Wednesday, June 21, 2006

New Orleans hotels look for tourists to return

WE'VE MOVED! Democratic Convention Watch is now at

I've been tracking the recovery of New Orleans' tourism business, and the first big test starts tomorrow. New Orleans CityBusiness provides a good overview of how things are going:

About 25,000 convention attendees will visit New Orleans by the end of this month, which begins a crucial tourism return to downtown hotels post-Hurricane Katrina. At hotels like the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, where convention and meeting business made up 75 percent of the hotel’s bottom line, tourists have been absent since Katrina. But the Hilton Riverside is serving as headquarters for 3,000 attendees to the Air and Waste Management Association convention, which ends Thursday.

General Manager Fred Sawyers of the Hilton said he has worked with out-of-town meeting planners ever since Katrina inviting them to see core tourism areas are intact. Some clients, Sawyers said, have tried to drop out of 2008 and 2009 commitments claiming force majeure, an act of God rendering hotel services unavailable.

“If we get people to visit, we have a lot of success. But convincing them to come see it is a challenge,” Sawyers said. “Two important questions will be addressed in the summer: The first is ‘Can you really pull off a big convention again?’ and ‘Can you survive another hurricane season?’ ... If we do the first convention well, the pace should pick up by September.”

The first major convention calling on New Orleans will be the 20,000-attendee American Library Association June 22-28 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Convention Center officials are calling for 8,000 peak room nights while the group is in town.


Some downtown hotels are still repairing meeting space damaged by Katrina while others have booked local organization meetings and companies to fill the void of fewer conventions.

The Omni, which reopened to tourist reservations Dec. 1 after FEMA guests checked out, reports business in the spring is off 30 percent from the same 2005 period. The hotel recently held a wine tasting and Vintner’s Dinner event given by Rib Room chef Anthony Spizale and Gallo Family Vineyards as part of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. “The hotel is also still getting a lot of wedding business,” said Noto. “We’ve always done a lot of destination weddings.”

The Hilton Riverside has served as the temporary home of students from Dillard University, whose campus was severely damaged by the floodwaters that ravaged Gentilly. Sawyers said students will remain in class there until early July.

The hotel has given some Dillard students part-time jobs. Sawyers said 90 percent of the original management staff returned and he expects more of the line-level employees to return soon. Last month, 25 line-level employees at the Hilton Riverside returned to their pre-Katrina jobs, Sawyers said.

The Hilton Riverside had up to $50 million in damages from Katrina with water leaks from the roof causing a great deal of trouble. The storm tore the roof from the health club, which is above the meeting spaces. Water came through the hole and seeped down to the meeting spaces. Sawyers said 85 percent of the meeting spaces have been refurbished and a new ballroom was constructed in May.

The Marriott suffered minimal rain damage and has been open since Nov. 1. “We’ve had a solid first quarter,” Chambers said. “Room sales are comparable to the same period last year but the hotel’s ancillary business has suffered, like catering, food and beverage service.”

Flooding at the Fairmont damaged the heating, electrical and air conditioning systems, all in the basement. Roof damage also caused rain damage in the higher floors. Michael Touchy, Fairmont director of marketing, says the company plans to reopen in early fall. “You don’t get a medal for opening first. We want to do it the correct way.”

The Fairmont continues to assure clients its 70,000 square feet of meeting space and all rooms and restaurants will return with the old ambiance intact.


Hotel officials say it is vital for out-of-towners see tourist areas are doing fine. At the Omni, Noto brought in clients for the French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest to spread good word-of-mouth. Chambers says most prospective clients worry about staffing levels at hotels and restaurants, the condition of downtown and the status of the airport. “People need to be convinced we can weather another storm,” he said. “The New Orleans you know and love needs you right now and we can deliver.”•

I'll update here with reports of how the ALA meeting at the Convention Center goes this week.