New Orleans still jazzed for business

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For the past 11 months the media have focused on those areas in New Orleans hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina-such as the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East-while devoting somewhat less coverage to the city's tourist attractions. Stephen Perry, president-CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, sees this as a tale of two cities.

"The images of the outlying areas that have had severe damage are accurate, and those areas will take years to restore," Perry said. "But the New Orleans that convention-goers know looks the same. ... [The tourist corridor] is intact and repopulated."

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, leaving 80% of the city underwater, the "Big Easy" is rebuilding its infrastructure and restoring its appeal as one of the most popular convention towns in the country. To be sure, many questions remain about the future prospects of greater New Orleans. But for business groups that still want to take advantage of the city's unique blend of jazz, food, architecture and history, there is reason for optimism.

To show its support of the city, Maritz Inc., a marketing services company that specializes in travel, events and incentives for Fortune 100 companies, moved its global sales meeting in May from St. Louis to New Orleans.

"The reaction was fabulous, and attendees' satisfaction increased dramatically," Nancy Ogden, VP-sales programs at Maritz, said of the move. About 350 people attended the meeting, and all of them helped out with restoration efforts, she said.

"Not much has been shown in the media about how successful the recovery efforts have been and that the tourist attractions are back on their feet," Ogden said. "For us, it was a home run, and our executives are beating the drum to go back next year."

As of early August, the city's convention business year-to-date had reached 50% of pre-Katrina bookings, Perry said. He added the city is planning to be up to 70% capacity by 2007 and between 90% and 100% by 2008. (All citywide conventions-those using the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and three or more hotels-were canceled from Aug. 29, 2005, through March 31 of this year.)

The greater part of the restored Morial Convention Center reopened June 19, with 741,257 square feet of exhibit space, 99 meeting rooms, the 4,000 seat auditorium and a 36,000-square-foot ballroom. The rest of the center--four halls, 41 meeting rooms and another large ballroom--is scheduled to open in October.

Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin this fall on an additional 500,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 60,000-square-foot ballroom.

The city has also made significant progress in restoring its infrastructure. In the downtown area, for example, there are 27,000 hotel rooms available compared with 38,000 pre-Katrina. About 90% of restaurants in the tourist corridor have reopened, as well.

"Whether it is corporate groups or major conventions, attendees are coming away [from New Orleans] thinking they had an historical visit," Perry said. "They have immersed themselves in the city and come away with a sense that their visit was more appreciated than ever."

Since Katrina, the city has lost about $2 billion in visitor revenue. Normally, the city generates $5 billion a year from tourism plus $2 billion in ancillary spending, Perry said.

'Show and Tell' tours

Ongoing "show-and-tell" tours have been crucial in convincing business groups to return to the city. These include visits to New Orleans' most popular areas, such as the French Quarter, Garden District and Central Business District, where many of the city's upscale hotels and restaurants are located.

The tours also include meetings with senior managers from the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to discuss flight availability. (Prior to Katrina, the airport handled 166 flights a day; as of early August, the airport was handling 111.)

In addition, the convention center has recruited officials from the Army Corps of Engineers to educate business group about how New Orleans' levees--which failed the city miserably when Katrina hit--have been repaired and reinforced.

The "show-and-tell" strategy has paid off: About 90% of those business groups whose senior executives have taken the tours have decided to hold their annual meeting in New Orleans this year, according to Kelly Schulz, VP-communications & public relations at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We went there expecting the city to be in pre-Katrina shape, but what we found was that the hotels made a business decision-which was very smart-to accelerate capital improvements with major renovations beyond a new carpet or paint job," said Tom Stevens, president of the National Association of Realtors, which is expecting a record 35,000 attendees at its annual meeting in New Orleans this November. "We had considered relocating the meeting because we didn't know what we would face."

A lot more progress

But after the tour, and fanning out with five of his associates to check for themselves on hotels and tourist attractions, Stevens gave New Orleans the green light. "There's a lot more progress going on" than the media have reported, he said. "What you hear and what you see [on TV] is not what you get."

Other trade-group executives agreed.

"There hasn't been a lot of distinction between those aspects of the city that are being rebuilt now and those aspects of the city that are going to take a long time to rebuild," said Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association, which held its annual meeting in New Orleans in June, pumping an estimated $20 million into the city.

Fiels, who took a "show-and-tell" tour last October, said he was "pleasantly surprised" that the city has made so much progress since Katrina. "We were concerned that the hotel services would not be up to standard, but they did better than expected," he said. "We're convinced the city is doing everything it can to go forward."

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