After two-plus years of a global pandemic, event attendees are looking to be engaged in and inspired by the cities they visit. New Orleans is famously known as the home of the Mardi Gras festival, but also is a cultural hot bed for food, music and culture 365 days a year, making it an attractive city to host any event.
First and foremost, people come to New Orleans to have a good time. Even outside of Mardi Gras season, there’s always a party, festival or celebration.
Michael J. Sawaya, president of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (NOENMCC), notes New Orleans attracts people from all over the world. “Our history, culture, cuisine, music and festivals are just a few of the things that give the city its time-tested magnetism,” he says. “New Orleans is ‘Built to Host,’ with world-class accommodations, premier event spaces and a one-of-kind culture.”
One can head to the French Quarter and look at the quaint hotels and restaurants for an easy-going day, or listen to great jazz on Bourbon Street. “New Orleans is small and has a ton of bars and nightlife, but also has great upscale restaurants,” says Rhonda Bentzen, who has served as a coordinator on the board of an organization for more than a decade that has held many of their annual conferences in New Orleans.
“I have hosted meetings at The Ritz, as well as Windsor Court, both upscale properties and in the midst of ‘the action,’” she says. “Most people attend conferences for the social opportunities, thus being in the center of things with boundless restaurant opportunities does well. New Orleans is also easy and economical for most people across the country to get to.”
Francesca Vereb, recent V.P. of marketing for Cvent, notes, as many have discovered, New Orleans is a top tourism hub, as well as a great site for hosting meetings and events, both large and small. “With planners today looking to deliver more unique and experiential events for their attendees, New Orleans has a rich culture, which can be found in the city’s vibrant downtown area and its iconic French Quarter,” she says. “There are more than 22,000 hotel rooms concentrated in this area alone. Because of the hotels’ proximity, there are many that allow conference attendees to easily enjoy and explore city attractions while they’re in town for business.”
Year-round, when conference attendees aren’t in meetings, they can enjoy a unique-to-New Orleans shopping experience on Magazine Street offering a robust selection of locally owned boutiques. Meanwhile, art-enthusiasts can enjoy the Warehouse District, home to dozens of art galleries, cafes and bars. Then, in the evenings, conference-goers can head to places such as Harrah’s New Orleans — the city’s only land-based gaming establishment — which is conveniently located within walking distance from the NOENMCC. Not to mention Bourbon Street, which is of course known worldwide for its vibrant nightlife.
“Attendees can have completely different experiences depending on the unique city backdrop in which an event takes place,” Vereb says. “New Orleans is no exception. The city is famous for a culture that can’t be found elsewhere in the country. It’s an environment where jazz music, authentic Cajun food and a vibrant nightlife scene form the backdrop to events taking place all over the city. ‘The Big Easy’ is an exciting place to be.”
Thomas Samuels, president of Cardinal Expo, a full-service trade show and exhibit services company headquartered in New Orleans, notes the city is a great destination for event attendees because they can get incredible food all day long, have plenty to do outside of meetings, and easily get around the city.
“The most popular area for tourists is the French Quarter, where you can grab coffee and beignets from Café Du Monde in the morning before heading to your meeting, and find plenty of restaurants for lunch and dinner,” he says. “Visitors can walk around Jackson Square and see the painters and street performers, check out the St. Louis Cathedral, and take a tour in a mule-drawn carriage.”
In the evening, attendees can browse the shops — including voodoo shops — in the Quarter and visit art galleries on Royal Street, then later in the evening, get drinks on Bourbon Street or listen to live jazz on Frenchmen Street. They can also walk along the Mississippi Riverwalk, take a cruise on the Steamboat Natchez, or visit the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
“If you want to venture outside the French Quarter, there are streetcars and buses that provide public transportation,” Samuels says. “We have a number of incredible museums, including the World War II Museum, for those who like history. For visitors who want to get in nature, we have City Park with numerous attractions, places to kayak and even swamp tours a short drive away.”
Samuels notes there are food festivals throughout the year, such as the Oak Street Po-Boy Preservation Festival; the Louisiana Seafood Festival; the Fried Chicken Festival; the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival; the Treme Creole Gumbo Festival; the French Market Creole Tomato Festival; and the Boudin, Bourbon, & Beer festival. During the holidays, there’s the Celebration in the Oaks. For event planners, this makes it easy to offer an incredible visit any time of year.
There is also no shortage of meeting spaces in New Orleans, with many clustered in the downtown area. Perhaps the most well-known convention center in the city is the aforementioned NOENMCC, the sixth-largest convention center in the country. The facility has undergone extensive restoration work and renovation updates, providing event planners with state-of-the-art amenities, including lighting and video and audio production technological features.
Sawaya notes NOENMCC offers the epitome of the hometown hospitality and professionalism you can only get in New Orleans. Drawing on the vitality of such a captivating setting, the NOENMCC is also stepping up its game, with major renovations designed to boost event bookings and improve the visitor experience.
“As part of our five-year $557-million capital improvement plan, we’ve completed several projects — including a 7-acre pedestrian park with more than 200 trees — and we’re working on more upgrades and renovations that will enhance the way our facility looks, feels and functions,” Sawaya says. “There’s also another big project underway in our convention center district. In partnership with … RDNI Investors, the NOENMCC plans to break ground on a new 39-acre mixed-use development, adjacent to the Convention Center, that will revitalize the riverfront as a hub of commerce.”
The property is set to include new dining, retail, housing and entertainment options. The new pedestrian park spans the length of the building, and features interactive water elements, live event spaces, public art installations and shaded gathering places. “Many groups have enjoyed using the covered porches for after-hours receptions, and we’ve received fantastic feedback from attendees,” Sawaya says. “It has been called one of the very best arrival experiences at a convention center anywhere in the country.”
The NOENMCC’s riverfront location gives visitors great access to the Warehouse Arts District, replete with hotels, restaurants, shops, art galleries, world-class museums, such as the National World War II museum, music venues and the world-renowned French Quarter.
“Convention attendees who are sports fans can easily enjoy a New Orleans Saints [National Football League] game or New Orleans Pelicans [National Basketball Association] game, while the theater-going crowd catches a show at the Saenger Theatre or enjoys our robust community-theater scene,” Sawaya says. “The fact that New Orleans is a popular vacation destination makes it ideal for convention attendees who like to add a bit of lagniappe [a little something extra] to the beginning or end of a business trip.”
But there’s more than the NOENMCC for meeting planners to choose. The recently redesigned JW Marriott New Orleans welcomes meetings at its historic French Quarter hotel, offering 505 guest rooms and 23,313 sf of meeting and event space, large enough for seating of up to 750 attendees.
Then there’s Smoothie King Center — where the Pelicans play — offering 21,250 sf of space and flexible seating configurations for up to 18,000; The Caesars Superdome, which offers more than 162,000 sf of floor space; plus countless restaurants and hotels that offer meeting space for groups and events.
Just recently, New Orleans was the site of an international event, XeroCon 2022, hosted by the global small-business and software vending company Xero, where more than 1,000 professionals were able to gather to share ideas, discuss new technologies, and reconnect after the event was paused due to the pandemic.
“Throughout the duration of the conference, the event organizers worked closely with local representatives to ensure the event attendees were able to truly experience all that New Orleans has to offer,” Vereb says. “And in September, more than 18,000 members of the National Baptist Convention convened in the city. The current list of events and conventions coming to the city helps illustrate that New Orleans appeals to groups of all size — attendee counts range from 13 to 23,000.”
More recently, the NOENMCC hosted a conference for more than 18,000 water environment professionals, and the following week it welcomed more than 15,000 anesthesiology specialists.
“[Coming soon], the nationally acclaimed light festival, LUNA Fête, will return, making good use of our new covered porch areas and pedestrian park, followed by our favorite holiday event for locals and visitors — NOLA ChristmasFest,” Sawaya says. “Returning for its ninth year, NOLA ChristmasFest is an indoor holiday extravaganza with 300,000 sf of rides and a real ice rink. This dazzling, family-friendly seasonal event is the perfect opportunity to get into the holiday spirit and spread a little cheer.”
Hosting an event or convention in a well-known city like New Orleans can not only increase the number of attendees, but also improve ROE, or “Return on Experience.” “Optimizing ROE also means that planners must strive to balance both attendance quantity and quality; it’s not just about how large a crowd is, but also about ensuring that the right audience is there,” Vereb says. “Plus, ‘bleisure’ — the combination of business travel with a leisure component — prevails post-pandemic, and should be top of mind for planners and event organizers.”
Baton Rouge has a plethora of interesting meeting spaces, including The Cook Hotel and Conference Center at Louisiana State University (LSU), which boasts 11,000 sf of meeting space encompassing nine conference rooms and banquet halls featuring the latest A/V technology. Meanwhile, 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 16 meeting rooms and 34,000 sf of space; and the Raising Cane’s River Center complex, which features a 30,000-sf arena, two exhibition halls totaling 70,000 sf, and 21 meeting rooms totaling nearly 19,000 sf.
Further up in the northwest corner of Louisiana, the Shreveport-Bossier area may be less well-known than New Orleans, but it is a popular place for foodies, music lovers and gamblers, with six casinos in the area.
The top meeting place in the area is the 350,000-sf Shreveport Convention Center, which can accommodate large expos, state and national association annual meet-ups, corporate events, religious conferences, board meetings and sports events. It also has a 10,545-seat theater.
Like the rest of the country, New Orleans halted in-person events during the pandemic. For the better parts of 2020 and 2021, events have been largely virtual or had strict health and safety guidelines. However, more recently, interest in the city has been bouncing back. Through the first half of 2022, RFP volume to New Orleans through the Cvent Supplier Network was up nearly 150% year-over-year, and leaning into hosting larger events.
In fact, city officials recently met to update a pre-pandemic study to help map out a more than 600-room convention center headquarters hotel to help the city compete with other top convention destinations.
When pandemic lockdowns put a hold on in-person events, NOENMCC switched gears, using the downtime to make major facility upgrades, including investments to reduce its environmental footprint.
“We also took it as an opportunity to focus on developing our small and emerging business programs, to find new ways to bring in more minority and women-owned businesses, giving local small businesses more opportunities to prosper and grow alongside us,” Sawaya says. “But becoming more inclusive, diverse and sustainable is more than just the right thing to do. It’s also making us more competitive in the national event and meeting marketplace.”
As things are getting back to normal post-pandemic, business is strong. In the last quarter of 2022, the Convention Center will bring almost 185,150 visitors to New Orleans, who will stay an average of 4.9 days and spend an average of $1,034 each, representing more than $191 million in direct spending. “By the end of 2022, we expect business and attendance to be on par with pre-pandemic levels,” Sawaya says. “It’s an exciting time for the Convention Center and for the city as we strive to enhance and elevate New Orleans’ status as a destination and a place to do business.”
The Cabildo is considered one of the most historically significant buildings in the U.S. Built between 1795 and 1799 to replace a structure that burned in the 1794 fire, the Cabildo served as the seat of government in New Orleans during the Spanish colonial period. Located on Jackson Square in the historic French Quarter, the museum continues to showcase the rich and colorful history of New Orleans and Louisiana.
The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France — better known as the St. Louis Cathedral — is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the U.S., having been built in the early 18th century. Still in use today, the church is open to visitors, and the site regularly holds free concerts at the nearby Catholic Cultural Heritage Center.
Being below sea level presented big problems for the people of New Orleans when it came time to burying the dead, which is why there are numerous historic cemeteries throughout the city, where the departed are entombed in elaborate marble chambers above ground. Lafayette Cemetery is the oldest of the seven municipal, city-operated cemeteries and houses immigrants from more than 25 different countries and natives of 26 states.
An event can often be considered successful only when attendees feel like they’ve learned something new, and their experience was valuable and unforgettable. And achieving just that is what many planners are working toward. New Orleans certainly has the right offerings to provide attendees with experiences that will be memorable for them long after the event ends. C&IT