New OrleansJuly 1, 2014

Beckons Planners With Culinary and Cultural Charms That Can't Be Beat By
July 1, 2014

New Orleans

Beckons Planners With Culinary and Cultural Charms That Can't Be Beat
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas perform at a Cajun Zydeco Festival in the French Quarter. Credit: Cheryl Gerber

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas perform at a Cajun Zydeco Festival in the French Quarter. Credit: Cheryl Gerber

There’s hospitality. Then there’s Southern hospitality. Then there’s New Orleans hospitality. Often called the most European city in America, New Orleans combines gracious hosting and raucous partying in a way you could never find anywhere else.

Visitors are spoiled for choice among dining establishments, with renowned locations in the French Quarter luring you in with both their reputations and alluring aromas. And for a night out, New Orleans is the place to be no matter what night of the week it is, but it also has much more to offer visiting groups than many realize.

“Some people have reservations about New Orleans given that the only thing they know about the city is Bourbon Street, and a slow night out on Bourbon Street is a busy night out anywhere else,” says Michael Maloney, director of marketing for Beaumont, Texas-based Coburn Supply Company Inc., who has held multiple meetings per year in New Orleans for more than 20 years. “We have some customers come from the Bible Belt, and they don’t know what to expect, but you can show them there’s so many other things to offer, with the National World War II museum and uptown.”

The National World War II Museum, ranked as the No. 1 attraction in New Orleans by TripAdvisor, had meetings and events in mind as it was originally designed to accommodate small meetings, large receptions, seated dinners, as well as corporate events. The museum’s capital campaign, The Road to Victory: A Vision for Future Generations, will tell the entire story of the American Experience in World War II. When completed in 2017, this $320 million expansion project will quadruple the size of the original museum, adding state-of-the-art programs and exhibit space, libraries and archives, and collections and conservation space, making it an even greater attraction.

Going the Extra Mile

Planners who have tried the Big Easy rave about many of the city’s charms, but one rises leagues above the rest: the people.

“My dealings with the staff at the Omni Royal Orleans were flawless!” says Geriann Taylor, outbound marketing supervisor for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Milacron LLC. “From the initial encounter to our multiple requests for changes, additions and even a recommendation for an overflow hotel, they did not miss a beat. New Orleans as a destination won out for its history, culinary offerings and diverse culture, and the Omni Royal Orleans gave us the central location to multiple options for group events.

“To be 100 percent honest, we originally ended up choosing the Omni Royal Orleans because they were the only hotel that could accommodate the size of our group,” she explains. “And we were lucky, to say the least. The Omni gave us 110 percent of their attention for our 135-person America’s sales meeting. We had individuals tell us that this was the best sales meeting we had hosted in 20 years. That is a huge compliment.”

“Daniel Brockhoeft, David Belmonte and Terrence Jackson handled every single request I threw at them. The staff was professional and highly responsive throughout the entire planning process. I can guarantee this article is not long enough for me to mention every single instance they went above and beyond for us. We changed the menu, the layout, the AV requirements; the layout for the second time; the AV requirements for the second time — they even accommodated my crazy birthday request for a new staff member that was away from his family.

“David was available for every single change our management team made on the fly to improve the impact of our meetings. Terrence literally changed out our AV needs at a moment’s notice when we realized our layout was not ideal for our breakout sessions. Lila at the front desk contacted me each and every evening to be sure I was aware of any guest that was at risk of being a no-show. She worked with me while we waded through flight delays, arrival and departure changes. Daniel went as far as to personally drive me to a store 20 minutes away in a hail storm to pick up something our division president needed. Who does that in this day and age? They truly should be the flagship location for customer service training for all of the Omni properties.”

After completing a $15 million renovation to its public spaces and 345 guest rooms last year, the Omni Royal Orleans has focused on upgrading technology for its meeting places, adding high performance 802.11n smart Wi-Fi access points throughout, customizable LED lighting in all conference spaces, 60-inch high-definition smart TVs and front- and rear-projecting 4,000-lumen projectors.

While Taylor ended up enjoying the hospitality at the Omni through a bit of the luck, Maloney has been faithfully returning to the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans for more than 20 years for his three annual meetings: a 400- to 450-person incentive for managers, a customer event for the Coburn dealer network, and a training and award meeting for sales staff.

“The main reason we keep going back is the staff,” he explains. “Because we come back every year and our program is repetitive, they know what they’re getting into, and everyone from the bell staff up to the top know what we’re looking for. Even our customers have relationships with the staff as well and know everyone on a first-name basis. It’s fun to see, because it’s like coming home. They’re coming to a place they’re familiar with, and the staff doesn’t turn over as much as other places.

“Wherever we have a challenge either from a customer or guest regarding an expectation that may have not been met, everyone has met it head on and tried to deal with it right away,” Maloney continues. “If not right then, we make plans to meet afterwards to rectify the situation. Sometimes someone didn’t get a room they wanted or there was a meal that wasn’t correct, but one year we had a big issue with our Saturday night banquet. We try to do 20-minute turns on courses in the banquet to keep the room moving so we can start and end at a decent time, and that plays quite a bit into the pressure they have in the kitchen. When you have 450 people for 20-minute turns, you have to be on. We know they had to bring in extra people to make that work.

“One year, we chose a beef tenderloin and people could pick their temperatures. It was a disaster, because not everyone’s idea of rare was the same as the kitchen’s and people sent plates back,” he explains. “Then we just lost the room, because once people started sending plates back it threw everything off. We immediately regrouped, and after the meal we talked about what worked and didn’t work, as we always do with Colleen Page, the head of catering. We go over the finer points of the meal and the service, and we said, what do we both need to do to make this a better decision. It’s collaborative. And I feel like this with everyone in the sales department. Anyone will do a great job. They really do work hard.”

While New Orleans hotels’ superior demonstrations of hospitality are often practiced onsite, locals are willing to go above and beyond in the negotiation process as well. When it was Thomas Ridgley’s turn to host the Amarillo Gear Company’s national sales meeting, the central Gulf Coast representative for the Texas company had an unusual request for his meeting venue: no meals.

“It was a total of four days, and we had no meals in the venue,” he explains. “But it went very smoothly in the end. I had gotten a couple of other quotes from hotels in the immediate area that were willing to work with us on different things. Our final contract wasn’t as stringent as other hotels, where they wanted you to or demanded you buy food. We were in such a great location in terms of restaurants, and they understood that, so they were willing to work with us. I would just suggest the Warehouse District, where we stayed, to planners looking to save a little bit of money. It is a little cheaper than being in the French Quarter, across the street from the convention center and the Warehouse District, and we could walk to the French Quarter easily.”

John Showalter, MD, chief health information officer at the Jackson, Mississippi-based, University of Mississippi Medical Center, and a partner in Propel Health IT, had a similar experience. “We did a seminar for health IT professionals, and we were looking for a small, three-day event of 15 to 25 executives at a hotel-based venue,” he says. “Living in Jackson, it’s an easy destination for those of us that were presenting, and I had gone to another event in New Orleans three years ago, so I knew it was a great location for restaurants and high-quality activities.

“We used an online RFP service, and found that the Hyatt Place had the best value balanced between cost and service, and they were a good partnership for us helping us walk through this since we were new to the area. They really worked with us on the room block, because we weren’t sure. There are so many hotels in the area around the convention center, and everyone seemed to have their favorite hotel with their favorite restaurant, so we had to change the numbers a lot. We initially had some trouble sorting out the catering menu as well, but they called us back and said, ‘You guys are silly, just do this and this. You don’t need to have the same sandwiches every day, even though that’s listed as the package.’ On the last day, they even gave us boxed lunches so people could take them to their airport if they had to leave right away.”

More Fun for Your Money

For a city with charms as many and varied as New Orleans, it’s hard to show your group all the city’s best attractions in one meeting, especially a short one. A resounding piece of advice from planners who’ve brought groups to New Orleans is to give your group free time to experience their own version of the city.

“I’ve been to a lot of destinations and there are some cities, like here and Orlando, where you need to give attendees the evening off,” says Showalter. “Everyone came back really happy to have done their own thing. Generally the response about the event was that all of our attendees really enjoyed that it was in New Orleans. Some went to the Quarter, some went to the casino, but everyone was happy.”

Maloney explains, “For us as a company, it’s a great spot because it’s easy to entertain people and not have to pay for it. You can turn people loose, and they can just wander around. You don’t have to load people up on a bus and take them here and there. For New Orleans, the zoo is in the streets. You don’t have to go to it. It’s very easy to walk around the Quarter with a dime in your pocket and not spend it, because you’re fascinated by what you see, the music that spills out through the streets, the architecture and the people.

“I’ve been on other trips and incentives where you go to a destination and you have to plan all these different things for people to do,” he continues. “I’ve been on trips to Mexico where you have all these different options for activities you want people to do, and there’s certainly options for that. You can spend an afternoon going up and down Royal Street looking at antique stores or take the streetcar uptown. But it’s better to give people a free afternoon to explore the city. Don’t get in the way of what they want to do. Some people want to go bar-hopping, some want to go to the museums, some want a leisurely afternoon or to try the restaurants. There’s so much good food, that you really should leave people time to try the restaurants. The Sonesta is great, but you’ve also got really good restaurants like the Bayona and Galatoire’s Restaurant right there.”

To help his guests dive into the vibrant street life of New Orleans — at whatever level they’re comfortable with — while encouraging bonding among attendees, Maloney tries to book everyone on the same floor along the front of the Sonesta so they have all the adjacent balconies. “Most of the customers use this time frame to catch up, and this way people can hang out on the floor, and it allows people to meet and talk to each other in a relaxed way.”

Some balcony suites are used as hospitality suites, set up with refreshments and the game — when events take place during football season. “It provides a place for people to be able to talk and hang out if they want,” Maloney says. “They can see the action on the street and go out. People come and go all afternoon and evening. On Friday afternoon, we try to wrap up by 5 p.m. for hospitality time, and we do an open bar and serve light hors d’oeuvres of all the New Orleans favorites like gumbo and muffuletta sandwiches. On Saturday, we try to wrap sessions by 11 a.m. so people can lunch on their own and then have free time or enjoy hospitality.”

For many, the restaurant scene is one of New Orleans’ key draws, so planners find it important to either schedule some meals outside the hotel or let attendees discover their favorites on their own. For Showalter’s event, “We did a couple of small intimate dinners. We went to Emeril’s, Cochon, Mr. B’s Bistro and Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant. We chose to have dinner events not reception events. We even planned the evening events kind of on late notice, but we got reservations and tables.”

Ridgley says, “There is just a list of restaurants pages long that I would suggest. The local fare is a big draw. I took my group to K-Paul’s Kitchen, and walked around the Quarter and saw some of the traditional bars, like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, one of the oldest continuously occupied bars in the country.

“Also, during the spring and early fall, there’s a lot of local festivals in the city, and New Orleans is so compact that you don’t have to get into a car if you don’t want to, everything is very close,” he continues. “It’s worth going outside the city to go fishing, though. We went about 45 minutes out and got a charter and went out for the day. Along with seeing the French Quarter, it was one of the most memorable parts of the event for attendees.”

“My family is from New Orleans, so I know quite a bit more about it, and it has so much more than people know with the diversity of the culture,” Maloney agrees. “Yes, there’s great food, but there’s so much more outside the French Quarter. A lot of times people who come for the first time don’t realize how diverse the city is, and then they really end up enjoying it.”

New and Noteworthy

The Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel is celebrating its 120th anniversary. Last fall, the hotel recaptured its classic past by reopening its Fountain Lounge, which features a raw bar, live entertainment, creative cocktails and a wide selection of wines. The hotel has reopened its spa as the Waldorf Astoria Spa, complete with rooftop pool with sweeping views of New Orleans. The updated spa area includes 10 private treatment rooms as well as a couples suite and VIP treatment room, and a 2,300-sf fitness center. The property offers 504 guest rooms, including 125 suites, and more than 60,000 sf of event space including three grand ballrooms and 23 meeting rooms.

Last year, the Sheraton New Orleans completed a $50 million revitalization of its 1,100 guest rooms and public spaces that continues this year with a second stage of renovations focused on updating the function spaces and meeting floors. During the initial phase, the hotel took a high-tech turn, installing custom ergonomic chairs, docking stations and high-speed Internet in all guest rooms and setting up a Microsoft Link experience in the lobby. Once the second stage is complete, the 100,000 sf of meeting space will receive similar updating.

After its own $275 million redesign and revitalization, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans continues to open new spaces, most notably its Bywater Pool Deck & Bar. The salt-water pool features plush outdoor seating as well as private cabanas to relax in while sampling the new menu, which combines updates on local favorites such as Cajun chicken as well as build-your-own burgers. On the pool deck and in their rooms, guest also can now take advantage of private spa treatments from the Hyatt Regency’s new partnership with Le Jardin for in-room massages, manicures and pedicures, which are available for group bookings. In addition, the lobby now features four new computers that guests can use for 15 minutes for free. The property offers 1,193 guest rooms and 200,000 sf of flexible meeting space including 70 meeting and banquet rooms.

Loews New Orleans Hotel celebrated its 10-year anniversary earlier this year and, as part of a new service by all Loews properties, began offering free wireless in public spaces and guest rooms. The hotel, located just outside the French Quarter, offers 285 oversized guest rooms and 17,000 sf of function space with floor-to-ceiling windows.

The 346-room AAA Four Diamond Omni Royal Orleans Hotel has completed a $15 million renovation, which includes revitalized meeting rooms with new carpeting, furniture and window treatments. The project also included refreshing the guest rooms and public spaces, which now feature custom furniture, improved lighting and 24 wrought-iron balconies. The hotel, which is located in the heart of the French Quarter, boasts 14,000 sf of flexible function space including the 5,284-sf Grand Salon and 17 meeting rooms.

Hotel Monteleone, a four-star luxury property, was named one of the Best Hotels in the USA for 2013 by U.S. News & World Report. The property, located in the French Quarter, offers 600 guest rooms including 55 luxury suites and literary author suites, and 24,000 sf of meeting space including the 6,236-sf La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom.

The Hilton New Orleans Riverside, located in the central business district, has 1,622 guest rooms and 130,000 sf of meeting space with French-influenced designs. Guests can enjoy a 90,000-sf, full-service health and fitness spa.

The New Orleans Marriott, located in the French Quarter, has 1,329 guest rooms and 80,000 sf of meeting space including 49 meeting rooms. The 41-story hotel features views of the Mississippi River and the city’s skyline along with the award-winning 5 Fifty 5 Restaurant.

The Hyatt Place New Orleans/Convention Center in the Arts District near the French Quarter, offers 170 guest rooms, three meeting spaces and complimentary wireless Internet in public spaces and guest rooms

New Orleans is undertaking major development projects over the next five years that will make the city even more attractive to planners: The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport will undergo an $826 million expansion; a new Convention Center District Development Project — which includes a new headquarters hotel, park, entertainment, cultural venues and more — will launch along the city’s riverfront; and the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will continue with improvements. C&IT

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