If there’s one quality the city of New Orleans has demonstrated time and again, it’s the ability to face adversity, overcome the odds and ultimately come back stronger than ever. Whether upended due to hurricanes, tornadoes or COVID-19, New Orleans carries on with grit and resiliency. And that’s good news for planners seeking a historic, world-class destination poised to welcome back meetings in 2022 and beyond.
“We’ve reignited in-person meetings and special events,” says Stephanie Turner, senior vice president of convention sales & strategies with New Orleans & Company. “In the fall of 2021, we welcomed large city-wide meetings, which brought tens of thousands of visitors to the city. These city-wide events continue to grow in 2022, and include corporate exhibitors and attendees. All COVID restrictions such as masks have been lifted for New Orleans. Furthermore, nearly 80% of local residents are fully vaccinated, which is above the national average.”
Beyond the city’s over-the-top, fun-filled Mardi Gras celebrations, New Orleans offers an exciting choice for meeting venues. As if traditional cajun and creole cooking alone weren’t enough to attract visitors to its location, when asked to define what makes New Orleans such a desirable destination for planners, Turner doesn’t hesitate: “New Orleans is ‘Built to Host’ and built to bring life to complex meetings and events. Our meeting spaces are uniquely New Orleans. The historic rooms, courtyards and world-renowned restaurants are within walking distance of world-class hotels. More importantly,” Turner adds, “the people of New Orleans are why hospitality is in our roots. All these elements are what bring events and meetings to life to create memorable experiences.”
From Turner’s viewpoint, “Unique experiences and unbeatable backdrops set the tone for meetings and events. Our city is ‘Built to Host’ because the entire community is committed to creating memorable experiences. New Orleans’ historic venues and courtyards are not the meeting spaces you’re used to. With every breath, the voices and sounds of our local musicians fill our meeting spaces and streets with the rich, soulful tunes that excite lasting interactions. New Orleans caters to the attendee’s expectations of a uniquely, unparalleled experience.”
During the collective pause over the last two-plus years, New Orleans has continued to renovate, innovate and expand its offerings, attracting repeat visitors eager for new unique experiences in the “Crescent City.” Turner points out the 26,000 hotel rooms in the downtown area, and cites examples of the city’s growth. “In 2021, we welcomed The Four Seasons Hotel + Residences, Virgin Hotels New Orleans and Kimpton Hotel Fontenot.” In addition, Turner notes Caesars Entertainment’s $325 million investment “to renovate and rebrand Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel & Casino, with additional plans for a 340-room hotel tower by 2024” as yet one more example of the city’s unstoppable energy and growth.
Ideally located in the heart of downtown on the banks of the Mississippi, “Riverfront luxury” defines the Four Seasons Hotel + Residences. All of its 341 accommodations feature city or river views, and bring the outdoors in with botanical designs and shiplap walls in a nod to riverboats that ply the Mississippi River. Marble bathrooms, spacious showers and customized lighting that transitions the space from day to night are among the special room features. For meetings, 29,000 total sf of event space provides planners with a variety of venues to consider for receptions, banquets and breakout rooms from The Garden to two ballrooms to the two-level rooftop observation deck.
The hotel offers a 24-hour fitness center, while the newly opened spa showcases several signature experiences, such as the Body Method full-body massage and The Southern Gentleman, inspired by the city’s favorite cocktail, the Sazerac. A 75-foot outdoor pool, plus heated spa tub overlook the Mississippi River. Under the direction of two chef partners, Alon Shaya and Donald Link, the site’s two signature restaurants, Miss River and Chemin À La Mer, offer both elevated and down-home Louisiana food fare infused with the chefs’ own take on the region’s unique flavors.
Another popular option for planners and attendees, the redesigned JW Marriott New Orleans, welcomes guests to the historic French Quarter “just moments away from Jackson Square, the French Market and the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center,” says James Mollere, director of sales, Harrah’s New Orleans. The House of Blues New Orleans and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas are also nearby, “complementing the attendee experience by offering convenient access to unparalleled dining and attractions,” he says. A variety of 501 guest rooms and suites offer luxurious accommodations in peaceful retreat settings featuring city or French Quarter views, marble bathrooms and ergonomic workspaces.
The hotel’s 23,313 sf of total event space includes 22 flexible event rooms, expert planning services and seating for up to 750 attendees theater-style in the Ile de France Grand Ballroom overlooking Canal Street. But it’s not simply the size or number of meeting and event spaces available that attracts planners to the hotel. Rather, says Mollere, it’s the “intricate details, such as magnificent glass chandeliers and New Orleans-inspired crown molding, which blend modern elegance with old-world charm.”
Also, guests who reserve an executive-level room enjoy exclusive access to another outstanding feature of the business-friendly hotel: the reimagination of the stylish JW Executive Lounge, offering a host of amenities such as dedicated attendants for assistance, complimentary deluxe continental breakfasts, a range of business services, and a selection of beverages and snacks throughout the day. Evening hors d’oeuvres and an honor bar round out the beverage offerings. For after-business hours, the executive lounge provides flat-screen TVs and a billiard table to help guests relax after a busy day of meetings.
Outside of the meeting and business space, Mollere cites “the hotel’s state-of-the-art 24-hour fitness center, complete with new Peloton bikes, a saltwater rooftop pool, a lobby lounge and bar and a bi-level concierge lounge,” all designed to help guests relax, unwind and rejuvenate. “The eighth-floor executive meeting spaces offer a unique atmosphere to foster engagement and productivity with semi-private terraces,” Mollere says. “With a variety of unique features, such as natural lighting and indoor/outdoor access throughout several of the 19 meetings and events spaces, planners can select from a variety of floorplans to best suit their needs.”
For dining, the hotel’s Fogo de Chao steakhouse offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, and features Brazilian churrasco cooking. An all-day Happy Hour spotlights South American wines and Brazilian-inspired cocktails. Or guests can opt for more casual dining in the JW Marriott’s Lobby Lounge, also serving creative cocktails, shareable plates and entrees. “From a welcome reception in a bi-level suite, to a large reunion in our Grand Ballroom or post-meeting celebration on one our outdoor terraces, there is something for everyone at the JW Marriott New Orleans,” Mollere says.
Celebrating the story of the “Greatest Generation,” the art deco-designed Higgins Hotel New Orleans, Curio Collection by Hilton offers 230 “era-inspired” guest rooms in the Arts and Warehouse District near the French Quarter. Acclaimed as the “Official Hotel of the National WWII Museum,” — a history buff’s dream — the eight-story Higgins Hotel is also near the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which Turner notes has embarked on a $557 million improvement plan, including renovations to 140 meeting rooms and a makeover to its exterior experience.
The Higgins also enjoys the distinction as the first hotel in the state of Louisiana to be part of the Hilton’s exclusive Curio Collection, with all proceeds generated earmarked for the ongoing educational mission of the museum. With the 1940s theme as backdrop, guests are introduced to several unique features set within the luxury hotel. World War II artifacts, such as General George S. Patton’s piano, service member and period photos, preserved letters from the war, and glass recreations of commonly awarded ribbons and medals are among the numerous thoughtful touches. The lobby’s grandeur is reflected in a magnificent bronze staircase, stunning glass chandelier and a captivating mural of wartime factory workers set against the New Orleans skyline by renowned art-deco artist Michael Kungl.
The hotel’s guest rooms and suites include three expansive presidential suites named after WWII-era presidents Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and WWII general and later president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Amenities include 55-inch HDTVs, luxury bedding and bedside tablets for ordering convenient in-room dining, while the hotel’s art-deco theme continues with the addition of Victrola record players in selected suites, artwork reflecting both the war and home-front efforts, period lighting and bathroom vanities with under-mount sinks and illuminated mirrors. A state-of-the-art fitness center provides cardiovascular machines, free weights and CrossFit equipment.
The hotel offers 18,000 sf of flexible event space, with 14 spaces ranging from executive boardrooms to an elegant ballroom and includes experienced on-site meeting professionals, customized catering menus and state-of-the-art A/V equipment. In addition, as the hotel is attached to the WWII museum, planners have seamless access to the museum’s spaces.
Continuing the 1940s theme, Virgile Brandel, executive chef, leads the culinary team at the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, which includes four distinct dining outlets from grab-n’-go options at Provisions to a country French-inspired bistro at Café Normandie, the casual Kilroy lobby bar that pays homage to the iconic WWII cartoon character, and Rosie’s on the Roof honoring women factory workers notable for their wartime efforts.
“When attendees visit New Orleans,” Turner says, “we treat them with the same amount of attention and hospitality given to a single, lifelong friend. The people in the community and our hospitality workers are the architects of how we execute and deliver complex in-person meetings and events.” Turner advises meeting planners to be sure to fully utilize New Orleans & Company to plan their next event. “Our diverse group of professionals are the most-trusted resource for all phases of planning and executing meetings and conventions in New Orleans.” She adds, “Meeting planners can rely on our experienced sales, services and marketing teams to provide a seamless workflow in a dynamic, fast-paced meeting environment. The comprehensive sourcing assistance, convention services offerings, and customized marketing and attendance-building tools, coupled with the new developments in the city and the authentic culture, are all what make New Orleans the best choice to conduct business.”
Just more than an hour’s drive to the northwest, Baton Rouge is looking forward to the return of meetings and events as well. Before the pandemic, business travel alone — meetings and conventions — in East Baton Rouge brought in $54 million in economic impact. But the pandemic, like it did to cities nationwide, took a huge bite out of city’s economy. As the pandemic wanes, officials are hopeful for a big comeback.
“Visit Baton Rouge is planning for a future that will strengthen East Baton Rouge Parish’s tourism industry and economy,” says Paul Arrigo, CDME, president and CEO of Visit Baton Rouge in a news release. “We’re not only celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, but we are also determined to focus on how travel benefits our workforce, supports our local economy, fosters sustainability and innovations, and reconnects Americans to each other and the world. We will continue to support the many events that bring in visitors to have one of the best experiences of their lives.”
Baton Rouge offers a host of unique meeting venues, such as The Cook Hotel and Conference Center at Louisiana State University, which offers just more than 11,000 sf of event facilities encompassing nine conference rooms and banquet halls featuring the latest A/V technology. The Ashley Manor Reception & Conference Center, set on 4.5 acres, can accommodate up to 500 attendees and features two banquet rooms.
Downtown convention hotels include Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, which offers 34,000 sf of total event space, including 16 meeting rooms, the Riverview room at 7,000 sf and the Pool Deck at 14,000 sf. The Raising Cane’s River Center complex features a 30,000-sf arena, two exhibition halls totaling 70,000 sf, a 2,000-seat theater, two ballrooms totaling just more than 26,000 sf, a galleria and 21 meeting rooms totaling nearly 19,000 sf.
“The impact that we’ve had on this city has been a reward of its own,” Arrigo says of Visit Baton Rouge’s effect on the city. “We’re known for being an effective organization that knows how to get the job done, no matter what the circumstances are. We’ve always managed to excel in our roles here, and I couldn’t be more excited and proud of our team that we’re celebrating 50 years of serving this community.”
Located in Louisiana’s extreme northwestern corner, the Shreveport-Bossier area makes its own claim to fame as a place for foodies and music lovers. Home to six casinos, the area offers plenty of gaming and activities. Nothing gets an attendee’s mind away from a long day of meetings more than a swamp-buggy tour or a visit to the Sanctuary Glass Studio for special glass-making experiences and more.
The 350,000-sf Shreveport Convention Center can accommodate large expos, state and national association annual meet-ups, religious conferences, board meetings and sports events. It also has a 10,545-seat theater. The 311-room Hilton Shreveport is connected to the convention center and offers overflow meeting space of nearly 245,000 sf, which includes the 97,197-sf SCC Main Exhibition Hall and 22 meeting rooms.
The Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau offers a wide variety of services to planners to ensure a great conference. Based on the number of hotel rooms used, services may include bags that can include visitor guides, maps and promotional items; site visits for pre-planning purposes; event marketing, such as news release distribution, email blasts, direct mail, video and other collateral; registration and planning assistance; marketing collateral, such as high-resolution images and save-the-date cards to boost attendance, and a volunteers program. C&IT