Thursday, June 08, 2006

American Library Association coming to New Orleans

WE'VE MOVED! Democratic Convention Watch is now at

In the first big test of New Orleans tourism infrastructure, the American Library Association is bringing 20,000 delegates to New Orleans in 2 weeks:

Later this month, nearly 20,000 delegates of the American Library Association will arrive here for the first citywide convention since Hurricane Katrina. In the fiercely competitive meetings business, the event will mark a critical test of the city's ability to rebuild a mainstay of its economy. "It's not a matter of choice – they've got to get it right," said Steven Hacker, president of the Dallas-based International Association for Exhibition Management.


For the library convention, New Orleans tourism officials have invited meeting planners and journalists from around the country to see that the city is ready for business again. It's a message that's been difficult to convey since images of the disaster from last August are still so fresh and some sections of the city, including much of the lower Ninth Ward, remain uninhabitable.

Recent research showed that about 44 percent of people still think New Orleans has flooded streets, even though the water was pumped out within days of the giant storm. "All the things that visitors came to New Orleans for are still here," said J. Stephen Perry, chief executive of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The damage was to the outlying areas, not the French Quarter."

Still, until recently, New Orleans was hardly in shape to consider handling a convention. The convention center, where thousands of evacuees were stranded without food or water, needed extensive repairs. And hundreds of hotel rooms were under contract by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Some groups didn't expect the city to be ready this soon and moved on to other host cities. As a result, New Orleans is expected to host less than half of the convention business it had on the books this year and about 75 percent of its calendar for 2007.

Many of those who work in the tourism industry here acknowledge that all eyes will be on New Orleans for the library association convention that begins June 22. "That convention center is the factory of New Orleans, and we need it back up and running," said Melvin Rodrigue, general manager of the 101-year-old Galatoire's Restaurant on Bourbon Street.

Mardi Gras and Jazz fest were "great psychological wins, but this convention business is the shot in the arm we really need, and we're ready for it," Mr. Rodrigue said.

Special task forces have reviewed every detail that could cause challenges during a convention, from transportation and health care to public safety and hospitality training. "We've got a unified city at a level better than anywhere else," Mr. Perry said. "Our faces will be hurting, we'll be smiling so hard." Mr. Perry doesn't expect things to be perfect, however. "We expect that there will be wrinkles. There always are," he said. "But we're going to fix them immediately."

New Orleans still faces major challenges rebuilding the workforce it needs to support a big convention industry. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma, as the city grapples with how to attract enough workers when demand for full staffing hasn't quite resumed.

Before Katrina hit, tourism employed 85,000 people in New Orleans. Nine months later, about half have returned, in part due to a shortage of adequate housing.

In the French Quarter, "Help Wanted" signs fill the windows of restaurants and shops. Some eateries have cut back hours or eliminated lunch service to have enough staff for the crucial dinner operations. Hotels have cross-trained employees to help balance staffing for lighter business and offer enough hours for workers to support themselves.


Questions about quality of service, costs and accessibility aside, some meeting planners aren't sure what the psychological legacy of Katrina will be for visitors. Many planners may remain cautious, watching the city's weather a few more hurricane seasons before returning.

"They did that in Florida, but they'll ultimately come back," said Deborah Sexton, chief executive of the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association. The experiences of visitors in the city's first post-Katrina conventions will be key, Mr. Hacker said: Will they "feel empowered and uplifted, or will it be a downer?"

Both Ms. Sexton and Mr. Hacker are optimistic about the city's ability to return and have already booked their next available conventions there.


After Katrina, officials from the library association – like many of its peers – considered relocating. But finding available space for a group of its size proved difficult. After getting encouraging reports from a site inspection in November, the group opted to stay.

"We just thought, 'What if every other conference bails on the city?' " said Leslie Burger, the association's president-elect. "We bring $20 million in economic impact, and we made a decision that we would help New Orleans get back on its feet again." The group worked closely with city tourism officials to get frequent updates on its rebuilding efforts.

Stories about the city's progress were posted on its conference Web site, along with information to allay concerns over health issues. The group set up volunteer events for members to help in the rebuilding effort. "People are really excited to help the city," Ms. Burger said.

As I've mentioned, rebuilding the workforce may be more difficult than rebuilding the hotels. And while New Orleans has a couple of years to get things in order before the 2008 Democration Convention delegates show up, its the impression they make this year that will impact whether they have a real shot a getting the convention.