There’s a strong sense of confidence in New Orleans with a lot of “big easy” smiles and laughter heard throughout the French Quarter and Central Business District (CBD). Large convention business is nearing pre-Katrina levels, the infrastructure is better than ever, and the triple whammy of Katrina, AIG and the recession is fading into the past. Today, New Orleans is a much more evolved group destination overall, and the community spirit and welcoming hospitality are unmatched.
Visitor spend for the first six months of 2012 was up 11 percent over 2011. The city also received a 2012 World Tourism Award for “the extraordinary initiatives by individuals, companies, organizations, destinations and attractions for outstanding accomplishments in the travel industry.” Coinciding with that, New Orleans CVB President/CEO Stephen Perry received a World Travel Market Globe Award for his role in rebuilding tourism following Katrina.
“2012 was an incredible year for both corporate and association business,” says Tim Hemphill, vice president of sales/marketing for the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. “There are so many developments underway, and many of the hotels are renovating for the Super Bowl this year. All of that targets the convention market.”
In January, the riverfront convention center is unveiling a new 60,300-sf, column-free Great Hall, a 4,600-sf junior ballroom with rooftop deck, and an indoor balcony paying homage to NOLA’s colonial architecture, overlooking the Great Hall’s 26,000 sf of prefunction space. The front facade has also been completely reworked
“The Great Hall introduces the convention center to a new market,” says Hemphill. “The city didn’t have a mega-size ballroom before, which appeals to citywides and to meetings that have outgrown a hotel…. The hotel rooms are there. We have a very tight package for corporate clients; planners can easily put together a 3,000 room block. But now we can compete for convention business on a broader scale.”
Speaking of hotels, anyone who’s visited over the last few years has enjoyed a heightened sense of service and general enthusiasm to host visitors. When people have their back against the wall, as New Orleans did, they tend to dig deeper and appreciate the importance of hospitality and their role in it within the local economy. No metropolitan tourism industry displays the level of collective purpose as here.
“There is such a stable leadership in New Orleans,” says Hemphill. “When you become a hotel general manager here, you become part of a fraternity. These people don’t leave either, which creates a real sense of continuous identity. There’s also a unique cross pollination of people that really came together after Katrina, just out of survival. So that’s why you have such a strong sense of camaraderie among all of the hotels. And when groups come to New Orleans, they will experience that, without a doubt.”
CONVENTIONS ON CANAL STREET
In January, the 1,100-room Sheraton New Orleans Hotel will complete an exhaustive $50 million renovation. Every part of the hotel was upgraded, including the 54 meeting rooms totaling 105,700 sf. The Sheraton is located on Canal Street, dividing the French Quarter and CBD. Its towering lobby and Pelican Bar, each with tall windows facing Canal, make this hotel feel part of the New Orleans’ energetic street theater. Plus, most of the meeting rooms on floors 2-5, connected via escalator, also have natural light and great views.
“The Sheraton New Orleans has always been a meeting planner favorite because of the way our meeting and public spaces stacks,” says Cara Banasch, area director of sales/marketing for Starwood Hotels. “During the arrival experience in the lobby, you have a very expansive check-in area and the Pelican Bar with floor-to-ceiling windows. So people can connect and network in that space…. We tell customers all the time that it’s that undefined space not on the formal program that really makes your meeting work.”
In terms of location, Banasch describes the Sheraton as “The 1-minute walk to everything.” The Quarter is across the street; Harrah’s Casino and the Riverwalk are next door; and the streetcar stops right outside the lobby.
Upon relaying Tim Hemphill’s comments about the tourism industry’s community spirit, Banasch agrees emphatically.
“I’ve opened 16 hotels in different cities and I’ve never seen a place that cooperates as New Orleans does,” she says. “The hospitality community here throughout its partnership— whether it’s the hotels, ground transportation partners, DMCs, restaurants—when there’s an opportunity to bring business to the city, everybody works really well together. You know, there’s a tremendous pride of place in New Orleans. We want people to come here and enjoy the art, architecture, food and music just the same way as we do.”
Also on Canal Street, the 487-room JW Marriott New Orleans just completed a $4.5 million renovation. The 30-foot reception desk was replaced with seven handcrafted pods made of mahogany with granite countertops. And the 6,100-sf Ile de France Ballroom, with floor-to-ceiling French doors overlooking Canal, was also upgraded with new furnishings and fixtures. Total hotel meeting space is 19,000 sf.
The reworked, 190-seat 5-Fifty-5 lobby bar includes an art wall with zebra wood and colored glass, and small booths below red glass chandeliers. Menu highlights include the “555” bronzed redfish with roasted pepper crab mache salad, jazzmen rice and lemon thyme vinaigrette. The onsite Shula’s Steakhouse is a prime choice for 60-pax private dinners. And for buyouts up to 200, Irvin Mayfield’s I-Club jazz restaurant serves sharing plates of honey roasted duck sliders and white chocolate bread pudding with rum sauce.