New Orleans, which celebrated its 300th birthday in 2018, is being transformed as a destination as new venues are being built and long-established venues are being refreshed. The city is famous for its culture of steamboats, jazz, food, trolleys, Mardi Gras and other unique celebrations. Credit: New Orleans & Company
A new $1 billion airport, a face-lift for a long-established convention center, and a fleet of new hotels offering an array of meeting spaces — the coming year promises to be transformative for one of America’s favorite destinations — New Orleans.
Following a yearlong celebration of the city’s 300th anniversary, New Orleans is looking ahead to new developments that will continue to certify the “Big Easy” as a bucket-list destination for those who’ve never been, and polish its offerings to its legion of fans.
“We received hugely positive feedback about the city of New Orleans,” explains Chelsea Hubbell, director, head of global event management at New York Life Investments. Hubbell says the firm has previously hosted its annual sales conference in more traditional resort locations. “Using New Orleans as a backdrop brought a ton of energy to the meeting.”
The conference — which welcomed a sales team 140-strong from across the U.S. for training, sales outlooks and networking — was held at The Ritz-Carlton, a 527-room hotel on the edge of the French Quarter that offers 35,000 sf of renovated event space, including two ballrooms, two boardrooms, 23 meeting rooms and a charming courtyard.
“The quality of the sleeping rooms was wonderful, and the guests loved the ‘Southern glamour-inspired’ interiors,” says Hubbell, who added that the meeting space was also excellent. “Our group has hosted at Ritz-Carlton properties in other locations, so we were eager to host at The Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans as we’re incredibly pleased by their quality of staff, service, menus and accommodations. Plus, the cost of the program was slightly more economical than our previous markets, and we felt like we received a lot more bang for our buck.”
The attendees had their hearts set on hosting a welcome reception in the hotel’s beautiful courtyard, but the weather turned out to be too cold for an outdoor evening event. “We made an decision on the day to host in the foyer of the ballroom space,” Hubbell says. “The hotel and A/V team were able to rejigger our plans and offer a great reception experience in the internal space. Our guests were none the wiser. With up-lighting, a seafood bar and live jazz band — the reception was still a wild success.”
Fortunately, competing events that threatened to upend plans for us turned out to be non-starters.
“The week that we held our event, the New Orleans Saints football team had two playoff games over back-to-back weekends,” Hubbell says. “Then we found out President Donald Trump was arriving in New Orleans during our arrival time. I was very concerned this would impact the quality and timing of our guests arriving from the airport on Sunday and Monday morning, but frankly there were minimal delays.”
Hubbell made sure her event took advantage of the special character and traditions for which New Orleans is known, allowing the meeting to speak to the location. She adds that they were spoiled for choice in entertainment.
“We used BBC Destination Management to source our welcome and closing bands, Mardi Gras-themed décor for our onsite Awards Banquet and to help source our offsite closing dinner location,” Hubbell explains. “They were knowledgeable and professional and helped us find options that fit our budget and vision. These touches added huge value to the program and the uniqueness and specialness of being in New Orleans.”
Hubbell continues, “We used local cuisine in all of our menus and hosted the offsite dinner at the House of Blues in their Voodoo Garden, with a live band. We were looking for something causal, fun, and New Orleans themed, so we had a ‘second-line’ band walk the group from the hotel to the venue through Bourbon street with a private police escort. Our guests raved that it was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At the House of Blues we had barbecue stations indoors and outdoors, which included a tent. Another great aspect of the space was that there is a stage in the outdoor space so the band added to the fun atmosphere. The food was standard barbecue fare, which did the trick for our sales team — they were more focused on drinks and fun.”
As a hotel chain, The Ritz-Carlton offers Impact Experiences, providing enriching, on-property opportunities for guests to contribute to the local community. In New Orleans this includes working with the hotel’s culinary team to prepare meal donations to be served at St. Jude Community Center or organizing school supplies for the students at KIPP Central City Academy. Another option is working with Save Our Cemeteries, a uniquely New Orleans nonprofit designed to help restore the above-ground cemeteries, one more facet to the city’s lure and mystery.
“The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans is particularly special because it has such a sense of Southern glamour and hospitality,” Hubbell says. “The lobby creates a fabulous impression upon check-in and our guests were very well taken care of. The catering staff, front desk, sales team and Presentation Services Audio Visual team were all incredibly gracious, helpful and creative on solutions.”
The Ritz-Carlton will have a growing list of competitors as the year progresses, as New Orleans’ hotel options grow and diversify.
Hard Rock International is expanding its hotel portfolio into the New Orleans Theater District with Hard Rock Hotel New Orleans opening at the end of the year. The 18-story building is located on a landmark corner on the perimeter of the French Quarter, one mile from the convention center and adjacent to two street-car lines, allowing guests easy access to all parts of the city. Melding together New Orleans’ history of music and culture, the hotel will offer 350 rooms, in addition to 62 one-and two-bedroom units available for purchase. The property will also feature four meeting spaces including two ballrooms, totaling approximately 12,000 sf of event space, plus 9,000 sf of pre-function space.
After years of litigation delays, the $400 million Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences celebrated its groundbreaking last year. It’s actually the transformation of one of the city’s most prominent buildings — the 33-story former World Trade Center designed by Modernist architect Edward Durell Stone. The building previously sat vacant for years at the foot of Canal Street, just steps from both the French Quarter and the Mississippi River banks. Four Seasons calls the project “the first five-star hotel in the city,” with more than 400 rooms and more than 30,000 sf of meeting space — making it one of the Four Seasons’ largest properties in the world when it opens in late 2020.
Other news comes from hotels finishing up renovations and other improvements.
The Roosevelt New Orleans — A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, completed the first phase of its $20-plus million renovation last summer — an overhaul of the hotel’s 60,000 sf of meeting space. A full makeover for all 504 of the hotel’s guest rooms is scheduled with completion projected for November. Opened in 1893, The Roosevelt is New Orleans’ grand dame, famous for the walnut-paneled The Sazerac Bar, The Blue Room, where Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra performed regularly, and how author Arthur Hailey checked in for two months and wrote the best-seller “Hotel”.
The National WWII Museum located in the Warehouse District is already no stranger to the meeting business. Ranked as the No. 8 museum in the world and No. 3 in the U.S. by the 2018 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice awards, later this year the acclaimed museum will debut its new, 230-room Higgins Hotel & Conference Center. The Museum Board of Trustees retained Hostmark Hospitality Group to manage the hotel and conference center; the Higgins will operate as part of the exclusive Curio Collection by Hilton.
Named for Andrew Higgins, who designed and built over 20,000 boats in New Orleans that were used in every major amphibious assault of World War II, the hotel and conference center is located at the corner of Andrew Higgins Drive and Magazine Street opposite the museum. The $66 million project will include an 18,000 sf conference center, and it sits less than a 1/2 mile from the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
“The Higgins Hotel & Conference Center brings a new dimension to the New Orleans’ hotel inventory,” says Tim Hemphill, CVP, vice president of sales and marketing for the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Hemphill will soon have his own project to celebrate, a $60 million linear park development along Convention Center Boulevard. Scheduled to be completed in August 2020, this first step of the Convention Center District Development Project will include dining, entertainment, retail and transportation, and landscaped and lit with outdoor seating along the entire length of the Convention Center, the nation’s sixth-largest convention facility.
“New Orleans is, in and of itself, a premiere meeting and event destination,” says Hemphill, who notes that all 140 meeting rooms at the convention center will be updated and modernized. “The Convention Center has historically been a great place to convene, and we are going through the process to make it even better.”
In all, the project will revitalize 47 acres of land upriver from the Convention Center. The next steps include the addition of a 1,200-room “headquarters” Omni Hotel at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, an outdoor performance venue space with retail, residential and dining options.
“In the grand scheme of things, this five-year, $557 million plan will transform the convention center into an entirely new experience,” Hemphill says. “We’re bringing it up to the level of expectation that a great convention destination city like New Orleans deserves.”
Many meeting planners like New Orleans just the way it is.
Last year, National Life Group brought its Independent Distribution and Field Leaders Conference to New Orleans for the second time in five years.
“We look for a domestic city location that is easy to fly into from around the U.S.” says Anne-Marie Bobay, CMP, senior conference planner at National Life Group. “Although this conference is very meeting-focused, the location must have great options for evening events, and New Orleans has a wealth of choices for great food and memorable venues.”
Equally important to Bobay was a hotel of a certain character.
“I cannot imagine bringing a meeting of this size to a city like New Orleans, with such a rich history and culture, and not use a hotel that reflects the city’s charm,” Bobay says. “Hotel Monteleone is iconic. If you want the old New Orleans atmosphere and to be in the very heart of the French Quarter, it is the best location. The Monteleone team is first class, friendly and they’re seasoned professionals, and the fact that many of New Orleans’ sites are within walking distance from the hotel is ideal.”
Built in 1886 on Royal Street, the 570-room Hotel Monteleone offers more than 24,000 sf of meeting space, ranging from breakout rooms to the 6,236-sf La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom. The hotel’s famed, 25-seat Carousel Bar has been revolving since 1949 while standards spin — live.
“Although it is a very historic hotel, the meeting space was conducive to our program,” adds Bobay, whose group numbered 130. “You won’t find a huge ballroom with 24-foot-high ceilings suited to large conferences. But their space is elegantly appointed with recessed soffit ceilings, some rooms with windows out to the street, and a rooftop venue with a terrace overlooking the city. This group is the perfect size to utilize the meeting space at a hotel like the Monteleone.”
The Hotel Monteleone did something unique for National Life Group’s 2018 meeting: a Super Bowl party on the arrival night. The hotel converted meeting space into a party with large screen TVs around the perimeter. Otherwise, evening events were held away from the hotel, and Bobay relied on the services of PRA and BBC Destination Management companies for interesting ideas and unique venues in and around the French Quarter.
“For our biggest dinner, we did a Mardi Gras-style parade for the guests from the Monteleone, through the French Quarter to Pat O’Brien’s on the River,” Bobay says. “It’s a banquet venue on the second floor with a terrace overlooking the river, an excellent room for a group of 100 to 130, with a beautiful antique bar.” Bobay cautions that planners should be aware of menu descriptions. “The Pat O’Brien caterers are set up for a reception with food stations, not a sit-down meal — their menu is geared for small plate appetizers, as opposed to a buffet dinner.”
“The second offsite event was a bit of a risk that turned out to be a very fun and unique evening for a group of 40 guests. We did a buyout at Toups South, one of the restaurants of celebrity chef Isaac Toups. The restaurant is outside of the French Quarter, about a 15-minute transfer from the Monteleone. Chef Toups and his team did a mixology demonstration at the antique bar for the entire group by actually standing up on the bar and giving the New Orleans history of The Sazerac Bar. Then, he did a very animated cooking demonstration of his Dirty Rice Jambalaya in a large demonstration kitchen at the restaurant.”
“Chef Toups is quite the showman and the group loved him and the meal,” Bobay says.I&FMM