New Orleans has been sprucing up. Throughout 2012, new hotels and significant renovations of classic properties came online, and new restaurants and attractions opened, augmenting the legendary dining and nightlife of the Big Easy. For meeting professionals, New Orleans has not merely come a long way since the devastation of Katrina in 2005, but as a meetings destination, the city has effectively redefined itself as possessing a more wholesome, business-friendly environment.
Most of the more recent sprucing was intended to coincide with Super Bowl XLVII on February 3, 2013. The clash of NFL champions — held at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which has completed the final $85 million phase of an ongoing $336 million renovation — puts New Orleans on an international stage, further prompting meeting attendees to suggest the city as a destination to their meeting planners.
New Orleans hosted 4.9 million visitors in the first half of 2012, an increase of 2 percent over the same period in 2011, according to the 2012 University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center’s 2012 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile, commissioned by the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. These visitors spent a total of $3.45 billion, a boost of 11 percent over January–June 2011.
Although itemizing what portion of this increase in visitors or their expenditures can be attributable to meetings was not part of the study, the time period surveyed traditionally is a heavy meeting and convention season. The city’s hospitality industry has noticed growing interest in the city as a destination for meetings of all sizes. “Out of all our meetings, going into the future, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent, are smaller meetings that may not even use the convention center,” says Nikki Moon, vice president of sales, New Orleans CVB. “We have a great package of hotel offerings, from big hotels and chain properties to wonderful independent hotels, and a citywide renovation program has been in effect in anticipation of the Super Bowl. Every single hotel has been refreshed, even after they were rebuilt following Katrina.”
The city and its hospitality industry have bounced back stronger than ever — an assertion made by the city’s meetings industry and vouched for by planners who have booked meetings in the city post-Katrina. That bouncing back though, was not just replacing, refurbishing and adding to its meetings infrastructure. New Orleans has actively changed its image, fostering a more business-conducive atmosphere. New Orleans is now taken more seriously by more planners; their perception of the city is now akin to other first-tier destinations. They are seeing New Orleans as something other than a great convention center and a 24/7 Mardi Gras.
Moon adds, “Katrina will always be part of our legacy, but Katrina will be eight years ago now, and part of that bouncing back is how we’ve changed, and part of that change has been that we are still a city where you can have a good time, but we’re not just about having a good time. New Orleans is a city where meetings can get business done.”
Because of the nature of the industries they serve, insurance and financial services meeting planners tend to prefer low-key settings. New Orleans may still offer world-class nightlife, but planners acknowledge that the city has a new attitude, one no longer potentially at cross-purposes with the goals of an insurance/financial services event. “Some companies may feel the destination presents too many opportunities for people to get into trouble,” says Koleen Roach, director, meetings and conference management, Securian Financial Group. Roach has organized small meetings in New Orleans of about 50 attendees and also served as the chairman of the board of the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners (FICP). She organized FICP’s 2012 spring board meeting, a three-day, two-night stay at The Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans. “I disagree with that and have always had very positive and memorable experiences with programs in New Orleans.”
“New Orleans has received a lot of bad publicity regarding being a party city, but there is so much more the city offers with regard to history, the museums, great food and charm that is not part of the Bourbon Street area,” says Carlin Putman, CMP, director, incentives and promotions, VALIC/Western National, who has planned three large conferences ranging from 100–400 peak block over the past 2 1/2 years in New Orleans. “After Katrina, the city really got hurt because of the devastation after the levees broke and flooded a lot of the city. The city has done a great job in the rebuild, and New Orleans looks really nice now with all of the improvements.”
Lisa Ramsay, CMP, director of meetings and incentives, Protective Life Insurance Co., says that when insurance and financial meeting planners recommend New Orleans as a destination to stakeholders, the biggest obstacle to overcome is the party-town reputation: “…that it’s all play and no one will attend the meetings….not true,” she says. “Also, I think some people might think it’s dirty, or not clean….again, not true. I actually flew in the morning after Mardi Gras for a site visit, and if I hadn’t known that a few hours prior there had been one of the biggest celebrations in the world, I never would have known. The city looked great, and I remember commenting on that fact to my cab driver.”
Another factor prompting planners to consider New Orleans has been a new diversity of meeting hotel facilities. In the years following Katrina, the city experienced a wave of renovation and construction, multiplying site selection options — a meeting space and lodging supply now further enhanced by the citywide preparations for the Super Bowl. “There is such a wide range of hotels and venues here, that New Orleans is truly a great fit for any size group,” says Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, president, AlliedPRA New Orleans. “While we do have the ‘big four’ convention hotels, we have a multitude of options in the boutique to mid-size range. Our historic and unique venues offer space for events of all sizes, and our restaurants have great private dining spaces. We also have great ‘new’ hotel product, as all the hotels had to do a complete repositioning after Katrina, and most are going through another upgrade now in advance of the Super Bowl.”
Adds Bonnie B. Boyd, CMP, DMCP, president and CEO, BBC Destination Management, “All our hotel properties are either brand new — the Hyatt’s three new properties — or recently renovated — Ritz-Carlton, Windsor Court, Omni Royal Orleans, Sheraton — and several boutique properties have opened in the French Quarter.”
Meeting planners have welcomed the very visible physical makeover of the city. “Most of the properties have been refurbished, refreshed or repurposed on a grander scale, and much of the city is in better shape than it was before Hurricane Katrina,” observes Roach. “New Orleans lost so much in that terrible storm, but the city rose like a Phoenix from the ashes. It now presents visitors with a fresh new experience in one of the most historical cities in the U.S.”
Accompanying the hotel rebuild, there’s been new activity on the restaurant and nightlife front, remarkable for a city already so renowned for its food and fun. New Orleans hospitality professionals now emphasize to planners the “new” in the things that have always made New Orleans famous. According to O’Hara, “The restaurant scene has transformed in a couple of interesting ways. Prior to Katrina we had 891 full-service restaurants, we now have 1,313.” (O’Hara adds these figures do not include fast-food outlets).
He continues, “New Orleans does not take to chain restaurants, so these are largely independent restaurateurs with unique offerings. There has been a shift from the traditional style of New Orleans cuisine to contemporary and cutting-edge.”
New Orleans, of course, is famous for its cuisine, which includes variations on Southern, soul and Cajun cookery. Few cities, other than Rome or Paris, have a food experience so tightly intertwined with that destination’s culture. “Since Katrina, there are more than 40 percent more restaurants than before,” says Boyd. “There has been an explosion of culinary arts. Much focus is on sustainability and the slow-cooking, farm-to-table movement so popular all over the country.”
In addition to cuisine, live music continues to be intrinsic to the appeal of New Orleans as a meetings destination, and those offerings have likewise been enlivened. Boyd points out: “There is more live jazz in the French Quarter and on Frenchman Street, and there are more festivals all throughout the year than before Katrina. Three major new jazz clubs have opened in the Quarter, all of them upscale.”
Ramsay says she organized two “spectacular meetings” at New Orleans meeting hotels — a four-day meeting with 150 attendees at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans; and a three-day meeting for 100 attendees at the Windsor Court Hotel — noting the advantages of both the airlift of the destination and the compact layout of its urban design. “Southwest Airlines flies into New Orleans and many of our attendees liked that, as they had to pay to get themselves to the meeting location, and we picked up the cost for hotel, meals, etc.,” she says, adding that another “…advantage is that you have so much to do, or enjoy within walking distance from 90 percent of the hotels…therefore eliminating the need for transportation.”
New Orleans is a world-class city, and considered a first-tier destination, but compared to other competing convention cities such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles or New York, Moon points out that the compact layout of New Orleans enhances affordability and ease of access throughout the city. “We’re one of the most walkable cities in the U.S., so all the options are available to attendees, from fine dining to a bowl of delicious gumbo,” says Moon.
New Orleans is budget-friendly in other areas as well. “There are reasonably priced options that are still part of the New Orleans experience,” says Moon. “Also, we are a right-to-work state, which means that meetings and events can be more affordable because of lower labor costs.”
Says Putman, “New Orleans has been a great destination for our meetings and events because the airlift has been very good, priced very reasonably, and the cost for conducting your meeting at the different hotels there is affordable.”
Trying to precisely estimate the affordability of New Orleans, compared to other first-tier destinations, can be problematic. Taking into account the range of mitigating factors, including time of year and group size, sources seem to indicate that a general ballpark average is that New Orleans can be about 10 percent less expensive that other first-tier destinations, with savings possible in a range of budgetary line items. Hotel and occupancy and room tax, according to planners, are generally lower than other first-tier destinations. “We saved nearly 5–6 percent on food costs, AV costs, transportation costs and overall hotel costs,” says Putman. “I feel that New Orleans is much more affordable with regards to air rates and hotel rates.”
“My impression is that room rates are lower than cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Atlanta,” says Roach. “It has always been easy to negotiate rates with New Orleans properties, flight costs in and out tend to be comparatively low, and ground services and offsite venues are reasonably priced.”
O’Hara adds, “Relative to other first-tier cities, New Orleans offers great value. I would put us in the lower 25 percent of cost in first-tier cities.”
Budgetary concerns in today’s meeting climate are complex. It’s not just about cutting corners, shaving costs and counting pennies — although those remain critical aspects of meeting planning — but planners desire destinations that can also add value to the content and purpose of meeting. They are looking for destinations that bring more to the table than just the table, a trend New Orleans acknowledges. “In my clients, I don’t see as much of strictly budget issues; more so that their events have to be justified and provide value to the attendees and the company,” says O’Hara. “There is a constant push in this area.”
The post-Katrina, business-friendly Big Easy’s makeover aligns with current meeting industry zeitgeist: “Face-to-face meetings are always going to be important,” says Moon. “With New Orleans, there are more networking opportunities; it’s so easy to see everyone in the city, at a restaurant or in the French Quarter. You can see your colleagues in many places, whether it is an organized event or not. It’s a natural place for conferences.”
For the past few years, New Orleans has been on a rebuilding spree. Here are some of the more notable upgrades planners can expect to see in the near future.
The 1.1-million-sf New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — the sixth largest convention center in the nation — opens The Great Hall in late January 2013. The $50 million project encompasses 86,000 sf of flexible function space, including: the 60,300-sf, column-free Great Hall, the largest ballroom in New Orleans; 25,400 sf of multi-use prefunction space; a 4,660-sf junior ballroom with a 3,420-sf rooftop terrace called The Rivergate Room; a multipurpose lounge; and an open-landscaped pedestrian plaza. The Great Hall, named for the 1984 World’s Fair exhibit space of the same name, can be divided into multiple configurations, allowing for several concurrent but independent session rooms. The Great Hall debut follows $140 million of other post-Katrina upgrades to the 27-year-old facility. www.mccno.com
The New Orleans Marriott, which is now offering teambuilding exercises featuring a special cooking class with the hotel’s acclaimed executive chef Mark Quitney, recently completed a $5 million restoration with new carpeting, wall coverings and lighting for its more than 80,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space. The facility is home to one of Louisiana’s largest hotel ballrooms, spanning more than 27,000 sf. The property boasts 1,329 newly renovated guest rooms and a variety of onsite amenities including a full-service business center and a Starbucks coffee shop. www.neworleansmarriott.com
The Hyatt French Quarter reopened in 2012 following an $18 million renovation that included upgrades to the hotel’s 254 guest rooms, as well as the hotel exterior, lobby, landscaping, and pool and deck area, and its 10,660+ sf of customizable function space, which is located in one central area of the hotel’s first floor. The hotel connects the downtown Central Business District with the French Quarter, providing attendees with a convenient location in the Big Easy. “The location is outstanding being only steps away from world-renowned restaurants and most of the city’s main attractions,” says Larry Daniels, general manager, Hyatt French Quarter. Newly designed food and beverage outlets include a bodega-inspired market called Powdered Sugar and Batch, an upscale lounge, and the award-winning Red Fish Grill. www.frenchquarter.hyatt.com
The $45 million renovation of the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel — located in the city’s Central Business District and adjacent to the French Quarter — is scheduled to be completed in 2013. The sweeping upgrade is a floor-to-ceiling transformation of the hotel’s 1,100 guest rooms and suites, Sheraton Club Lounge, state-of-the-art meeting facilities (more than 100,000 sf and 54 meeting rooms) and lobby. Sheraton hotels across the globe have been undergoing a $6 billion brand-wide revitalization. “The comprehensive renovation to the Sheraton New Orleans underscores our commitment to attracting an even larger segment of the meetings and convention business in this vibrant city,” says Denise Coll, president of the North America Division for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. www.sheraton.com
The iconic French Quarter landmark the Bourbon Orleans Hotel completed a multimillion-dollar renovation last year. The restoration included all of the hotel’s 218 luxury guest rooms and 28 distinctive balcony suites and also featured major property upgrades, including repainting of all exterior balconies and window frames, and the addition of an enlarged, glass-fronted fitness center on the hotel’s second floor. “The substantial improvements to guest rooms and bathrooms have continued the upgrade of this iconic New Orleans luxury hotel that was begun several years ago,” says Joe Jaeger, managing partner of the New Orleans Hotel Collection, to which the Bourbon New Orleans Hotel belongs. Nestled in the heart of the French Quarter (only a short walk or cab ride from the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center) the venue is just steps away from the famed St. Louis Cathedral, upscale shopping on Royal Street, local artists and performers of Jackson Square, and many restaurants, galleries and nightlife venues. www.bourbonorleans.com
Following a $275 million redesign and revitalization, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, featuring 1,193 all-new sophisticated guest rooms and suites and 200,000 sf of state-of-the-art, flexible event space, and expansive food and beverage offerings, reopened in 2011. The 32-story hotel — in the city’s downtown district and adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — offers two 25,000-sf ballrooms, 64 versatile meeting and banquet rooms, 19 executive-level meeting rooms, seven permanent boardrooms, and more than 80,000 sf of exhibition space, highlighted by a new 50,000-sf exhibit hall. In addition to revitalizing its 1,193 guest rooms, including 95 suites, five meeting planner suites and four presidential suites, other highlights include 8 Block Kitchen & Bar, a 360-seat, full-service restaurant and bar; Vitascope Hall, a media/action bar outfitted with 42 flat-screen TVs; and Borgne, the latest restaurant by chef John Besh. Additional culinary options include a 65-seat Starbucks; Lagniappe Exchange, a 24-hour fresh market and convenience store; Whole Hog Café, featuring award-winning barbecue; and Pizza Consegna. “The re-opening of Hyatt Regency New Orleans is symbolic as it represents the end of a journey and the beginning of a new chapter for Hyatt and the city of New Orleans,” says Michael Smith, general manager. “We spared no detail in positioning ourselves to be the quintessential hotel for conventions, leisure and business travelers alike.” www.neworleans.hyatt.com
The trendiest boutique property in the Big Easy, the W New Orleans – French Quarter, has unveiled a full-scale, property-wide renovation, including the look of all 97 guest rooms, the Living Room (W’s take on the traditional hotel lobby), studio meeting spaces and the outdoor courtyard. It has also opened Sweat, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and a new signature restaurant SoBou (an acronym of South of Bourbon Street), a contemporary Creole concept from the Commander’s Family of Restaurants; and 735+ sf of newly renovated meeting space, which overlooks a stunning French courtyard. www.frenchquarter.com
Within walking distance of the French Quarter, Windsor Court Hotel – New Orleans completed a $22 million restoration, including new décor in 316 guest rooms and suites, a refurbished Club Level lounge, a renovation of Le Salon, a refresh of The Grill Room, The Polo Club Lounge, the pool area and meeting spaces; and the addition of a lobby bar and spa. The hotel features 10,000 sf of function space, which can accommodate meetings for up to 250 people and banquets for up to 240. www.windsorcourthotel.com
In 2012, the French Quarter’s Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans spent nearly $18 million in upgrades and improvements. Renovations included new furnishings and carpeting in all of the third-floor guest rooms; a brand new second-floor Acadia event space; new furnishings and carpeting in Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse; and an updated Fleur de Lis Suite. High-speed wireless Internet access was expanded and is now available throughout the hotel. Last May, chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto opened the highly anticipated Restaurant R’evolution, a fine-dining establishment. The Royal Sonesta offers 483 guest rooms, 35 suites and 20,000 sf of meeting space. www.sonesta.com/royalneworleans
Also last May, the 570-room Hotel Monteleone, with 24,000 sf of meeting space, completed a $10 million renovation that included updated guest rooms and meeting space, and the Criollo Restaurant and Lounge. In March, the hotel celebrated the grand reopening of its famous rotating Carousel Bar, which added a second, new stationary bar. www.hotelmonteleone.com
New Orleans entertainment options include the historic Joy Theater (originally opened in 1947), which has been extensively renovated, reopening as a 10,000-sf multipurpose complex at 1200 Canal Street. www.thejoytheater.com
And, located across the street from the Joy on Canal Street, the Saenger Theater is currently undergoing a $51 million restoration, adding another exceptional performance venue to the city’s theater district. www.saengernola.com
The National World War II Museum (formerly known as the National D-Day Museum), located in the Central Business District on Magazine Street, was designated by the U.S. Congress as “America’s National World War II Museum” in 2003. The museum is undergoing a $300 million expansion project — “The Road to Victory: A Vision for Future Generations” — which will eventually quadruple the size of the original museum. Although due for completion in 2015, portions of the project already opened to the public include: the E. J. Ourso Discovery Hall, the Solomon Victory Theater, Stage Door Canteen entertainment venue, the American Sector restaurant and the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion. The museum is available for rentals and is an unforgettable setting for receptions, meetings and other events. www.nationalww2museum.org
In Avondale, about 20 minutes west of New Orleans, is the new NOLA Motorsports Park, designed for full-scale large and small events with multiple meeting rooms and event spaces. The park, which opened in June 2012, offers corporate entertainment and teambuilding programs including a “Geaux Kart” Mini Grand Prix; the Pit Stop Challenge; and several driving skills challenges in full-sized racecars. www.nolamotor.com
In a city renowned for food, it’s not surprising that The Southern Food and Beverage (SoFAB) Museum, which opened in 2008, has become one of the city’s most popular new attractions. In March 2013, the facility will open a new state-of-the-art, 30,000-sf facility, which will include a restaurant, an exhibit for each of the 17 southern states, a children’s gallery, a cultural innovation center and the SoFAB Culinary Library. www.southernfood.org I&FMM