Hands down, the biggest news in New Orleans this month is that the Hyatt Regency, ground zero for Hurricane Katrina as far as the hospitality industry is concerned, is reopening—the last major hotel to do so following the storm.
“The Hyatt was the face of Katrina the first several days,” says General Manager Michael Smith, who was with the property at the time of the storm. It also became something of a town hall, with both the mayor and city council operating out of the hotel between the hurricane and the property’s closure in December 2005.
Because so many people had a personal connection to the hotel during those months “they have been instrumental in getting the Hyatt back up off the ground. There is an emotional attachment to the Hyatt Regency New Orleans,” says Smith. “A lot of places opened back up right after Katrina and that’s good—we’re glad they did. But we took this as an opportunity to transform the hotel. This has been an odyssey of a project for me, but it’s also been a labor of love.”
Emotion, of course, only gets you so far. So the Hyatt Regency is not just back, but bigger and better than ever, sporting 1,193 rooms, 200,000 square feet of function space, and Borgne, a 300-seat John Besh restaurant serving up casual Louisiana cuisine, among other dining outlets.
A new design moved the entrance of the hotel to Loyola Avenue and a streetcar expansion will run along this corridor by next summer—making it a cinch to get to the French Quarter. The new Champions Square area, modeled in part on LA Live, is effectively the property’s front yard, and a multi-billion dollar medical complex currently under construction nearby will make the hotel a natural choice for medical meetings.
The Hyatt Regency isn’t the only New Orleans hotel putting the final post-Katrina pieces in place. “All of our hotels are just pouring money into their properties,” notes Nikki Moon, vice president of sales for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The 1,300-room New Orleans Marriott in the French Quarter had its recycling center destroyed by the storm and has been working to restore the facility with a four-phase plan. Two phases have been completed—the establishment of an on-site recycling program and recycling in the back of the house as well as on meeting floors. The New Orleans Marriott is also putting the finishing touches on the renovation of 36,000 square feet of meeting space with new carpet, wall coverings, and lighting. The hotel has more than 80,000 square feet of total meeting and event space.
The Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans—no slouch in the Katrina-host department, as it was the emergency headquarters for the FBI, a variety of local agencies, and CNN—will have a new restaurant by year-end. The 200-seat Restaurant R’evolution will serve reinterpretations of classic New Orleans-style dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and shrimp and grits and explore “the swamp floor pantry” of Louisiana, according to Chef John Folse—alligator, frog, crawfish, kumquats, sassafras, and persimmons. The hotel, which has 483 rooms and more than 20,000 square feet of function space, has also upgraded its technological offerings, with Wi-Fi throughout.
The Superdome recently wrapped an $85 million renovation—bringing its total post-Katrina investment to the $336 million mark. Among other improvements, this project added 3,100 seats, two ground level bunker clubs, and three elevators, and expanded the Plaza concourse, adding concessions and restrooms.
And the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is working on a revamp of both its entry and select interior spaces. Work begins in December to create a column-free, 60,300-square foot Great Hall, as well as pre-function space, a junior ballroom, a 3,420-square foot outdoor terrace, and an executive lounge, which Tim Hemphill, vice president of sales and marketing for the convention center, likens to a club lounge at an airport.
Hemphill describes the existing entryway as “imposing” and says the new design will “establish a facade and a ‘front door’ ” to essentially make the space more welcoming, a change Moon says will be a tremendous asset. “This is a brand new entrance that we have desperately wanted for years,” she says.
“We think it’ll be a draw to groups that are looking for that hotel feel but can’t find a hotel in New Orleans that will accommodate them,” Hemphill says. The project is scheduled for completion in December 2012.
“2012 is going to be a wonderful year for us,” says Moon, noting that major groups coming next year include AARP, the American Heart Association’s Inter-national Stroke Conference, and CTIA Wireless. They will find a re-freshed New Orleans with the hospitality and penchant for fun that people have come to expect from the city. After all, as Smith says, “New Orleans does big events better than nearly any other city in the world.”