Louisiana is ready for 2022, and across the state, in-person meetings are on a significant rise. Not surprisingly, optimism reigns for this state, with its boundless bon-vivant attitude.
“In New Orleans, we know a thing or two about overcoming challenges and coming back stronger,” says Stephen Perry, president/CEO of New Orleans & Company. “New Orleans’ offerings for corporate planners actually increased during the pandemic, including [with our] new Four Seasons, Kimpton and Virgin hotels; the pedestrian park at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and more. The city has one of the highest vaccinated populations in the country, and the finest COVID-19 safety protocols in place for business meetings and major events. Our team of professionals at New Orleans & Company is battled-tested, resilient, and built to host in 2022 and beyond.”
Companies that have hosted meetings in New Orleans over many years also have faith in the city’s resilience and ability to provide a safe place to meet. “New Orleans is and has been the perfect destination for Jefferson Financial Inc.’s New Orleans Investment Conference for nearly five decades,” says Brien Lundin, CEO and owner. The group of 850 met in mid-fall 2021, based at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. “[At one point in 2020], we weren’t sure if an in-person meeting was even an option [for 2021], or if we would need to go virtual again for the second year in a row. New Orleans & Company, the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, and the entire hospitality industry, went above and beyond to ensure that we were able to execute a successful in-person event and worked with us every step of the way to not only keep us safe, but to create unforgettable experiences for our delegates. We remained in close contact with the hotel and New Orleans & Company every step of the way, over-communicating while we navigated new challenges together, which gave us comfort and trust as we overcame concerns.”
Lundin says the Hilton fully understood the company’s program from start to finish, even going beyond expectations. “They were able to use the same amount of space and pattern that our group was accustomed to,” he says. Naturally, some changes were made to the schedule to provide maximum safety. “The Hilton’s expertise and knowledge allowed us to pivot our standard programming around COVID restrictions to keep everyone safe, such as moving the keynote address to the end, rather than ending with the typical networking event,” Lundin says. As with most meetings, solid relationships made all the difference. “These strong partnerships in New Orleans were key to our success,” Lundin adds, “and we can’t wait to work with them again in 2022.”
Meetings may have slowed in 2020, but new developments did not. The 341-room Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences, and 238-room Virgin Hotels New Orleans, opened last summer. The 202-room Kimpton Hotel Fontenot had its grand reopening — after a brief opening in 2020 — in late spring 2021. Boutique property Hotel St. Vincent opened early last summer with 75 rooms and a modern event space adjacent, and One11 Hotel, which opened at the end of 2020, became the first new hotel in more than 50 years to open in the French Quarter. It features an art gallery and a rooftop space with views over the French Quarter and Mississippi River. Additionally, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is working on achieving LEED silver certification and to reduce the carbon footprint of future conventions.
Paul Arrigo, president and CEO of Visit Baton Rouge, says his city saw many gains last year, and he thinks things will only get better in the months to come. “Leisure and transient business were strong in 2021. We’re optimistic that 2022 will see a repeat of 2021 with leisure and transient being strong.”
Baton Rouge, he continues, is benefitting from an overall higher demand for smaller cities. “There seems to be an increased demand for smaller cities like Baton Rouge. Groups are seeking out smaller and unique destinations, and we feel really good about Baton Rouge being able to meet that hyped-up demand. We want planners to know that the city continues to offer unique experiences and there is much to see and do.” He says the city is also seeing high demand for boutique hotels, and Baton Rouge is able to respond to that need as well. “We have a couple of boutique properties in the city, notably Hotel Indigo Baton Rouge Downtown and Watermark Baton Rouge.”
In the realm of yet more good news, Arrigo says meeting cancellations have greatly diminished. “We have not seen cancellations for 2022 group business like we saw in 2020 and in early 2021.” But with demand strong, he adds, “that means hotel rates will likely remain high.” Arrigo encourages planners to take advantage of all that the city offers by incorporating downtime into meeting schedules so attendees have time to explore. He notes that the city is also a great choice for attendees who want to bring family with them as a way of adding on family vacation time before or after meetings.
Baton Rouge has a couple of new hotels that might be of interest to planners working on board meetings or small conferences. Tru by Hilton opened in early fall, and all 90 guest rooms have work areas, and there’s complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the property. Element Baton Rouge South opened recently across from Baton Rouge General Medical Center with 123 rooms and suites, a meeting room and complimentary parking.
Looking into 2022, Donna O’Daniels, president and CEO of St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission, is very optimistic. “St. Tammany Parish as a destination and community fared much better than most in 2020, and in 2021 recovery was strong,” she says. And business, she adds, is back. “We’ve already begun to experience firsthand interest in meetings moving away from virtual to in-person. While virtual meetings served us well during the onset of the pandemic, I believe the business community thrives on interpersonal connection. That’s hard to achieve through a computer screen. Renewed confidence in leisure travel, which we’re already seeing, is paving the way for confidence in meetings and business travel.”
Safety, of course, remains critical to corporate groups wanting to meet in person, and O’Daniels notes that her area can meet the needs of planners. “By the very nature of corporate planning, we can ensure that safety precautions are taken and protocols are enacted to keep meetings safe for attendees,” she says. Some aspects of the pandemic, however, will likely continue to impact meetings. “I believe many in-person meetings will continue to offer a virtual component for at least the early part of 2022,” O’Daniels says.
Like others, O’Daniels is seeing advantages to being a smaller destination — especially one within a short distance of a hugely popular meetings city such as New Orleans. “The Louisiana Northshore offers an advantage for corporate planners looking to host a small to mid-sized meeting; the level of service from our sales team … is unparalleled, and our destination offers world-class amenities while maintaining that small-town charm.” She points to the many unique opportunities the Northshore offers for off-site experiences, including tastings at Abita Brewery, tours of Honey Island Swamp, seafood boils and jazz brunches. And, she adds, “We’re located only 40 minutes from the French Quarter and less than an hour from the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Angele du Passage, CMP, partner/owner at Cypress Planning Group LLC, works with many corporate groups planning events in the Northshore area. She says the region has a whole host of positives for planners and their groups. “Northshore offers competitive pricing for state and regional corporations. [And] it offers a feeling of a small Southern area with Southern charm, but also has lodging, restaurants, entertainment, golf and other activities needed to host a successful conference, retreat or meeting.” Additionally, she says, the area has fewer “distractions.”
Much like O’Daniels, she thinks the area is well-equipped to keep meeting attendees safe. “Since COVID-19, many planners are looking for ideas and venues that offer more outdoor activities. St. Tammany/Northshore offers plenty of outdoor activities, such as golf, nature walks, bike riding, canoeing and others.” She has nothing but high praise for the Tourist and Convention Commission, and encourages planners to take advantages of the resources it offers. “Working with the CVB can be a valuable resource for planners as they plan and budget for their upcoming meeting. The CVB has a wealth of information, and can give planners and groups guidance on current guidelines and protocols to ensure they have everything needed to host a safe and successful conference.”
As a local DMC headquartered in New Orleans, Cypress Planning Group also benefits from working with the commission. “As we support clients with their meetings and events, we always reach out to specialists in an area to help find the best hotels, venues and restaurants,” du Passage says. “The St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission is that team I call when looking on the Northshore. They’re extremely knowledgeable on the destination and understand the unique aspects that make the Louisiana Northshore a special place. If I need help with great hotels, fun activities and delicious restaurants, they’re my first call.”
CGB Enterprises Inc. has been holding meetings at Southern Hotel in Covington, Louisiana since the historic property reopened in 2014, proving that sometimes a company doesn’t have to look farther than its own backyard for the perfect meeting destination. Most meetings include from three to 30 attendees. “The location of the Southern Hotel works well for our company as it’s located approximately 5 miles from our corporate office,” says Kelly Buchanan, director, marketing and communications for the company. “It’s situated in the heart of downtown Covington, which is a quaint area that has walking access to restaurants and entertainment. The hotel is filled with charm and Southern character, with different meeting room sizes and well-appointed hotel rooms.”
Buchanan notes all of the group’s meals and events for the most recent meeting were handled directly through the hotel. “We did not go off property,” she says. In terms of meeting and function options and staff to assist, Buchanan says the boutique Southern Hotel offers it all. “The Southern Hotel provides different sized meeting rooms that can accommodate breakout sessions or smaller meetings. The staff is available during events to assist with any needs that may come up. The grounds around the hotel are well kept and ideal for attendee breaks or walking to a nearby restaurant. There’s also a beautiful bar located outside the lobby of the hotel and an open patio/garden located right off of the lobby as well.”
Staff is a standout, she adds, “The director of sales and marketing at the Southern is very involved in the planning of meetings and ensures that everything is taken care of, with great attention to detail and utmost hospitality,” Buchanan says. “The hotel handles all of the catering of the meetings and offers several selections to choose from.”
If there’s been a downside, it’s that the hotel didn’t have a restaurant on the property. “Lack of an on-site restaurant did hinder last-minute food and beverage requests,” Buchanan notes. “However, [the staff] is so helpful and ensured we were taken care of.” That said, Buchanan notes, “We look forward to the new on-site restaurant coming this fall.”
In terms of health and safety, Buchanan says the hotel stepped up with the right processes and protocols. “The hotel employees all wore masks and there was hand sanitizer throughout the hotel. Additionally, there were protocols in place for cleaning the rooms to make them more sanitary in terms of COVID-19 precautions.”
With bookings up, the Southern Hotel, like many others, does not offer any incentives, discounts or bonuses for booking, and Buchanan doesn’t know about cancellation policies given that CGB Enterprises hasn’t had to cancel recent meetings. She does note, however, that there was nothing in their contract with regard to cancelling due to COVID. On the plus side, Southern Hotel does offer CGB a corporate discount.
To planners considering Southern Hotel, she says, “Call early to check for availability of meeting space and to be sure it can accommodate the size and A/V needs of your group. In the past, meeting space would book up early.” Bottom line for Buchanan and her group is that the hotel is highly desirable. “Past attendees continue to want to attend meetings and stay at the Southern Hotel, due to the charming atmosphere it provides and the prime location in downtown Covington.”
Along the Northshore, multiple dining and entertainment venues have opened in recent months, including Tchefuncte River Charters, with its licensed barge seating up to 12 with a bar and sound system, and etouffée restaurant in Covington. Pat’s Rest Awhile opened on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain early last year, the latest from local chef Pat Gallagher. A new Springhill Suites by Marriott opened last spring with 88 suites and executive meeting space for 12, and the Hampton Inn Covington and Hampton Inn Slidell recently completed renovations.
Stacy Brown, LCTP, president of the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau, is as optimistic as her fellow Louisiana CVB colleagues. “Convention and meeting bookings are on the rise; we continue to move closer to pre-COVID numbers in the meetings area, and our leisure and sports markets have already exceeded 2019 numbers.”
She says the bureau is also already seeing groups ready to resume meeting face-to-face, and that they’re booking future dates in a variety of venues and hotels. Brown thinks adherence to health and safety protocols is encouraging planners and groups to book future meetings. “By keeping protocols in place for attendees regarding safe social distancing and cleanliness, planners can book with peace of mind.”
Whatever type of meeting is planned, whatever the off-site requirements are, Brown says the Shreveport-Bossier area is well-positioned to meet planners’ needs. “Shreveport-Bossier provides a variety of options for planners to choose from in a location that is easily accessible by ground or air,” she says, “from unique off-site reception locations to all the modern amenities needed for hybrid conferences, outdoor options and more.”
To planners considering Shreveport-Bossier as a meeting destination, she says, “Your attendees will feel the warm embrace of our special brand of Southern hospitality and enjoy spectacular local cuisine and luxuriously comfortable accommodations.” Planners may be interested in the new or expanded space for off-site functions in the area. Shreveport Aquarium now features new indoor/outdoor event space, while the East Bank District, with multiple businesses and entertainment venues, continues to expand with various private spaces for events and functions. Additionally, Eldorado Casino Shreveport recently rebranded to Bally’s Shreveport Casino & Hotel, and The Remington Suite Hotel & Spa, located near the Shreveport Convention Center, upgraded its highly desirable rooftop area.
The bottom line is that Louisiana is ready to welcome back planners and groups of all sizes. Whether you choose to meet in New Orleans, with its deeply rooted culture of food, music and celebrations, or you opt for Baton Rouge, and all a capital city offers, or towns along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain or Shreveport-Bossier, on the far western side of the state near Texas, Louisiana has everything you need. C&IT