After a year that many might describe as “apocalyptic” for travel and tourism, and by extension, the meetings industry, signs of hope are on the horizon. And as event organizers look forward, cities such as New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Shreveport-Bossier region in Louisiana remain high on their list of world-class meeting destinations. Here’s why.
Few U.S. cities rival “The Big Easy” for the depth of its rich cultural heritage, history and legendary hospitality. Vibrant, resilient, festive, optimistic — these are some of the memorable impressions attendees have voiced when describing the timeless appeal of New Orleans. Whether found in its iconic Cajun and Creole cuisine, jazz and blues musical traditions, or on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, New Orleans offers a unique blend of elements that welcome leisure and business attendees alike.
As destinations reopen when the COVID-19 vaccinations are rolled out fully and restrictions ease, planners can expect to see exciting changes in the New Orleans meeting experience. “While you’ve been away, we’ve been busy,” says Stephanie Turner, SVP of convention sales & strategies for New Orleans & Company, the city’s rebranded convention and visitor’s bureau. “We have elevated the meeting experience in New Orleans with a new, 972,000-sf airport terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, and a $557 million improvement plan is underway at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, including a new pedestrian park, turning 7.5 acres of Convention Center Boulevard into a lush green space.” Both sites “achieved GBAC STAR accreditation through the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, certifying that the facilities are implementing the industry’s highest standards of cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention for infectious agents such as COVID-19, and are the leading standard of prepared facilities,” she said.
The award-winning New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (ENMCC) provides planners with 1.1 million sf of exhibit space, with four unique spaces to accommodate meetings of any size. The Great Hall features a 60,000-sf divisible, column-free ballroom together with a rooftop terrace, indoor balcony and a 5,700-sf executive club lounge. The La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom covers 36,000 sf of flexible, carpeted ballroom space, while the state-of-the-art New Orleans Theater can be separated into three sections or staged as one open space to accommodate up to 4,000 attendees. For an intimate dining experience, the Ma Maison VIP Dining Suite provides exquisite elegance in an old-world setting.
Recognizing that safety protocols at event venues remain top of mind among meeting planners, Turner offers this reassurance: “While our legendary hospitality will always be at the core of who we are, our efforts now are focused on safety as we prepare to welcome visitors to New Orleans,” she says. “We are leading the way in COVID-19 response as well as safety protocols. We understand the importance of social distancing, and our hospitality community, along with our city and state leaders, have been hard at work implementing new practices. Aggressive testing, masking and social distancing policies are working as we remain laser-focused on the safety of our workers, our residents and our facilities.”
Corporate planners also enjoy a wide variety of hotel options for their meetings and events. As some hotel amenities and services may have limited availability due to COVID restrictions, planners can confirm the most up-to-date information via the individual property sites or through the assistance of New Orleans & Company.
For Sally Mainprize, SMMC, CRP, DES, owner and “Event Yoda” for Iron Peacock Events, several factors led to her client’s decision to host their recent leadership group at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. “Our group is unique in that guests visit another member’s successful business off-site in a particular destination — in this case, a landscaping company — so they can learn how to grow their own businesses,” she says. “It’s important that the weather is warm and that there’s plenty of outside space. The price, the location, hotel and the surrounding opportunities for our group were right.” And when it came to safety needs, she says, “The hotel sent out safety guidelines and protocols ahead of time, which were above and beyond the minimum requirements to make our client feel safe and to set clear expectations among members.” The hotel offers 130,000 sf of event space, and on-site venues include 37 meeting rooms, the largest — the Grand Ballroom — at 27,000 sf.
In the heart of the French Quarter, Hotel Monteleone radiates beauty, elegance and literary flair. The hotel is distinguished both for its five-generation, family-owned legacy, as well as its designation as a Historic Hotel of America with its authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity. Its 570 guest rooms include 55 luxury guest suites and literary author suites that pay homage to such luminaries as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway, earning Hotel Monteleone distinction as a Literary Landmark by the Friends of the Library Association.
Room amenities include high ceilings, crown molding, and granite and marble bathrooms, with garden jacuzzi tubs in most suites. Additional amenities include a rooftop fitness center and heated pool; Spa Aria, featuring a full range of body and facial treatments; private dining in the Tennessee Williams room for up to 16 attendees; and the William Faulkner room for up to 12 attendees, as well as Criollo Restaurant. Popular with locals as well as guests, the 25-seat rotating Carousel Bar & Lounge features classic New Orleans cocktails, such as the Vieux Carré, and food fare, from crawfish and seafood gumbo to blue crab and corn beignets, and sweet potato pie. As the largest hotel in the French Quarter, Hotel Monteleone boasts more than 25,000 sf of meeting space covering 25 meeting rooms ranging in size from 270 sf for intimate gatherings up to 6,200 sf for much larger events.
Also located in the French Quarter, Royal Sonesta New Orleans presents a stylish, sophisticated vibe in the center of the action on Bourbon Street. Its 483 guest rooms include 36 suites, some with wrought-iron balconies, and stunning views of the lush courtyard or vibrant street scene below. Beautiful floral displays and an extensive art collection featuring 7,000 works of art by nationally and internationally acclaimed artists grace the premises. Furthermore, large windows and outdoor access are among the meeting room highlights at Royal Sonesta. With more than 20,000 sf of event space, including 20 separate meeting rooms and a 5,000-sf ballroom capable of accommodating up to 700 attendees for receptions, meeting planners have a range of client options. Acclaimed chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto head up the culinary team at Restaurant R’evolution, which features classical Louisiana dishes suffused with the chefs’ own modern culinary reimagining. Six unique private dining rooms seat 10 to 40 attendees for special events and occasions.
Other popular hotels provide their own noteworthy distinctions, including The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, once the home of former Louisiana governor Huey P. Long. It offers 504 guest rooms and 55,872 sf of event space in a luxurious and historical setting. The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans is housed in the beautiful 1908 Beaux Arts Maison Blanche building on Canal Street, with more than 35,000 sf of meeting and event space. Amenities include the city’s largest spa, with more than 100 treatments available, an afternoon tea in the Davenport Lounge, an intimate library lounge and courtyards.
In addition to other hotels, such as the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, Marriott hotels and Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, several new hotels have opened recently in the area. They include The Higgins Hotel New Orleans, Curio Collection by Hilton as the official hotel of The National World War II Museum; the boutique Maison de la Luz Hotel, featuring a new luxury guest house, and the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot.
Located along the banks of the Mississippi River 80 miles north of New Orleans, Baton Rouge welcomes event organizers who are looking for “a smaller, bigger city with definitely a lot of charm,” says Karron Alford, director of marketing & technology for Visit Baton Rouge. “We value the relationships we establish with our clients and can provide attention to detail unlike in larger cities.” Her colleague, Geraldine Bordelon, CMP, director of destination sales & experiences, agrees. “Here, a client can be a big fish in a small pond. We are able to customize niches for their groups whether planning an authentic Baton Rouge experience or a meeting for young professionals.” Plus, within the city’s walkable downtown core, guests can soak up Southern hospitality and ambience while shopping and dining, or exploring museums, taking in nightly entertainment and more.
Baton Rouge, “America’s City by the River,” or “The Red Stick,” as the city is called affectionately by locals, offers several unique properties and venues for meeting planners to consider, from museums to golf resorts, to music halls to garden estates with catering facilities. At the 25-acre White Oak Estate & Gardens, Chef John Folse, CEC, AAC, highlights cocktail receptions, crawfish boils and picnics among his corporate offerings. In addition to serving as Folse’s vice president of communications at the property, Michaela York joined forces with Folse to create their company Taste & See: Culinary and Cultural Excursions for corporate groups.
The corporate gatherings generally serve 10 to 30 people, although the property can accommodate up to 600 attendees outdoors. “Our clients want Louisiana experiences,” York says. “The ambience of White Oak is complete with a potage garden; grist mill; smokehouse; distillery; a ‘sugar shack,’ where sugarcane is processed; greenhouse; ‘catch and release’ fishing lakes, as well as pens of rabbits, chickens and turkeys.” A favorite group activity is “cooking challenges,” York says, “where each person pulled a recipe, then made an exotic dish unique to the ‘Bayou State,’ including rabbit jambalaya and alligator sauce piquant.”
Renaissance Baton Rouge Hotel, located 20 minutes from White Oak, provides comfortable, spacious accommodations for guests and others who especially appreciate the hotel’s luxurious outdoor pool and quaint bar with local atmosphere at the end of a busy day.
For a luxury downtown hotel experience near the city’s waterfront, The Watermark Baton Rouge, a member of the Autograph Collection by Marriott, features 144 guest rooms and event space for intimate gatherings. Once the site of the Louisiana Trust & Savings Bank, the exquisite 1927 landmark celebrates its storied past in rich architectural splendor that includes hand-painted ceiling murals and marble walls and staircases. Meeting planners have a choice of mixed-use venues ranging from The Founders Room, for receptions or small corporate programs; The Vault, offering 544 sf of space for private dinners and board meetings; the Louisiana Purchase, another private dining room; and the The Depository, ideally suited for executive meetings.
For meeting planners seeking a business stay-and-play experience, L’Auberge Casino Hotel Baton Rouge, framed by the grandeur of the Mississippi River, fits the bill. Within the hotel, meeting space options include the Chatsworth Meeting Room, which can accommodate up to 75 attendees, and the Executive Boardroom, for up to 10 members of the C-Suite. At the Event Center, organizers have access to nearly 13,000 sf of flexible meeting space that can be separated into three rooms. Planners can seat as many as 800 people in a reception-room format up to 1,600 theater-style. After business hours, attendees can relax and unwind at the casino, which features more than 50 table games, 1,400 slot machines and video poker games, and the Red Sticker Poker Room when available. One of the newest amenities is an open-air smoking and gaming area, the Riverbend Terrace.
Convenience, flexibility and affordable prices are three top reasons why meeting planners host their events in Shreveport-Bossier, located in Northwest Louisiana. Add perennial local festivals such as the annual Bayou Classic, plenty of shopping and entertainment options, 24-hour casinos, and regional cuisine restaurants for after-business hours, and you have all the makings for an enticing meeting destination. What attracts people to Shreveport-Bossier, says Brandy Evans, vice president of communications with the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau, is what she calls “the Louisiana flair” that visitors find in “our festivals, music, food and culture.” As a further incentive to bring meetings and conferences to the region, Evans notes: “Right now, the Louisiana Office of Tourism has added what we call ‘lagniappe’ or a little something extra to groups. If a group books in Shreveport-Bossier for the first time, they can qualify for a complimentary Louisiana reception complete with seafood and a local musician or band. It’s a great deal.” With more than 11,000 available hotel rooms and eight large meeting venues, event organizers have a variety of room sizes and floor plans from which to choose to meet their client needs.
As the second-largest convention center in Louisiana, the downtown, 350,000-sf Shreveport Convention Center offers a multi-use state-of-the-art facility with 12 meeting rooms and 95,000 sf event and exhibit space. Adjacent to the convention center, the recently renovated Hilton Shreveport provides 313 guest rooms, and three meeting and event rooms larger than 5,000 sf. Hotel amenities include a rooftop pool and 24-hour fitness center.
Other available meeting spaces include the art-deco Shreveport Municipal Auditorium, which first achieved claim to fame as the launchpad for the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley. The building can accommodate more than 3,000 people in the 6,300-sf arena. For planners seeking a venue with proximity to casinos and horse racing, among other attractions, the Bossier Civic Center offers 24,000 sf of open exhibit space, a 7,000-sf banquet space and 635 free parking spaces as an appealing cost-savings group benefit. Meanwhile, the 30,000-sf Brookshire Grocery Arena includes seating for up to 14,000, and numerous local casinos provide additional meeting and conference space suitable for a variety of group gathering needs. C&IT