes providing meeting planners and speakers with virtual Baton Rouge backgrounds, playlists, connecting them with local artists and musicians, and sending videos that promote the area.
Early last year, Laura Kuechenberg, senior vice president with ConferenceDirect, planned an annual meeting and state convention in Baton Rouge for approximately 5,000 people. The event was held at the Raising Cane’s River Center and surrounding hotels. “Visit Baton Rouge was instrumental in making my event successful. From the initial RFP process to the actual event, they were professional and the service was extraordinary,” Kuechenberg says. “The Convention Center is great to work with and the city provides so many wonderful opportunities for all groups.”
COVID-19 & Louisiana
Just like other cities across the U.S., the meeting and event environment in New Orleans, Shreveport-Bossier and Baton Rouge has been impacted by COVID-19. The hospitality industry is a major source of Louisiana’s economy, and with the downturn in the travel industry, there has been a significant impact. “But since it is such a large part of our economy, a lot of attention has been paid to how we can operate safely,” O’Hara says. Bars, restaurants, meeting spaces and event venues are able to operate as long as they follow state, and local, health and safety guidelines.
As Turner explains, New Orleans was one of the first cities to proactively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and is leading the way in preparedness and safety. “Every step we’re taking right now is with everyone’s safety in mind as we prepare to welcome visitors and conventions back to our city,” Turner says. “We’ve created a comprehensive resource on our website, NewOrleans.com, with safety plans for many member hotels, attractions, transportation companies, etc. to ease your mind while you plan to return safely to New Orleans, once the time comes to travel again.”
In addition, members of New Orleans’ world-renowned hospitality industry created the NOLA Hospitality SAFE program, which is dedicated to keeping residents and visitors healthy by encouraging operators, business partners and guests to abide by COVID-19 reopening guidelines. “As a community of hospitality operators, business partners and guests, we have formed NOLA SAFE, prioritizing the safety, healthy and financial viability of our community of businesses,” O’Hara says. “Together, we hold ourselves accountable by being responsible for keeping our community healthy, which keeps our economy open.”
Everett says that, although the meetings and events environment is constantly changing at the moment, the main concern is what is open and what amenities are allowed to be offered. “New Orleans is also known for many public festivals and events that generate leisure travel business,” Everett says. “During these times, finding space for groups can be difficult. With many public festivals and events canceled recently, it may be easier to find short-term availability for large groups that would normally not be available.”
The main approaches that are being taken are similar to other locations — sanitization, social distancing, limited capacities and wearing masks. One of the overall benefits for New Orleans is that they have always allowed “to go” drinks and their weather makes it feasible to be outdoors. This helps to avoid being indoors for extended periods of time. “Meeting planners should look to connect with the hotels they’re interested in and ask about any new or expanded offerings — especially offerings that are in high demand as planners look to host safe hybrid and in-person meetings,” Andrews says. “Amenities such as air purifiers, masks, touchless service options [such as keyless doors, touchless check-in], and any other health and safety measures, are top of mind.”
Finally, a new Louisiana law provides sweeping liability limitations from lawsuits relating to COVID-19, including protection for meeting strategists, and trade show and convention organizers. “We are aware of no broader protection afforded to meeting professionals anywhere in America,” Turner says.
In the near term, specifically in all of 2021 — New Orleans will host groups that need to utilize a lot more space than they typically would due to social distancing guidelines. Luckily, New Orleans is uniquely positioned to accommodate those needs, with hotels that were built to focus on the meeting business featuring expansive meeting spaces and a large, flexible convention center in the heart of downtown. There are also always ongoing developments in Louisiana. Currently, the biggest changes to take note about New Orleans include the new “headquarters” hotel for the ENMCC, the riverfront redevelopment project and the newer Fillmore New Orleans at Harrah’s.
“Event planners should be aware of what is going on in the city over their meeting dates, and make sure that it aligns with their meeting goals and objectives,” Everett says. Some groups may want to go to New Orleans during times like Mardi Gras or Jazz Festival. Other groups may want to avoid it. Hotel rates may be better during hurricane season, but planners also run the risk of having to cancel.” He adds, “Assuming that planners have picked dates that will optimize the experience for their group, it is always a good idea to incorporate as much of the destination into the overall event as possible. Expose attendees to the food during the event, take the group to venues outside of the hotel, and allow time in the agenda for attendees to explore on their own.”
Andrews advises meeting planners to leverage local resources as much as they can. “Especially if you’re planning your first event in New Orleans, or even if you are a seasoned planner for the destination,” Andrews says. “The organizations with feet on the ground have the pulse on all the latest and greatest hotels, experiences and safety measures that New Orleans has to offer.” | AC&F |