Thursday, June 20, 2024
Home SE Places SE Destinations Only in New Orleans

Only in New Orleans

One-of-a-kind entertainment and grand venues abound in The Big Easy

By Carolyn Burns Bass

Lagniappe Brass Band plays in the French Quarter.
Lagniappe Brass Band plays in the French Quarter. || Photo by Chris Granger, courtesy of New Orleans and Co.

With its mélange of assets—premier location, exciting venues, plentiful accommodations, and comparable affordability—New Orleans is a meeting planner’s dream. “Where else can event managers immerse their attendees in powerful programming and then have them second line [parading, historically associated with jazz funerals in the city] through the streets of the birthplace of jazz, serenaded by a brass band, en route to a networking reception resplendent with one-of-a-kind entertainment and epic culinary offerings, all within a five-block radius ?” asks Kristin W. Durand, program coordinator of meetings and events for the Louisiana State Bar Association. “Only in New Orleans,” she notes.

A vibrant blend of French, African, Spanish, and Creole influences, the city’s diversity spices every element of New Orleans from its architecture to its music, art, and cuisine. The city stirs this rich cultural pot with business-forward vivacity, enticing visitors with an experience that goes beyond the conventional.

New Orleans doesn’t have a single draw, but many,” says Stephanie Turner, senior vice president of convention sales and strategies for New Orleans and Co., “beginning with our unique culture and history, the diversity of our people, and the welcoming nature and professionalism of our hospitality community. Everything is contained within about 2 1/2 square miles, and you can walk everywhere.”

Built to Host

New Orleans’ slogan, “Built to Host,” bears repeating. Between 2005—when Hurricane Katrina devasted the region—and the present, the city has undergone a transformation unparalleled in other American cities. Immediately after Katrina, New Orleans proved what can happen when civic, business, and citizen leaders unite. With hospitality factoring the largest share of New Orleans’ economy, leaders worked overtime to rebuild the city. With such vision and leadership, New Orleans was hosting major events by the following summer.

“In addition to all the renovation and growth that came after Katrina, we emerged with a $14.5 billion hurricane protection system that has worked extremely well,” says Turner. “Only 30 days after Hurricane Ida in 2021, we were back hosting several thousand people in the city. We have been a role model for other cities that have gone through disasters, and we have shared our expertise with others.” New Orleans now boasts a combined 3.6 million square feet of expo space, 1.3 million square feet of meeting space at various hotels, 26,000 hotel rooms within 2 1/2 miles of downtown, more than 500 eateries, nearly 100 attractions within walking distance of downtown hotels, and an international airport 30 minutes from the city center.

One of New Orleans’ greatest assets is its walkability. Four headquarters hotels, along with a bounty of other lodging options, are a short walk to the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the famed French Quarter, and most of the city’s attractions. Where attendees can’t walk, they can hop on a streetcar and ride like a local in between events. “It has been said that New Orleans is an ‘embarrassment of riches’ for visitors and natives alike,” says Bonnie Boyd, president of New Orleans’ BBC Destination Management. “It is these exceptional experiences that we delight in creating and delivering in our partnerships.” Boyd has a reputation for fostering the hospitality industry in New Orleans through active participation in educational, community outreach,
and hospitality groups.

Reducing the carbon footprint without restricting the iconic nature of New Orleans is apparent in many of the city’s behind-the-scenes operations. What happens to all those beads thrown during Mardi Gras and other events? They’re recycled at numerous hotels and other drop-off points in the city where the items are eventually cleaned and repackaged for reuse. Oyster shells from restaurants? An oyster shell recycling program has seen 13 million shells returned to the Gulf of Mexico to form natural reefs to protect Louisiana’s eroding shoreline. These are just a couple of the sustainability efforts making headway in the Crescent City.

Super Size & Super Smart

Stretching several blocks along the Mississippi River is the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (NOENMCC), which boasts 1.1 million square feet of contiguous meeting space. In addition to its expo halls at street level is The Great Hall, a 60,300-square-foot divisible, column-free ballroom with 25,400 square feet of multipurpose pre-function space. Other special spaces include the La Nouvelle New Orleans Ballroom with 36,448 square feet that can seat 1,800 attendees, and the 4,000-seat New Orleans Theater, which can be split into three acoustically separated theaters. In addition to several eateries and a food court, planners can stage VIP receptions, private lunches, and other intimate dining events at the upscale Ma Maison VIP Dining Suite.

The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has numerous meeting spaces
The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has numerous meeting spaces || Courtesy of New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center

Tucked inside the convention center is the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum. Opened last October, this permanent exhibit is part of the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail. It is this kind of connection between history and history-in-the-making that keeps premier organizations
booking the NOENMCC. “Most every event hosted at the NOENMCC is the most important event in the world, at that time, for that subject,” says Tim Hemphill, chief commercial officer at NOENMCC. “It is impossible to isolate one over the other when you consider that some of the biggest challenges the world faces, from cancer research to climate change, are discussed here on a regular basis.”

The Big Easy is also home to one of America’s iconic structures: the Caesars Superdome. Host to 10 Super Bowls and home to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the Superdome will premier a five-year renovation project on its 50th anniversary next year when it hosts its 11th Super Bowl. Not only is the Superdome legendary in sports, it also hosted Pope John Paul II in 1987, the Rolling Stones in 1981, and Prince in 2014, and, this fall, Taylor Swift will bring her record-breaking Eras Tour under the dome.

Get in the Second Line

A second line—that previously mentioned New Orleans tradition of twirling parasols, marching bands, and revelers waving handkerchiefs—is a festive way to move groups around, and there is a lot to entice groups in the Crescent City. Get a second line going from your meeting to a private dinner and take in a tour of the spectacular National World War II Museum, which recently underwent a $400 million expansion. Take an elevator up 34 floors to Vue Orleans for an interactive, multimedia extravaganza of local history and culture. The Audubon Aquarium near the French Quarter—which now offers 17,000 square feet of exhibit space—is ranked as one of the top five aquariums in the country by USA Today and showcases marine life from the Caribbean to the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, don’t forget to feed your second line by taking them on one of New Orleans’ many food tours or having a picnic with coffee and beignets from Cafe du Monde.

 Attendees can move around the city on the historic Riverfront Streetcar Line.
Attendees can move around the city on the historic Riverfront Streetcar Line. || Photo by Paul Broussard, courtesy of New Orleans and Co.

“I think New Orleans offers opportunity to every segment of our industry,” says Laurel McLane, co-owner of Take Charge Events based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and president of FUNdamentals Events of Omaha, Nebraska. “The Big Easy allows meeting planners to think outside the box. Hold your welcoming reception in a historic building or add a behind-the-scenes tour in one of the most recognized sports stadiums. Mix things up with ghost tours, the revamped and fascinating National World War II Museum, or rent out space for your farewell reception in one of the French Quarter’s iconic restaurants.” Emeril’s flagship restaurant is in the Warehouse District; over in the Garden District is Commander’s Palace, voted the best restaurant in New Orleans year after year. The French Quarter offers Arnaud’s, a quintessential foodie favorite, and Tableau, with a great balcony view. While the Crescent City is best known for its Cajun and Creole cuisine, if attendees want sushi, tikka masala, kebab, or pho, they will have plenty of choices.

Diners at Tableau have a view of Jackson Square.
Diners at Tableau have a view of Jackson Square. || Photo by Chris Granger, courtesy of New Orleans and Co.

“I love organizing small executive events in New Orleans due to the abundance of high-end restaurants that features some exceptional private dining spaces and impeccable service along with world-renowned food,” says Jacqueline Reeves, global trade show and events manager at Hach in Dayton, Ohio. “I have two favorite restaurants for private dining in New Orleans. The first is Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, a bucket list location for many attendees who eagerly anticipate trying the famous turtle soup. The second is Antoine’s in the French Quarter, a great location where I consistently wrap up meals with their iconic baked Alaska—an extra touch is having your company’s name inscribed on the dessert!”

Overnight & Meeting Arrangements

Among New Orleans riches are hotels offering flexibility for events, dining, and accommodations. Hilton New Orleans Riverside, New Orleans Marriott, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, and Hyatt Regency New Orleans are reliable headquarters hotels. Recent years have seen such luxury brands as Virgin and InterContinental grace the scene, with a Fairmont set to open in the city next year.

Hilton New Orleans Riverside boasts 130,000 square feet of event space inspired by classic French design. The Hyatt Regency New Orleans offers majestic options including its grand Empire Ballroom, with incredible floor-to-ceiling windows that will draw attendees in from the majestic grand staircase entrance. The luxurious Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans has several elegant room options for events that can host up to 850 people, reception-style. On the boutique side of things, planners cannot go wrong at the Maison de la Luz, offering three private event spaces: Bar Marilou, suited for intimate cocktail receptions; the Mezzanine, perfect for any corporate social hour; and the Breakfast Room, available for full buyouts.

After a $435 million expansion and renovation, the venerable Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel & Casino will rebrand this summer as Caesars New Orleans Hotel and Casino, with a new 340-room tower. The tower will feature a second hotel, Nobu Hotel New Orleans, for an exclusive hotel-within-a-hotel experience. With so many great options, the biggest meetings and events challenge in New Orleans is leaving enough time in the schedule for attendees to enjoy the city on their own.