Y'All Come Back Now

Deidre Ross, director of conference services at the American Library Association (ALA), had no doubts about booking the ALA 2006 summer meeting in New Orleans. The city always delivers for the group, which has been to the Big Easy twice before, and Ross was assured that this time would be no different. But there was one moment of concern for Ross while planning the citywide meeting, the first such event in New Orleans post-Katrina.

"Our general contractor said that a certain number of workers are needed to set up our trade show and that if the company is not able to find enough local laborers, installation will take some extra days," she says. Fortunately for Ross, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has agreed to provide ALA with extra move-in days. "Everyone in the city is being very accommodating to what we need, so we're being optimistic," Ross says.

Optimism is just what the Katrina-battered destinations of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast are calling for. Now that it's been six months since the vicious storm, the destinations and buyers are assessing the state of the meetings infrastructure around town. Meanwhile, convention and visitors bureaus in the affected locales are going the extra mile to reassure groups and do anything necessary to help meeting planners pull off successful events.

A number of citywide meetings have committed to coming back to New Orleans as early as this summer but the Gulf Coast will have to wait a little longer. One citywide recently swapped its 2006 dates in the region with a South Carolina city, where it had been on the books for 2009.

"We're still dealing with things," says candidly Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have two lean years to go through during our rebuilding, but things will be good again in three to five years."

THE LITTLE EASY

New Orleans has had an easier time getting back on its feet. But the city is still far from a complete recovery. "We live every day here in two worlds," says Kitty Ratcliffe, executive vice president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. (NOMCVB) "One is what the industry works in, the Central Business and Garden Districts and the French Quarter, which are all relatively normal. But this makes it easy to forget the other world of severely devastated neighborhoods. Those will take more than just months to recover."

The city's hotels are in good shape, or getting close to it. By the end of this month, about 25,000 to 28,000 rooms will be open, Ratcliffe says. Only the Fairmont, two Ritz-Carlton properties, and the Hyatt Regency New Orleans will remain closed until much later this year.

A number of properties have booked, or are courting, small meetings for the first quarter of this year. Longer term, the convention center reopens on April 1, so citywides will return at that time. Many, if not all, hotels were affected but instead of just undergoing repair, they combined the spruce-up with renovation that, pre-Katrina, was slated for the future.

"Many meeting attendees coming in 2006 might have better accommodations than they would have otherwise because the hotels did accelerate a lot of what they were planning to do eventually," said Colin Rorrie, president and CEO of Meeting Professionals International in Dallas. MPI, in a show of support for New Orleans, is holding its 2007 Professional Education Confer-ence there next January.

Rorrie visited the Big Easy in December and was pleased with what he saw. "The hotels are in good condition and much of the convention center is being redone. New carpeting has been ordered, much of the building is being repainted, and the beautiful terrazzo floors have been redone. The building will be in sparkling shape."

To promote itself as a viable destination for future meetings, New Orleans participated in MPI's Professional Education Conference in Charlotte last month. And the industry continues to help New Orleans: MPI covered the NOMCVB's exhibiting costs in Charlotte.

MISSISSIPPI ON THE MEND

Large groups hoping that the Gulf Coast will return to its gaming-mecca days will have to wait a little longer. The Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center is slated to remain closed for at least another six months and the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, one of the area's best-known properties, won't open until late 2006 at the earliest.

Also posing a problem: Several hotel casinos—formerly housed on barges that were wiped away by Katrina—will temporarily reside in those venues' meeting space, rendering those facilities available only to small meetings and groups.

Why forsake meetings for gaming?

"We're trying to rebuild the entire product line here, and gaming is what pays the bills," says Richer. But people are trying to make the best of things, notes Stephanie Miller, chapter president of MPI's Gulf States chapter and director of sales for W Hotels in New Orleans. "The norm as we knew it will never be the same, but we have to do our best to pick up the pieces and focus on the future," she says. "We have to really wow customers now. If a [previously booked] venue is being rebuilt, we [local suppliers] have to come up with creative options in our own facilities or find other sites."

Some smaller groups can get back to business on the Gulf Coast, as a few casino hotels did reopen in December. The Imperial Palace was the first one to do so, and began welcoming groups last month.

The hotel reopened with 900 redone guest rooms; its remaining 900 are being upgraded. The property, which has 46,000 square feet of meeting space, was able to keep its now upgraded casino and the function space separate. The hotel's lobby and casino were redone, a poker room was added, and the buffet was expanded. Imperial Palace is moving away from its name—largely in an effort to avoid confusion with the Palace, another area property—to become just "IP."

Groups that had been eyeing other area properties for future meetings have now booked at IP. "We meet on the coast annually and this year we wanted to show our support," says Jackie Lett, president of the Mississippi Association of Broadcasters in Jackson, MS, which is meeting at IP in June. She first looked at the Isle of Capri and the Palace, which opened a bit later in December, but both properties are temporarily moving their casinos into their meeting space.

"This was the only property that was able to give me a date," Lett says. And while the coast and the hotel may not be 100-percent restored come June, Lett knows that at least one very important element will be intact. "We will have our golf courses."

Destination management firms may not be too helpful these days, though. One area DMC official did not respond to inquiries for information; a spokesman for the national company suggested that the firm's Gulf Coast operations were still in recovery mode. Other local DMCs were in similar straits.

EMBRACING KATRINA

Some groups are incorporating Katrina and information about its wrath into their events. "This year we're planning a tour of the whole coast area to show attendees the status of things, rather than bringing people to one specific attraction," says Carolyn Wilson, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, in Jackson, which is also headed to IP in June.

Most groups coming to New Orleans have asked how they can better the city in Katrina's wake, according to Ratcliffe. As a result, the bureau helps match groups with charitable events and organizations. Much of this is done at the New Orleans Metro CVB's website, on the page www.neworleansgiving.com.

Many meeting planners, of course, are still peppering the affected destinations with questions and officials are doing their best to address concerns. At PEC, New Orleans' booth was completely new and it used current photography instead of stock images.

"We want people to see how things really are," says Ratcliffe. Additionally, both she and Richer led a session at the conference to discuss what happened, and earlier last month they both led sessions, together and jointly, at the Professional Convention Management Association's annual meeting.

Environmental impact concerns are unfounded but planners who inquire are directed to a government website, www.airnow.gov, that is meant to provide objective information.

ON THE UPSIDE . . .

Though Mississippi's immediate future looks difficult, much is now in the development hopper. "There's been discussion about putting a major new property at Biloxi's Point Cadet area," Richer says. "Golden Nugget's proposal included an amusement area and a big room inventory. And Harrah's, which has sold the Grand Casino in Gulfport, is planning a major project in Biloxi."

Groups headed back to New Orleans may get an even warmer welcome than usual, according to Ratcliffe. A program that the bureau instituted in July, called "We're Jazzed You're Here," included features like special welcomes at the airport, complimentary registrars, hotel bellman opening convention center doors, and other small touches to make a group feel important. It was initially slated for use with citywides in 2006 but, Ratcliffe says, "We have revisited that and we are making sure that every group we're working with in 2006 gets some aspect of that program."

Also, says Maria Irwin, managing member of Signature Events, a New Orleans DMC, "Clients are enjoying that there's less French Quarter traffic, it's a little quieter and it's easier to walk around."

Best of all may be the excitement that all visitors, including meeting attendees, feel as they come back to these destinations. "That was evident on the day that IP reopened," Richer says. "People were saying to officials, 'No speeches,' because they just wanted to get in. If the Beatles were playing in the U.S. again, there wouldn't have been a bigger crowd of people trying to push themselves into the building."