Revelers in Bourbon Street in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras — the annual Carnival celebration. Credit: Cosmo Condina and NewOrleansOnline.com
There has never been a better time to meet in New Orleans, asserts Stephen Perry, the revered, longtime president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (NOCVB). “New Orleans is and always has been one of the ultimate destinations for business and leisure travelers alike. With several billion dollars’ worth of economic development and construction underway, New Orleans has entered a new era of growth and prominence. The culinary scene is richer and more diverse than ever, the music world is thriving, and the culture of the Crescent City is beyond compare as we approach our tricentennial in 2018.”
Perry continues, “This authentic city continues to reinvent itself with the latest upgrades and enhancements at state-of-the-art venues and the overall infrastructure of the city, which ultimately provides a better business and cultural experience and a world-class business climate.”
“New Orleans is and always has been one of the ultimate destinations for business.”
— Stephen Perry
Perry and his award-winning team encourage meeting planners and attendees to “come and immerse themselves in the passionate spirit of New Orleans and enjoy our truly one-of-a-kind visitor experience as they get immersed in one of the world’s most captivating destinations.”
Few would disagree with Perry that the Big Easy is, by far, one of the most popular meeting destinations. Another fan is Cindy Hayes, who was born and raised in New Orleans, and is the enthusiastic director of sales for AlliedPRA New Orleans. “New Orleans is on fire. It’s very appealing to corporate groups. It’s affordable. Group rates vary by season, which makes it attractive to all types of budgets. The destination is centrally located and offers a warm climate without having to leave the U.S. We also have one of the fastest growing airports in the nation,” says Hayes.
Statistics illustrate New Orleans’ continuing resurgence since Katrina struck. During 2014, New Orleans hosted 9.5 million visitors, a 2.6 percent increase over 2013, according to the 2014 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile study by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center for the NOCVB and New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.
The 9.5 million visitors spent a record $6.8 billion, a 5.3 percent increase over 2013. About 58 percent of business and convention visitors extended their stay an average of two nights, up from 55 percent in 2013. Many of the visitors were on return trips. According to the study, 62.6 percent of respondents who offered open-ended comments were repeat visitors.”
New Orleans is attracting its share of first-time meetings. A company based in Austin, Texas, held its first seven annual business summits in its headquarters city of Austin before deciding to hold the eighth one in another destination — New Orleans. “We wanted our first meeting outside of Austin to be in another city that was as unique as Austin, and New Orleans fit the bill,” says the company’s director of events. “It was our first and only choice.”
The three-day summit, held at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, attracted about 500 employees and clients from about 10 countries. The planner infused every event with New Orleans flavor, starting with a group of 50 European clients who arrived at the business summit a day early.
Many of the 50 clients had never been to New Orleans before and received an introduction to the city through tours. “We put together a bicycle tour of the French Quarter and downtown,” he says. “We also took them on a gumbo tour by bus. They sampled different types of gumbos at several restaurants.” Also, the client advisory board went to John Besh’s August restaurant, which is located in a historic 19th century French-Creole building in the Central Business District. The group dined in a private room and had an opportunity to chat with chef John Besh.
Evening events included a party at the House of Blues where the group enjoyed music, food and “everything about New Orleans in the party,” says the planner. “We had a zydeco band inside and another band outside in the House of Blues Voodoo Garden. As people were leaving, we had the iconic Lucky Dogs food carts — which are unique to New Orleans — in front of the House of Blues handing out hot dogs,” he adds.
The meeting’s general session featured “jazzed-up” décor. “We tried to make it feel like you were walking into a small jazz club,” says the planner. “There was a stage in the round and small tables that seated four people. We had gobo lights on the tables with jazz music playing. The colors purple and gold were reflected in the lighting, décor and images projected onto the walls.”
The planner applauded the Hilton New Orleans Riverside for its expertise in helping to provide an authentic New Orleans experience. “I’ve done a lot of events there over the last 30 years,” he explains. “It’s a unique property because they really understand customer service. They try to make sure you have a unique perspective on New Orleans with the food and service they provide.”
Attendees of the business summit were happy with the group’s first meeting outside of Austin. “The survey of our group rated the experience in New Orleans very, very high,” he says. “More than 85 percent said they would want to come back to New Orleans again.”
CSR Programs Are Popular
Many groups visiting New Orleans, especially incentive programs, seek opportunities to contribute to the city’s continuing recovery through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. “We get many requests for community service outreaches,” says Hayes. “We adapt a company’s mission to achieve some of our local community goals. We make sure the company spends its dollars to give attendees a customized experience while giving back to our city.”
A group of 600 attendees recently spent a half-day improving Joe W. Brown Memorial Park. “It was the first event of the first day of the incentive,” says Hayes. “They mulched and trimmed plants and spruced up the park, which was located in New Orleans East and rebuilt after Katrina. The park relies solely on private and corporate donations to keep it running. Attendees found it very rewarding.”
Groups mix rewarding experiences with a broad array of activities. “The activities and tours in New Orleans appeal to all ages,” says Hayes. “We offer museums, swamps, historic cemeteries and homes, jazz clubs, motor sports, restaurants and plantations. People also love to walk. We are known as one of the most walkable cities in the U.S.”
The popularity of New Orleans is reflected in the awards the city continues to accumulate, including Condé Nast Traveler’s top “U.S. City for Business Travelers” and one of Tripadvisor.com’s “2015 Traveler’s Choice Destinations.”
New Orleans plans to boost its popularity even more by expanding the city’s meetings-related infrastructure.
The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is embarking on an ambitious new venture that will revitalize the city’s riverfront. The Convention Center District Development Project, situated on 47 acres upriver from the center, calls for construction of a new “headquarters” hotel needed to accommodate the current demands from meetings and conventions, and the projected increase in visitors to the city leading up to its 300th anniversary in 2018. Other key features under consideration include a linear park along Convention Center Boulevard, outdoor entertainment, fine dining and casual restaurants, arts and cultural venues, and new retail and housing options.
The project also includes a plan to ease traffic on Convention Center Boulevard by modernizing intersections and creating a linear park with a moving walkway for convention-goers. Meanwhile, the convention center — the sixth largest convention center in the world with 1.1 million sf of contiguous exhibit space — continues to make upgrades.
Another popular venue, the National World War II Museum, is undergoing a $320 million expansion that will quadruple the facility’s size when completed in 2017.
In transportation developments, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is undergoing an $826 million expansion that includes construction of a new, state-of-the-art airport terminal, which will debut in 2018. The new terminal will feature 30 gates, a 2,000-car parking garage, a central utility plant and a ground transportation staging area. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport served an all-time record-breaking 10,673,301 passengers in 2015, an increase in 9.1 percent over 2014. The airport is now served by 14 airlines with 52 non-stop destinations, the highest number of non-stop destinations in the airport’s history.
The Port of New Orleans handled a record 1,023,700 cruise passengers in 2015, topping the million-person mark for the second consecutive year. The Port is set for another robust cruise season in 2016, with a 34 percent expansion in cruise capacity when the Carnival Triumph replaces the Carnival Elation. American Cruise Lines will add a third riverboat, America, to its New Orleans home-ported fleet in 2016, accommodating 185 passengers on Mississippi River cruises.
In 2015, Viking announced that New Orleans would serve as the European river cruise line’s first North American homeport, with six new ships scheduled to set sail beginning in 2017.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority is expanding the French Quarter streetcar route.
The Outlet Collection at the Riverwalk, just steps from the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, recently opened its doors with $80 million in renovations and is the first outlet shopping center to be located in the heart of downtown.
New and Noteworthy
The historic Orpheum Theater has reopened for the first time since 2005 in the city’s Central Business District following a $13 million renovation that includes an expanded lobby, reconstructed acoustic shell, larger seats, and more bathrooms and bars. The theater, which opened in 1918, is on the National Register for Historic Places.
The Orpheum is an intimate concert and performance space with perfect sight lines and unparalleled acoustics from each of its seats, which range in number from 1,500 to 1,800 due to the customizable floor seating. Three levels of seating, private VIP boxes at the gallery level and six bars round out the audience space, while six green rooms and a full-service kitchen are available behind the scenes.
The new adjustable floor allows the space to be utilized for meetings and banquets. The floor plan can accommodate receptions for 800 guests or seated dinners for 300 guests. The theater is equipped with state-of-the-art sound and lighting, a projection screen and displays for presentations or branding, green rooms that can be used for small meeting breakouts and VIP spaces for a fully adaptable event experience. The space can accommodate live music, private parties, corporate meetings and events, comedy acts, Mardi Gras balls and more.
New Orleans hotels have been improving since Katrina hit. As Hayes noted, “Hotels have upped their games. They are renovating, repositioning and rebranding to keep up with each other.”
Here is a rundown of recent hotel developments.
The renovation of the iconic Royal Sonesta New Orleans, long a favored hotel in the heart of the French Quarter, is complete as the 483 guest rooms are newly reimagined.
In addition to guest rooms, other public spaces also underwent renovation. Upon entrance to the hotel, guests will find that while it maintains the same grandeur as before, it is now adorned throughout with elegant furnishings, warm colors and delightful artwork. A new fitness center is well equipped with free weights and state-of-the-art equipment. The hotel’s R Club Level has been expanded from 29 to 58 rooms and features a new R Club lounge.
These hotel renovations are the culmination of enhancements that began with the re-imagining of Desire Oyster Bar, the hotel’s casual restaurant on world-famous Bourbon Street. The hotel features other local venues all under its roof including Restaurant R’evolution, the award-winning innovative eatery and Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse — where legendary musicians jam daily.
The Omni Riverfront Hotel, formerly the Wyndham Riverfront New Orleans, has completed an $8 million renovation. The property, located a short walk from the convention center, features 202 guest rooms and 4,000 sf of meeting space. It’s Omni’s third hotel in New Orleans.
The Wyndham New Orleans French Quarter has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation that included 374 guest rooms as well as the property’s exterior and parking garage.
The 285-room Loews New Orleans Hotel has completed a $4 million renovation that included guest rooms and suites, corridors and Café Adelaide.
Le Meridien New Orleans, a Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. property, has completed a $29 million renovation. The property features 410 redesigned guest rooms and suites; an additional 1,600 sf of meeting space bringing the total to 20,000; three new food options; and a refreshed front desk and valet entrance.
The Omni Royal Orleans Hotel has finished a $15 million makeover, which includes refreshed guest rooms with custom furniture, 24 wrought-iron balconies and improved lighting. The project also included refurbished meeting rooms with new furniture, carpeting and window treatments. The 346-room AAA Four Diamond property includes 14,000 sf of flexible function space including the 5,284-sf Grand Salon and 17 meeting rooms.
The 188-room Aloft New Orleans Downtown opened earlier this year in the Central Business District with 2,500 sf of meeting space.
The Homewood Suites by Hilton New Orleans Downtown has renovated the property’s 166 suites, meeting spaces and public areas. The project includes new furniture, a sleeper sofa and appliances in each guest room.
Historic French Quarter hotel Chateau LeMoyne has completed its eight-month renovation, with updates to the hotel’s 171 guest rooms, lobby, event spaces, courtyard and pool.
Named for founder of New Orleans Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, the hotel features 30 rooms with balconies overlooking the French Quarter, 11 historic suites and 2,000 sf of versatile event space.
The Hyatt House New Orleans/Downtown debuted in the Central Business District in November 2015, bringing 194 extended-stay hotel rooms to the downtown area.
Situated along the expanding Loyola Avenue streetcar line, the hotel is at the heart of the Sports and Entertainment District and is also just steps away from the French Quarter and burgeoning BioDistrict.
Revelers in Bourbon Street in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras — the annual Carnival celebration. Credit: Cosmo Condina and NewOrleansOnline.com