With a new $1.3 billion airport, an ongoing face-lift for the convention center and a fleet of new hotels offering an array of meetings spaces, this year promises to be a transformative one for one of America’s favorite destinations, New Orleans.
As the city eases away from COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, New Orleans is looking ahead to new developments that will continue to certify the “Crescent City” as a bucket-list destination for those who’ve never been, and polish the offerings to its legion of fans. Chief among its regulars: meeting planners. “New Orleans is an amazing city for hosting an event,” says Chad Carey, corporate travel & events manager for FireMon LLC, a network security platform. Ease of accessibility, plentiful nonstop flights and an array of entertainment options after dark are among the lures Carey cites. “The options are limitless — take a walk down Bourbon Street, and you’ll be greatly entertained. Whether you are interested in jazz, Southern rock or looking for an LGBTQ bar, you’ll have your choice on Bourbon Street.”
FireMon worked with New Orleans & Company, the city’s DMC, for venue recommendations, choosing the destination to host its All Company/Sales Kick Off early this year. With 110 attending in person, FireMon was also able to take advantage of an incentive/rebate offer based on the number of room nights utilized for the event. Carey adds: “We also wanted a location that embodied an interesting segment of U.S. culture, as we had about 20 international employees traveling for the event. New Orleans provides not only great food and entertainment, but also a unique view into a cultural subset of the U.S. We selected the New Orleans Marriott on Canal Street based on our budget, its location and the flexibility of their team to work with our needs. The team at the Marriott was on-point with regards to room availability, the banquet teams provided excellent service, and the food was top-notch.”
Carey adds, “The Marriott location is perfect. It’s not on Bourbon Street — which was ideal due to noise — but it’s close. The hotel’s meeting spaces have been recently renovated and are easily accessible from both towers of the hotel. F&B was willing to keep both the restaurant and bar open later due to our group being in house, which was a wonderful gesture.” The group hosted a welcome happy hour on the hotel’s 41st floor, which offered views of the Mississippi River and city lights. “Since this was the first event, staff were on-site to verify that all of our employees were either vaccinated and/or had tested negative within the previous 72 hours. This helped to alleviate the concerns of mine, and of many employees, who were reticent to attend due to the ongoing pandemic.” The 1,333-room New Orleans Marriott offers 85,877 sf of meeting space, including a 27,089-sf Grand Ballroom. Carey says the hotel ballrooms were clean, room temperature was comfortable, and A/V was excellent.
During the conference, FireMon hosted one off-site event at Bourbon Vieux, a storied bar that claims the longest balcony in New Orleans. “The staff, the food, the drinks and the entertainment were phenomenal,” Carey says. “We felt welcomed and the location provided a great view of Bourbon Street. Although the weather was a little chilly, we still had an opportunity to hang out on the balcony with drinks and toss a few beads. After Bourbon Vieux, we made our way down Bourbon Street to The Famous Door bar for an extended visit, enjoying numerous cocktails and a [great] band. The staff was friendly and truly wanted you to step in and enjoy the bar, music and city.”
When planned attendance of 300 employees didn’t work out, due to the Omicron variant rearing its head, Carey says the hotel’s events manager and group housing partner assisted with providing alternatives for the smaller group. “We had a wonderful sales experience …,” Carey says. “[One employee] was quick to offer solutions when we had to adjust our overall room nights — easy to speak with and always accessible.”
As the Omicron variant forced scheduled attendees to reconsider, FireMon opted to switch to a hybrid version of the event, causing a reduction in the number of contracted room nights. The Marriott team was flexible with favorable revised contract terms, he notes. Additionally, two of the international employees tested positive for COVID. “This required quarantine and several additional nights at the hotel. [The hotel] was constantly in contact with me to provide updates and to find out if they needed anything while they were in quarantine. This was extremely helpful, as both employees were not from the U.S. and were unaware of how our health-care system worked, in the event it was needed. She did a great job of alleviating their concerns, and mine as well. You can tell that the citizens of NOLA are proud of their town and happy to have visitors back again,” Carey says. “Southern hospitality was in full swing.”
New on the scene is the New Orleans Marriott Warehouse Arts District hotel, formerly the New Orleans Downtown Marriott at the Convention Center, which early this year debuted a multiphased, full-scale redesign. The reimagined guest rooms include locally inspired accents to reflect the atmosphere of the trendy Warehouse Arts District, functional work areas, hard-surface flooring, new seating areas and contemporary furniture. The hotel’s former concierge lounge on the third floor has been converted into an additional presidential suite with a lounge area, a king guest room and a private courtyard that’s big enough to accommodate small events.
The 332-room facility offers 24,751 sf of meeting space, including two reimagined ballrooms, housed within a 200-year-old historic warehouse adjoining the modern hotel. With exposed brick walls and stunning crystal chandeliers, the ballrooms present an industrial, yet sophisticated and elegant ambiance for gatherings. The Warehouse Arts District is within walking distance to James Beard-winning restaurants, art galleries, nightlife, shopping and across from the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
After years of litigation delays, the $500 million Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans opened late last summer. It’s a three-year transformation of one of the city’s most prominent buildings, the 34-story, former World Trade Center designed by celebrated Modernist architect Edward Durell Stone, who is also responsible for Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. The building — added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014 — sat vacant for years at the foot of Canal Street, just steps from both the French Quarter and the Mississippi River banks.
Two separate restaurants at the Four Seasons, Miss River and Chemin à la Mer, prepare regional cuisine in an elevated fashion, along with offering innovative takes on classic New Orleans cocktails. An extensive art collection featuring local and international artists is displayed throughout the building, and the 33rd and 34th floors are home to an indoor/outdoor observation deck and cultural exhibit featuring the only 360-degree panoramic riverfront views of New Orleans. It’s a spectacular venue available for private events. The hotel offers 341 guest rooms, plus 92 private residences, and 29,000 sf of flexible meetings space on one level, making it one of Four Seasons’ largest properties in the world.
Not to be outdone, The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, which offers 35,000 sf of meetings and events space, used the pandemic to complete a renovation of its spa and add a new rooftop suite, The Residence. The 3,200-sf, two-bedroom penthouse suite includes a fully equipped kitchen and a dining room for 10, a fireplace in the primary bedroom and a curated art collection showcasing regional artists. The suite’s 3,500-sf terrace offers sweeping panoramic views of New Orleans.
With more than 1.1 million sf of contiguous event space, the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center remains the nation’s sixth-largest convention facility. In 2018, the convention center embarked on a five-year, $557 million capital improvement project. Completed to date: New digital signage for all meeting rooms; a new, centrally located transportation center and shuttle hub; renovation of all 35 restrooms and creation of a new linear park that converted 7.5 acres fronting the facility into a lush pedestrian park with water elements, live event spaces and public art installations.
This year, the convention center anticipates upgrading all 140 meeting rooms and overhauling the facility’s technology — cables and Wi-Fi — along with repurposing some the existing public spaces and a $40 million replacement of the center’s roof, along with other back-of-house improvements. The overall project is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.
New Orleans has always been a go-to site for the annual meeting of one financial services company. “The city’s location makes it an easily accessible destination for those who not only live nearby, but for those who must fly in as well,” says the regional manager, who oversees planning for the company’s Annual Top Producer Meeting. “There is a lot of culture in the city that helps to set some of the backdrop for an off-site meeting and event. When looking for a venue, New Orleans offers quite a variety in the accommodations department. Price is a concern, but we have not had to sacrifice quality due to the variety of hotels.”
For the 75-attendee gathering that took place early this year, the company chose the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, an unusual spinoff from the acclaimed National WWII Museum, located in the Warehouse District less than a half-mile from the city’s convention center. Named for Andrew Higgins, who designed and built more than 20,000 boats in New Orleans that were used in every major amphibious assault of World War II, the museum focuses on the contribution made by the United States to Allied victory during the war. The facility has long been a popular venue for hosting meetings and events, and features several unique private events spaces, including the U.S. Freedom Pavilion, capable of seating 650 for dinner beneath six vintage WWII aircraft.
Just prior to the start of the pandemic, the 230-room Higgins Hotel & Conference Center opened adjacent to the museum, replete with specialty suites, a full-service restaurant, lounge and rooftop bar. Now part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, the hotel’s second-floor conference center offers more than 18,000 sf of meetings and events space, including the 6,566-sf Arcadia Ballroom. “We chose The Higgins because we were looking for more than just a hotel experience,” the planner says. “The hotel offered a glimpse back in time regarding our rich history within the U.S., a hotel experience we have not had in the past. The Higgins provides a feeling that takes a person back in time for a glimpse of what our previous generation sacrificed for us as Americans. The WWII décor lent itself for added conversation with our team.”
The pandemic forced the company to postpone its annual event several times. “But we stayed in contact with The Higgins and were finally able to move forward,” she says. “Planning an event was not easy during the pandemic, but the hotel’s staff was patient, understanding and ready when we were finally able to hold our event. We were given COVID protocols from the venue, as well as for the city of New Orleans. By having the protocols early on in our planning, we were able to let our attendees know well in advance what would be required of them for this group meeting. Our attendees were more than prepared to attend.”
The planner says the Higgins’ on-site event manager took time to understand her vision for the meeting and accommodated several walk-throughs to review all of the potential meetings spaces and sleeping room options. “The meeting space was more than adequate and felt warm and inviting,” she says. “The hotel was very clean, hotel staff was very polite and accommodating, the price was good and the meeting space served our needs.” She notes that the hotel’s F&B department was easy to work with, offering a large selection of food that was delicious.
The planner also notes the Rosie the Riveter-themed rooftop bar and lounge that accommodates 175 for receptions or 140 seated. “It is an inviting outdoor space for entertaining, with the downtown city lights offering a scenic backdrop. And the WWII Museum provided an incredible space to have our dinner event, rich with history,” she says. “The Higgins is a worthwhile destination and offers so much to do around the hotel, with the WWII Museum across the street where one could spend days wandering the halls of history.”
Much like New Orleans itself, one might say. C&IT