Like the tasty gumbo and jambalaya served across the state, the culture of Louisiana is a rich mélange of ingredients. It is Southern tradition spiced up with French, Spanish, French-Canadian and African heritage (among others), all set to a beat that makes you tap your toes and grin.
Louisianans love to celebrate — food, culture, irreverence, Fat Tuesday, blues, jazz, Cajun accordion riffs, marching down the street at any opportunity and life itself. To be in Louisiana is to embrace celebration. For corporate and incentive groups, that provides a float-load of possibilities with which to create a memorable program.
As its notable nickname assures, The Big Easy is a city that effortlessly delivers that over-the-top factor incentive programs require. Yet it’s a place where serious business is conducted, too.
“New Orleans inspires, which is why great American writers like William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, to name a few, all lived here. We value those things that make our culture unique and visitors come here to bask in the riches we provide,” says Yvonne Collazo, DMCP, CIS, associate director of sales with Hosts New Orleans, a destination management company.
“Incentive destinations must be experiential, and in New Orleans people quickly understand that they have permission to be different here. They can eat a little more, stay out a little later than, drink a little more, and be adventurous — or at least a little less bashful — than they are at home,” she says. “When you are in the city that invented the word ‘cocktail,’ reveres the traditions of Mardi Gras, gave birth to jazz and produced Cajun and Creole cuisine, you are in a place that inspires creativity…a place that values and celebrates it. There’s no question of authenticity in New Orleans; you always know the feeling you get is unique, interesting and real. Southern hospitality is celebrated and widely apparent in New Orleans.”
As an example of the kinds of experiences and services Hosts New Orleans can create, Collazo recalls a company’s meeting her group was tasked with handling, which held its second annual “Connect” event in New Orleans in 2016. In addition to meeting services, Collazo and her team were responsible for booking the hotel, sourcing unique alternative meeting space, providing airport transfers, as well as creating evening functions and receptions.
“Throughout the creative process, our task was to create a one-of-a-kind conference. We planned, coordinated and delivered the client’s entire program,” Collazo says. “The attendees from offices across the United States came together for networking and education. That this just was their second Connect convention, which meant limited history for the three-day program.”
The heavily millennial group settled on the hip Ace Hotel, which at the time of their site visit was still under construction and opened just 30 days prior to the event. Collazo says the hotel was a perfect fit except that it lacked the space for larger meetings.
The group asked for “unique alternative space at an untraditional venue,” which Collazo’s team found in a historic site that was primarily raw warehouse with both indoor and outdoor space. They completely transformed it with interactive stations, furniture, staging, AV, extensive décor, lighting and F&B, and it was just a 10-minute walk from the hotel.
Two evening functions also were created at two very different venues. “The first event was at Race and Religious, a compound consisting of several small historic homes built in the 1800s, with connecting courtyards and a pool surrounded by an old brick wall. It had a French Quarter tropical feel. The décor consisted mostly of candles and lighting with specialty linens, tables and bars. The client’s logo was subtlety displayed around the venue. Because of this specific venue, our caterer was chosen both on food quality and station design,” Collazo says.
“The second evening was held at Mardi Gras World, followed by a late-night after party at Bourbon Heat, a popular club with a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street. To start the night, we had a complete New Orleans fête including local food and beverage, costumed theme talent, voodoo characters and Mardi Gras décor,” she continues. “After part one, we whisked the guests away in buses to the next venue, the nightclub on Bourbon Street. The theme of this second event was Hosts and Heritage Fest, intended to give guests the feel of a real NOLA outdoor festival, such as Jazz Fest.”
The entire meeting was a success. “We supported the client’s meeting agenda and ultimate success through best practices,” Collazo says. “This meant constant open communication as well as the management of both expectations and budget. Key was the early incorporation of our supplier partners in the planning process, having them give their feedback on what items and services they had that would best fit the creative vision we had arrived at with our clients.”
Exactly how it’s supposed to work.
For planners wanting to book the latest New Orleans properties, there’s The Jung Hotel & Residences, which opened in December on Canal Street. It features 207 guest rooms in addition to residential apartments, more than 15 meeting rooms and a 12,000 sf exhibit hall.
The internationally acclaimed National World War II Museum has broken ground on The Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, part of its vision of offering more dedicated space to host educational programs for corporate groups and the military, among others. The 230-room hotel will be part of the Curio Collection by Hilton and is expected to open in 2019. It will feature a second-floor conference center and 18,000 sf of meeting space.
The new terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is already under construction, but plans have been expanded to include more gates and more parking. The terminal is expected to open in early 2019, but new flights to Europe and South America are already available, providing even more ease of travel for international groups wanting to experience The Big Easy.
New Orleans is what comes to mind for most of us when thinking of Louisiana. But there are other cities planners should consider, too.
The capital and second-largest city in the state, Baton Rouge is Louisiana’s political hub, a thriving industrial center and one of the largest ports in the United States. It sits on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, about 80 miles from New Orleans and 55 miles from Cajun country.
With creative venues from stately historic mansions and nature conservation areas to escape rooms, museums and floating casinos, Baton Rouge offers planners much to choose from, not to mention don’t-miss events including LSU football and the city’s own annual Mardi Gras.
Law firm Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice held its 504 Workshop for 188 attendees in Baton Rouge in January 2017. The group was based at the 256-room Renaissance Baton Rouge Hotel.
Kevin Silvio, workshop coordinator and assistant office manager with the law firm, says the best elements of the hotel are location, ease of access, the quality and age of the hotel, the quality of food and the staff.
“The hotel is located conveniently off of I-10 on Bluebonnet Boulevard in Baton Rouge, across the street from Baton Rouge’s largest shopping mall and just down the street from the second largest mall in Perkins Rowe. Our attendees have downtime after our workshop each day, and there are plenty of restaurants and things to do close by. There’s even a shuttle from the hotel that runs to the mall for those without vehicles.”
In addition to excellent meals and an expansive menu to choose from, Silvio says, “The hotel itself is newly renovated, and the interior is modern and fresh. Our attendees raved about the rooms and amenities within them.”
Price wise, he adds, “It was more expensive to do the various things we like to do, including meals and breaks, but our attendees seemed to greatly enjoy the Renaissance as opposed to other meeting areas and hotels in town.”
Silvio notes that the company does host events at other hotels in Baton Rouge on a regular basis, but calls the Renaissance “one of the best.” For this meeting, all events were at the Renaissance. “We used a majority of the hotel function and conference space,” Silvio says, “and to my memory, all of the meetings rooms were modern and in fine shape.”
For large meetings, he says, “I would strongly suggest scouting areas for registration and check-in tables, as well as developing a couple of plans to prepare for moving large numbers of people around the hotel in a short amount of time.”
One issue he had was conference-room setup, as well as some furniture/immovable structures that made sign-in difficult.
“Generally, we like to have a straight line of tables, with each one for a specific group. At the Renaissance, we had to adjust and put the registration tables at different angles and formations to make it work. With fewer than 200 people, this was one of our smaller workshops; however, at times the setup was a little too quirky for my taste,” he says.
“We were able to come up with a workable solution for our group, but depending on the needs of the conference, others may not be able to make it work. The best solution we found was to put the sign-in tables as close to reception as possible and have employees directing traffic to various locations, in addition to clear signage.”
Silvio recommends reserving all of the meeting rooms for any meeting over 100 people, “as the meal seating can get a bit dicey without a dedicated room.”
That said, he notes that the AV worked well, “and the company onsite, PSAV, met all of our needs and was extremely professional and ready when needed.”
In the end, Silvio says, “Compared to others in the Baton Rouge area, Renaissance checks off a lot of boxes and does a lot of the little things well. Melissa Silva, Jacob with PSAV, and all of the other staff were great at addressing our needs and consistently checking in on us to ensure that we had everything we needed. A nice perk was having access to the lockable bridal suite to store various things for our meeting, and to have a private restroom for our staff.”
Silvio calls the décor “modern with a nice Louisiana twist,” and says everything was in good condition. “From our workshop evaluation forms, we know that one of the most important things to conference attendees is the overall cleanliness and ‘feel’ of a hotel. The Renaissance checks off those boxes, and our attendees were very pleased with how the hotel was cleaned and maintained.”
To anyone considering Baton Rouge or the Renaissance, Silvio says, “The best advice I can give for this venue, or any for that matter, is to plan as far in advance as you can. Go onsite and scout the meeting areas and figure out the best way to smoothly move large groups of people from one area to another. I recommend using the in-house catering for meals, as it keeps the conference flowing and avoids overly long lunch breaks. Your attendees will enjoy all that the Renaissance has to offer. We enjoyed the Renaissance greatly and are hosting another large workshop there at the end of 2018.”
A planner would be hard pressed to find a more genuinely friendly and welcoming city than Lafayette; a little more than two hours west/northwest of New Orleans. Planners looking for a uniquely American, one-of-a-kind influence, to give their meeting extra richness and pizzazz will find that Lafayette’s deeply rooted Cajun culture is just the thing.
For Ken Dugas, manager of interactive events with Lafayette-based Stuller Inc., the city offers plenty of interesting venues and restaurants, and the 129-room Homewood Suites by Hilton Lafayette-Airport, with 3,384 sf of meeting space, provides a good base for attendees and functions. In October, the company held its Bridge event at the hotel.
“The Homewood Suites is conveniently located on a well-traveled road almost halfway between Lafayette Regional Airport and Stuller’s global headquarters. It includes well-equipped and comfortable rooms and a large common area with ample seating and meeting space. Guests are also able to enjoy a buffet breakfast and evening reception with a light dinner buffet option,” Dugas says.
“Bridge is a multisession event, so we utilize meeting space at both the Homewood and our global headquarters,” he notes. “The hotel’s meeting room can accommodate approximately 120 people depending on the seating layout. Overall, it provides a very intimate setting for the size and purpose of our event.”
As for meals, Dugas says the Bridge event incorporates a combination of catered meals at the hotel and at Stuller’s corporate offices, as well as dinner at various local restaurants that are able to accommodate approximately 160 guests. “We’ve utilized Abacus, Café Vermilionville and Social Southern Table, just to name a few, for their excellent food, facilities and service. More importantly, they all offer a taste of what Lafayette, Louisiana, has to offer through its cuisine.” As always, staff makes a difference. “Summer, the hotel’s general manager, is excellent,” Dugas says. “She’s very warm, accommodating, attentive and responsive.”
Though the hotel doesn’t have a full-service restaurant on property, Dugas points out that there are many excellent restaurants just a short drive away.
“Since this property is very popular with the business traveler,” he adds, “I suggest planning ahead.”
New for the city is that its signature venue, the Cajundome, has reopened following a $22 million makeover that included a new coating on the arena roof as well as new concessions featuring regional specialties and a greater number of healthful choices on the menu. A brand new venue, The Chandelier Room, also has opened, giving planners an upscale venue with 16,000 sf of space and services that include catering, signature drinks, premier entertainment, valet service, white-glove service and more.
There are currently three hotels under construction in Lafayette: Courtyard by Marriott, Townplace Suites and a new La Quinta hotel, and the New Orleans-based live music and bowling venue, Rock ’n’ Bowl, will open downtown in spring 2018 with a catering hall and suites available on the second floor.
Nearby, Tabasco will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year and is offering expanded Tabasco sauce factory tours and special group experiences and events — not to be missed.
For groups visiting Lafayette during Mardi Gras, the city’s convention and visitors commission, Lafayette Travel, now offers group and VIP seating for the event, giving visitors a close-up and comfortable way to join in the celebration.
Tucked into the northwest corner of Louisiana, some five hours and more than 300 miles from New Orleans, Shreveport-Bossier lies near the Texas and Arkansas borders and can easily draw groups from all three states.
Among its newest attractions is the Shreveport Aquarium, which opened November 2017. In addition to giving guests up-close time with sharks, rays, jellyfish and other creatures of the deep, the aquarium also offers groups private event space and catering through its onsite restaurant, Salt. The restaurant’s contemporary menu includes cocktails and an eclectic selection of foods.
Also new is Gator Raceway at Gators & Friends, an exotic animal petting zoo and adventure park. The raceway opened in September, giving thrill seekers a chance to take high-speed go-karts for a spin around a twisting track that challenges drivers’ skills and nerves. It lends itself perfectly to a teambuilding or leadership-training activity.
There’s a lot to choose from in Louisiana. But wherever a group meets in the state, planners can count on a warm and friendly atmosphere with local people who can’t wait to show off their food, culture and full-on spirit of celebration. C&IT