Despite Challenges, Future Bright for New Orleans Meetings, Travel

The good times have started rolling again in earnest for the Crescent City.

Essential Toolbox

Convention Centers & Facilities:

• Ernest N. Morial Convention Center: more than 1.1 million square feet of contiguous exhibit space, 140 meeting rooms, and a 4,000-seat theater
• Louisiana Superdome: 166,464 sf of exhibit space, seating for up to 70,000

Pinnacle Awards To Go:

• Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
• Hotel Monteleone

The 2010 year started out great for New Orleans. The Saints won the Super Bowl (at last!) and the prevailing mood was that the city was definitely "back." Then came the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which—though a tragedy for many—turned out to have virtually no direct impact on New Orleans.

"Since New Orleans is 100 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, geographically we are not that close to all that's been happening," says Nikki Nicholson, vice president of convention sales at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), eager to correct any misperception potential visitors may have. "The Mississippi flows south from Minnesota, which means there is no oil here.

"Throughout this event, New Orleans has continued to host some very successful meetings. The CVB is always in close touch with planners of upcoming meetings, reaching out to help them build attendance. We've been asking about any attendee concerns, but there's been almost nothing."

Mark Barton, director of sales and marketing for the New Orleans Marriott, concurs. "Our initial reaction to the oil spill was a bit of concern that business would go down; instead, we're having one of our strongest summers ever. The numbers speak for themselves. People are amazed how great the city looks.

"We continue to be concerned for our neighbors in South Louisiana, but here in New Orleans we're looking at a non-impact situation. At the Marriott, we still serve shrimp and Louisiana redfish in our restaurant every day."

Livin' la Vida NOLA

The New Orleans Marriott is the only large convention hotel in the city that does off-site catering. Every year it runs three lavish destination-oriented familiarization trips for planners. "We make each one unique and we always ask our partner, USA Hosts, to bring in local musicians we want our planners to hear," Barton says.

This past April, the hotel hosted an event (attended by this writer) at the historic Presbytere, site of the Louisiana State Museum, across from Jackson Square. The evening included just about everything one might ever hope to see, hear, and taste in New Orleans. It began with a horse-drawn carriage ride through the French Quarter followed by a gala dinner showcasing the talents of the head chefs at all three Marriott properties in the city, with entertainment by Mardi Gras Indians, beloved local street musician Grandpa Elliott, and a gospel choir. The group ended the evening "second lining" through the French Quarter behind a marching band, winding up at Pat O'Brien's for Hurricanes.

Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, the world's leading creator of floats and parades, is an unrivaled choice for groups wishing to recreate the Carnival experience. Want 1,000 attendees to be picked up on authentic Mardi Gras floats at their hotel(s) or the convention center? No problem. Need to arrange a mini-float-building competition or an intimate dinner for a handful of attendees? Ditto.

The huge working prop shop and mega-venue is not far from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and frequently welcomes citywides of 10,000 meeting-goers or more. In addition to partying among the multitude of floats and giant papier-mache figures at Mardi Gras World itself, adjoining venues include the Grand Oaks Mansion, an indoor replica of an antebellum plantation house, and the al fresco River City Plaza along the banks of the Mississippi.

The New World Is Revealed

"The future is bright," says Nicholson. "We'll be hosting the Super Bowl in 2013, and there are a lot of projects going on as we ramp up for this most important event."
Among the biggest news is the reopening of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans in early 2012. The redesigned property, with 1,193 rooms and 200,000 sf of meeting space, will feel like a new hotel altogether. Because of its location next to the Louisiana Superdome, the Hyatt Regency played a key role in the aftermath of Katrina as a primary support location for government agencies.

Dome Square is a new 92,000-sf open-air sports entertainment district being developed across the bridge from the Superdome. The former New Orleans Centre mall has been razed to make way for a street-level plaza that can be used pre- and post-game for "urban tailgating." Restaurants, clubs, and shops will follow, and the development will eventually culminate in a whole new visitors corridor along lower Poydras Street.

In August, the National World War II Museum broke ground on the latest phase of its $300- million expansion, The U.S. Freedom Pavilion: Land, Sea and Air. Slated to open in late 2011, the three-story addition will depict the war as seen through the eyes of ordinary citizens who served our country.

The museum has several unusual venues for events, including the musical show at the Stage Door Canteen, celebrity chef John Besh's American Sector restaurant, and the dramatic Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, which displays historic war planes, boats, and tanks.

As reported last year, the renovation and expansion of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is on track. Among the improvements are a new consolidated car rental facility and an expanded Concourse D with six new departure gates. Both are projected to be in place by next summer.

A Final Note

The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina passed in August. The CVB is still actively engaged in partnering groups with community voluntourism projects such as working on homes or landscaping. Interest and opportunities are ongoing.

Originally published Dec. 1, 2010