New OrleansMarch 1, 2017

Making the Most of Meetings in the Big Easy By
March 1, 2017

New Orleans

Making the Most of Meetings in the Big Easy
Aflac’s Heidi Carlisle (c) and her team on the 50-yard line at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Credits: Aflac

Aflac’s Heidi Carlisle (c) and her team on the 50-yard line at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Credit: Aflac

With a rich history, exceptional entertainment, colorful attractions and festivals, extraordinary dining and abundant meeting space, New Orleans is the place for great meetings and events.

Always a popular destination, New Orleans welcomed a record-breaking 10.45 million visitors in 2016 — the highest since 2004 and an increase of 6.9 percent compared to 2015.

Stuart Ruff-Lyon, CMP, DES, vice president of events and education at the New York City-based Risk Management Society (RIMS), orchestrated the RIMS 53rd Annual Conference & Exhibition in New Orleans. Hosting more than 9,900 risk professionals, RIMS offered attendees from 60 countries more than 160 education sessions and three keynote addresses, to gain strategic insight and practical application to further their organization’s risk programs and advance their careers. The annual conference brings approximately 10,000 to 15,000 attendees and continues to grow each year.

“I attended the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners’ educational conference in New Orleans a few years ago and felt it would be a very unique destination for Aflac attendees to experience.”
— Heidi Carlisle

“With nearly 400 exhibiting companies, the New Orleans Ernest J. Morial Convention Center’s exhibit hall offered attendees new solutions and partners,” Ruff-Lyons says. “There is a certain excitement about conferences in New Orleans. The city is renowned for its extraordinary culinary offerings and is home to some of the country’s most popular celebrations.

Because of its popularity as a tourist destination, hotel accommodations are plentiful and are not only within close proximity to the convention center but they are also in the heart of the action.”

At the time of RIMS’ 2015 Annual Conference & Exhibition, the Jazz Fest and the Zurich Classic golf tournament were both in full swing. According to Ruff-Lyons, the RIMS events team focused on developing a solid content component, and used world-class speakers to address the most current and thought-provoking challenges facing risk professionals.

“Additionally, we worked to energize our networking events, capturing risk professionals’ undivided attention,” Ruff-Lyons says. “We held our opening party at the iconic Mardi Gras World to give guests the chance to explore New Orleans in a fun way that highlighted the city’s rich culture.”

Approximately 80 people from Lloyd’s of London, known as Lloyd’s, also took part in the annual RIMS Conference. Mac Castro, senior events manager of marketing and communications at Lloyd’s — the world’s specialist insurance market providing insurance services in more than 200 countries and territories — says New Orleans offered interesting cultural options for Lloyd’s attendees. Plus, most of the venues were within walking distance of each other, which was highly beneficial.

A Walkable City

Also in attendance at the RIMS Conference was Megan Reeves, senior event manager at Swiss Re Management in Overland Park, Kansas. The Swiss Re Group is a leading wholesale provider of reinsurance, insurance and other insurance-based forms of risk transfer. Reeves says that New Orleans offers so much for attendees in the way of meeting space, entertainment offerings and venue space.

“It’s also an extremely walkable city, so no matter where your group is placed, they are always able to walk to their destination or if they don’t feel like walking, they are always a quick cab ride or pedicab ride away,” Reeves says. “The other extreme benefit to the area is the noteworthy chefs in the area. You are always able to find a great meal. It’s really easy to make your attendees happy, and that is something every planner enjoys.”

Aflac made their attendees happy by returning to New Orleans for its 2016 National Sales Convention in October. A group of 1,600 attendees gathered in New Orleans from states all across the U.S.

“This event was not the first time Aflac used New Orleans as a destination, but it had been more than 20 years since the company used New Orleans as a destination for our National Sales Convention,” says Heidi Carlisle, second vice president of travel, meetings and incentives at Columbus, Georgia-based Aflac. “I attended the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners’ educational conference in New Orleans a few years ago and felt it would be a very unique destination for Aflac attendees to experience.

“The city has so much to offer — from food, music and history to museums, unique tours and Southern charm. The people I encountered on the planner’s conference trip and the preplanning visits my team did for our National Sales Convention were all so proud of their city. The pride they displayed made it so inviting for me, so I knew our sales members who qualified for this annual trip would enjoy it.”

All along the way Carlisle became more and more excited about the “experience” Aflac could create for their guests in New Orleans.

“Truthfully, we had several people reluctant about attending the event in New Orleans because they did not find the city as appealing as previous destinations — such as Hawaii and cruises,” Carlisle says. “However, we had overwhelming success with the event once attendees arrived and experienced all New Orleans has to offer.”

Embracing New Orleans

As part of their national sales convention, Aflac held a special luncheon for more than 200 guests on the stage at Saenger Theater. In addition, they held a full Mardi Gras-style parade where Aflac’s attendees rode floats and ended at Mardi Gras World and the River City Mansion House, which offered amazing food for a Fat Tuesday party.

“Rockin’ Doopsie played great Zydeco music and really ‘wowed’ our guests,” Carlisle says. “We hosted multiple tours — swamp boats tours, lunch on the Creole Queen, plantation tours and cemetery tours.

“People enjoyed visiting the World War II Museum, Jackson Square, Harrah’s Casino and especially all of the many restaurant options.

“We held our culminating event, an awards gala, on the turf at the New Orleans Mercedes-Benz Superdome — what an evening for our guests to have a gourmet meal on the turf with a fireworks finale.”

Aflac received incredibly positive feedback on the trip, including comments such as: “It was the best annual convention I have been to in 30 years” and “The trip exceeded all expectations.”

Aflac’s guests stayed at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, a convention hotel that met Aflac’s needs as a large group.

“It was in a great location with many eating and shopping choices, as well as a casino, nearby,” Carlisle says. “The hotel had a very friendly staff that made our guests feel welcome throughout their stay.”

Favored Culinary Destination

The 2016 NAIFA Career Conference and Annual Meeting hosted about 1,200 attendees for the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors’ annual professional development meeting for educational workshops and main stage speakers, a governance meeting to vote on association business and to elect officers as well as a networking event.

“New Orleans is a great location,” says Diane Ramos, CMP, director of meetings, professional development and education at NAIFA. “We were contracted to be in New Orleans for our 2006 annual conference. After Katrina, the hotel we were supposed to be in could not hold our meeting as scheduled. We’ve had smaller meetings in New Orleans since Katrina, and everyone has a great time. Sometimes you contract these big meetings years in advance and 2015 was the perfect year for our schedule.”

Ramos says New Orleans offers a culture unlike anywhere else in the U.S.
The food, fun, history — there is so much to see, do and eat here. Did I mention the food?” Ramos says. “Diet before you go and plan to eat your way through the city.”

Considered to be one of the top five culinary destinations in North America, New Orleans features plenty of restaurants with different price points throughout the various neighborhoods in the city. With the expansion of the streetcar line down Canal Street, the city is very accessible — whether heading uptown or to mid-city.

In addition, New Orleans celebrates a rich cultural heritage that attracts travelers from around the world. The unique melding of Spanish and French architecture throughout the French Quarter and surrounding areas provides visitors with the experience of a smaller old-world European city.

Venues Aplenty

New Orleans will celebrate its 300th birthday in 2018, and the city has never been in better shape to welcome visitors from around the globe, with iconic points of interest and more than 20,000 hotel rooms to choose from. In addition, the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center boasts one of the most robust digital backbones of any facility. In the past few years they have added a 60,000-sf, column-free ballroom that is contiguous to 1 million sf of exhibit space.

“We offer over 1 million sf of exhibition space all on one level, all under one roof and have 140 meeting rooms, a 60,000-sf and a 30,000-sf ballroom and a 4,000-seat theater,” says Tim Hemphill, vice president of sales and marketing at New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Located next to the ionic French Quarter, the 1,100-room Sheraton New Orleans boasts a AAA Four Diamond  rating. The hotel is within walking distance of most of the top restaurants and attractions in New Orleans, yet far enough away Bourbon Street for some quiet time.

With 100,000 sf of meeting and event space, the Sheraton New Orleans provides planners with a multitude of options. A meeting space renovation was completed in 2013 and included new Destination Control Elevators.

According to the hotel, the meeting space was laid out with the meeting attendee in mind, as their primary event space is stacked on four main levels, conveniently accessible by both escalators and 10 elevators. The main lobby is the perfect gathering place for guests to meet up.

In addition, Sheraton New Orleans offers a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi network that can provide multiple configurations of Wi-Fi or hard-wired network(s) with dedicated bandwidth per network, with a detailed report at the conclusion of the event to show actual bandwidth consumption for each network including peak times.

The Hyatt Regency New Orleans features 200,000 sf of flexible meeting space, with more than 80,000 sf of exhibition space. In addition the hotel features two 25,000-sf ballrooms, 70 versatile meeting and banquet rooms, 19 executive level meeting rooms, seven boardrooms — all of which are located adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans Arena and the new Medical District.

The Ritz-Carlton’s “Meeting of the Senses” program is dedicated to hosting luxury meetings and events that create immersive experiences. Their meeting planners curate unique food and beverage experiences, develop wellness-inspired breaks and personalize itineraries that reflect the environment of each individual hotel and destination.

The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans participates in the program with their “Oyster Butler” and “Crawfish Concierge” events, where attendees learn how to properly shuck oysters and peel the local delicacy, immersing guests in the destination.

In addition, the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans boasts more than 35,000 sf of total meeting space consisting of 26 unique meeting rooms, one grand ballroom and one junior ballroom, 23 breakout rooms including two boardrooms and outdoor event space, as well as a dedicated event concierge.

The 1,622 room Hilton New Orleans Riverside, located adjacent to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, completed a $6 million renovation to the Grand Ballroom, Grand Salon, and first- and second-level meeting spaces.

The 26,894-sf area has been updated with a sophisticated color palette of blues, grays and golds. The streamlined aesthetic continues into the Grand Salon, located across from the Grand Ballroom, which has been refreshed with new coffered ceilings and contemporary circular lighting fixtures that modernize the space.

The second-level Exhibition Center also has been fully renovated utilizing a soothing blue color palette. The refurbished space has been renamed “Churchill,” paying tribute to the Winston Churchill Statue donated to the city in 1977 and located in front of the hotel entrance.

With an increase in popularity of street food and food trucks in New Orleans, the hotel’s culinary team created an innovative way for guests to engage in the food preparation process with interactive cooking stations featuring 13 salsas that are made in-house. Public Belt, the hotel’s popular bar and lounge accommodating up to 85 people, offers live jazz music and craft cocktails inspired by the Storyville madams. They also introduced a hands-on mixology class for groups to craft the city’s signature Sazerac cocktail.

With more than 130,000 sf of available event space, the Hilton New Orleans Riverside also features an indoor connection to more than 75 retailers and restaurants at the Riverwalk Outlet Mall. In addition, the hotel boasts authentic dishes at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, two outdoor pools and a 100,000-sf health and fitness center with tennis, basketball, and racquetball courts.

Newly reimagined and renovated, the Royal Sonesta New Orleans on Bourbon Street celebrates New Orleans’ classic architecture with wrought iron balconies, gabled windows and a delightful courtyard. The hotel offers 483 newly redesigned guest rooms, as well as several dining and entertainment venues. For meetings and events, the hotel showcases 20 function rooms, with 20,000 sf of meeting space and outdoor venue options.

Nearby, the historic Hotel Monteleone offers a luxurious experience for meetings and events of all sizes. Considered to be one of the most celebrated hotels in the French Quarter, the Hotel Monteleone features more than 24 meeting rooms, ranging in size from a 6,200-sf ballroom to a 270-sf breakout room. In addition, the hotel hosts popular annual New Orleans events including Tales of the Cocktail and the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival.

New Linear Park Coming

Plans for the exciting transformation of Convention Center Boulevard in New Orleans are becoming a reality. The boulevard will connect the bustling Warehouse/Arts District with the historic French Quarter and dramatically transform the guest experience at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

The new linear park will be a tree-lined pedestrian plaza with bike lanes, moving walkways, sleek overhangs, fountains, green walls, water walls and shaded sitting areas.

The staff of the convention center is working closely with the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau to identify which events will occur during construction so that accommodations will be made well in advance to avoid disruption.

Two key components of the transformation are a multimodal transportation hub where shuttles will more efficiently move attendees to and from the convention center, and improvements to several roads and intersections within the Warehouse District along the normal shuttle route.

What’s New in New Orleans

According to the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, New Orleans has plenty to celebrate in new hotels, transportation options, and venues for meeting and events.

Centerplate Catering Company has launched “Creole, of Course,” a multisensory, multicourse, historical jazz dinner theater show at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to commemorate the city’s upcoming Tricentennial. “Creole, of Course” was created for locals and visiting groups to learn New Orleans’ rich history while experiencing all aspects of its culture.

The New Orleans Steamboat Company has purchased the former Rock Island Casino Sternwheeler Riverboat. The riverboat will undergo a complete renovation before hosting dinners, harbor cruises and private charters on the Mississippi River. The new vessel is licensed to hold 1,000 passengers to begin sailing in New Orleans in late 2017.

The Astor Crowne Plaza – New Orleans French Quarter has unveiled a $13 million makeover to its 700 rooms, meeting spaces, lobby and more.

The Polo Club Lounge at the Windsor Court hotel has reopened after a summer expansion including the addition of nearly 1,000 sf.

DoubleTree by Hilton New Orleans has unveiled a $25 million renovation to its guest rooms, lobby, pool and meeting space. The renovation features 367 guest rooms, an updated lobby and 16,000 sf of flexible meeting space overlooking the city.

The Wyndham Garden Hotel has opened in New Orleans East as the first full-service hotel with a conference center and restaurant to open in New Orleans East since Hurricane Katrina. The hotel is home to 175 rooms with seven suites, a conference center and banquet space for meetings and events hosting up to 140 people and the Bistro Noveau Restaurant and Lounge.

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport announced a new all-time record for the total number of passengers served in 2016. A total of 11,139,421 passengers were served in 2016, representing a 4.4 percent increase over the prior record set in 2015 when the airport exceeded 10 million passengers for the first time in its history.

Final Thoughts

When planning a meeting or event in New Orleans, remember that, depending on the time of year, the airfare to New Orleans can be costly and limited.

“Event professionals need to work closely with the convention visitors bureau to get a full picture of conflicting events that can potentially create challenges for your attendees to travel to the city or stay engaged at your event,” Ruff-Lyons says.

Also, Carlisle stresses that meeting planners shouldn’t let the stereotype of Bourbon Street make you or your business leaders think that is all New Orleans has to offer your attendees.

“There is so much culture, history and an unlimited number of unique experiences available to explore,” Carlisle says. “I also recommend teaming up with a local destination management company and the local convention and visitors bureau — as they are the experts of the city and have so much knowledge they can share. Their insight helps you shine when planning an event in New Orleans. We found the DMC and CVB to be uniquely connected to the city and were able to provide options that truly allowed our guests to enjoy New Orleans in a way like never before. In fact, even the local sales members who attended said they had never experienced the city in the way we were able to showcase it.” I&FMM

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