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New Orleans readies for return of conventions

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Almost a decade ago, the American Library Association planned its annual convention for June 2006 in New Orleans. Then along came Hurricane Katrina last September bringing widespread devastation to the Crescent City. And suddenly, the ALA had a big decision to make quickly: Should it move the convention of some 20,000 librarians to another city?

A group of executives from the association decided to visit in October to see for themselves. They were greeted by representatives of the convention center, airport, visitors bureau, hotels and transportation agencies. All confidently assured a quick return to normalcy, at least in the areas frequented by conventioneers and tourists.

The librarians were impressed and decided to keep their convention in New Orleans.

"We certainly knew other groups might be cautious and wait it out, but based on what we saw, we decided the best thing we could do was go and show our support of the reconstruction," said Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the ALA. He estimates his group's convention will contribute $20 million to $25 million to the city's economy.

Estimates place New Orleans' convention business losses at $3.5 billion or more; it was the No. 5 convention destination in the country before Katrina.

The library association's conference in June will be one of the first big shows held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where thousands of evacuees gathered in the wake of Katrina. All citywide conventions-those that use the convention center and three or more hotels-were canceled through March 31.

The Morial will reopen in phases starting on Feb. 17, with three exhibit halls but no meeting space initially. By June, it should be 75% operational with eight halls open and most of its meeting space. Full occupancy will not be available until November, said Sabrina Written, the center's director of communications.

There are 26 events scheduled at the convention center through the end of 2006, attracting an estimated 200,000 people. That's less than half the 500,000 the center draws in a typical year, but it's still encouraging, Written said, especially considering it won't be fully open until November.

For 2007, the Morial has retained 70% of its conventions; for 2008 it has retained 90%, Written said. "Many groups had to make decisions months ago, and the national media coverage at that time was still devastating. We're so glad that many of them came and saw with their own eyes and judged for themselves," she said.

The enthusiasm of the convention center personnel and other city groups was not the only factor in winning over both large and small groups planning future shows in New Orleans.

"Because New Orleans was such an important part of the meeting industry for so long, the meeting industry is trying very hard to give back in any way they can," said Mary E. Power, president of the Convention Industry Council, an umbrella group of 30 convention and meeting professional associations. The group moved its annual April board meeting to New Orleans to show support and give members a chance to tour the city and report back to their own groups.

The infrastructure of the city is also improving.

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is running at about half capacity, with 91 daily flights expected in operation to 28 cities and 10,507 seats available by April 3. Pre-Katrina there were 166 flights to 42 cities with an average 21,000 seats daily.

Some 28,000 hotel rooms are now available, out of the pre-Katrina 38,000. Some major hotels, including the Ritz and Fairmont, won't reopen until at least October and, in the case of the Hyatt, not until 2007.

According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, about 1,160 food service establishments-about 34% of the total-have been certified to reopen in the greater New Orleans area. Before Katrina, there were 3,414 restaurants in the area. The restaurant association also estimates that 10,000 restaurant employees have returned to work with an estimated 10,000 more positions that could be filled immediately if workers were available.

The Air & Waste Management Association knows firsthand about staffing issues; many of its members are still working in the area on cleanup. That's one of the reasons the organization will hold its annual convention in New Orleans in June, said Ed Costello, A&WMA communications specialist. In fact, the group changed the theme of its convention to "Healthy environments: Rebirth and renewal" to reflect not only its commitment to recycling and recovering materials but also New Orleans' comeback.

"Some of the challenges they faced, our members can learn a lot from by talking to the people involved. It's a great opportunity for us to have some two-way communications and support the city's reconstruction," Costello said. 

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