New Orleans has been in a tourism and meetings business upswing despite the sputtering economic recovery. According to analyst Smith Travel Research, the city's hotel occupancy has been trending higher, and from January through May, room revenue was 15 percent higher than during the same period in 2009.
Scheduled to host nearly 40 large conventions in 2010, New Orleans has reclaimed its status as one of the nation's top convention destinations. What made the city hugely popular among groups before Hurricane Katrina in 2005—the French Quarter nightlife, live music, cuisine, arts, culture, and its feel-good atmosphere—is back and bigger. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, notes, "Downtown looks better than ever, and we have 27 percent more restaurants now than pre-Katrina."
"We've seen an across-the-board rebound," Perry says of leisure tourism, association meetings, trade shows, and especially group attendance. "Last year was rough in attendance. 2010 has been exactly the reverse of that."
Perry says a number of major groups have picked up 100 percent of their room blocks, suggesting a resurgence in meeting attendance. In April, the Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers' Power & Energy Society had a record-breaking conference and exposition. With 13,000 attendees, the group hosted 709 exhibitors, its most ever.
Business travelers hibernated through most of 2009, but they began waking up in New Orleans again late last year, after realizing that sitting out of confabs does not equate to intellectual growth and profitability. "Travel is the lubricant of commerce," notes Perry. "Trade shows and conventions are where we unveil products and ideas."
Among confirmed convention groups in 2012 and 2013 are the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, American Dental Association, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, and American Society of Neurological Surgeons.
Perry adds that during the recent meetings perception crisis, New Orleans suffered less than other destinations because of the continuing voluntourism commitment to the city. Nowadays, the inclusion of a community service project in a New Orleans program is practically a given as the city's outer neighborhoods continue to rebuild.
In recent months, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons built a family park in Jefferson Parish; CoreNet Global, an association of corporate real estate professionals, fanned out to help Habitat for Humanity plus two other local organizations with community gardens and children's bicycle repairs; the American Psychiatric Association donated over $7,000 to the New Orleans Mission to provide meals, shelter, and clothing; and the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association, through Beacon of Hope, cleaned up various neighborhood lots.
Groups have witnessed a transformation of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The facility, which has 12 exhibit halls totaling 1.1 million sf of show space and two 30,000-plus-sf ballrooms, has received nearly $93 million in renovations and upgrades since 2006.
Today it is a more esthetically pleasing building, with a deep-blue color scheme and landscaping improvements, while inside there are large digital information screens, a 10-gigabyte fiber-optic data backbone, and upgraded flooring and soft goods. There are two executive cyber lounges, and former telephone stalls are now plug-in stations for computers and portable devices.
Local hotels have spent $400 million on renovations and improvements since 2006, and the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, shuttered since Katrina, will reopen in fall 2011 after a multimillion-dollar redevelopment. The hotel is part of a plan by the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission and the New Orleans Downtown Development District to revitalize the central business district over the next several years. It will have 1,193 guest rooms and 200,000 sf of meeting space.
Originally published Oct. 1, 2010