NEW ORLEANS, La.— New Orleans tourism and convention officials are hoping they've finally turned the corner in getting the sagging industry back up on its feet.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, some 10 million visitors traveled annually to the city. Now, after a dramatic nosedive, bookings have been solidly building throughout the year and officials are projecting that the city will have six million visitors by the end of 2007.
The city's convention and visitors bureau has seen trends that would indicate a promising trend – more affluent visitors. While overall numbers of visitors are still down, their overall spending is up and they seem to be more civic minded as well.
Long road back
The American College of Surgeons and the International Association of Police Chiefs both helped add to the city's bottom line with large meetings this month. The American Academy of Ophthalmology will host one of the largest gatherings since the storm next month with some 25,000 attendees.
For workers in the hospitality industry it almost seems like old times, with full hotels and packed restaurants. But it's definitely been a difficult road back.
First came the task of physical repairs to the industry's infrastructure. The city's Morial Convention Center underwent millions of dollars in renovations after serving as an impromptu shelter of last resort for thousands of people.
Repairs to hotels have continued at a steady pace to a point where there are now 31,000 hotel rooms available, compared to 38,000 before the storm. And visitors are flying in – at the Louis Armstrong airport flight levels will be back up to over 75 percent of what they once were within the month.
And, in one of the real success stories, according to local food critic Tom Fitzmorris, there are now more restaurants open in New Orleans than there were before Katrina. No one said the recovery would be easy, but at least everyone will be well fed, an important thing for a city that prides itself on its cuisine.
Perhaps an even more difficult task had been convincing visitors to return. A real turning point came when the American College of Cardiologists hosted a conference this past spring that brought more than 26,000 conventioneers to the city. It was the first big convention in the city post-Katrina.
Convention organizers took a huge leap of faith to proceed with their plans. In the end though, the conference's senior director Sue Sears Hamilton said it was the right thing to do.
"The city has always been so good to us. We felt that the college really wanted to be a part of the rebuilding of this city and the hospitality industry," said Hamilton. A lot of meeting planners were closely watching the cardiologist's convention, and when it went off without a hitch, it eased a lot of concerns.
And the cardiologists are not alone in their hopes to give back while visiting. Every convention that rolls through town offers attendees an opportunity to get out in the community and help with the rebuilding effort.
Volunteer work, like painting schools or mowing playgrounds is now as much a part of the visitor experience in New Orleans as is a trip down Bourbon Street or a steamboat ride on the Mississippi. One convention organizer even went so far as to say that opportunities for volunteerism are a selling point in deciding whether to bring a meeting to the city.