New Orleans, Louisiana

Business in the Big Easy

New Orleans, Louisiana

Business in the Big Easy

Cajun and Creole cuisine. Landmark architecture. Jazz. Art. Shopping. Gambling. The Superdome. The Mississippi. All of this and world class convention facilities for business meetings and events are contributing to the success of the the French Quarter as a boomtown. Let the good times roll in New Orleans!

While the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 both had a devastating effect on tourism, the business community pulled together to continue developing the city.

The result? In 2012, 9 million visitors spent $6 billion in New Orleans, numbers which haven’t been seen in a decade. Business tourism accounts for a significant portion of that success. By 2018, the city is planning for as many as 13 million visitors, according to Tara Letort, director of group public relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

I traveled to Nawlins at the end of April to experience it for myself — believe it or not, it has been nearly 20 years since I last visited. My view today? More meeting and event planners will definitely choose and return to New Orleans. And more Americans and international business travelers will discover and return to this city, too.

It seems nearly everyone likely knows someone who has been here at least once for a major event, such as the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras or a business meeting. After returning home, my neighbor mentioned in passing that friends joined him for a getaway to The Big Easy in 2010, and they cheered the city’s return to tourism while watching the Saints take the NFC championship at the Superdome.

New Orleans is like no other U.S. city, and hospitality is its number one industry. Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning a meeting or visiting New Orleans:

The French Quarter

The Crescent City has many neighborhoods, but the French Quarter is where business events are hosted. Established by the French in 1718, it is bound by Canal Street, Decatur Street, Esplanade Avenue and Rampart Street. It boasts a historic past with cultural contributions from the French, Spanish, Italians, Sicilians, Africans, Irish and others.

The French Quarter is filled with restaurants, music venues, shopping and tourist activities. Royal Street, Charles Street and Bourbon Street are popular with visitors. You’ll find everything from antiques and art to touristy and tacky gifts. There’s also the baudy nightlife that you expect.

If you enjoy architecture, the French Quarter is known for its amazing balconies and terraces with intricate ironwork from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as historic mansions and gardens. During my visit, expert guide Frank Curie of Historic New Orleans Tours, Inc. (which offers a full range of tour programs) highlighted Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, the city’s unique Creole history, the role of the Quadroon Ballroom in Creole society and other historic landmarks.

French Quarter Hotels

The French Quarter and central business district have several great hotels. New Orleans has more than 22,000 sleeping rooms within a two mile radius, according to data from the New Orleans CVB. And the city has more than 110 hotels.

If you’re searching a business hotel in the heart of the French Quarter, consider Hotel Monteleone, Omni Royal Orleans Hotel and Royal Sonesta Hotel. Hotel Ambassador is a three-star hotel that’s located four blocks from the quarter and has received favorable feedback. Other hotels that are steps to the action yet relatively quiet enough at the end of the night include the Marriott New OrleansRitz-Carlton New Orleans and The Roosevelt Hotel (see our review).

Just a few more minutes away is The Hyatt Regency New Orleans, and it caters to conventions: 200,000 square feet of flexible space, 80,000 square feet of exhibition space, two 25,000 square foot ballrooms, 70 meeting rooms, and 1,193 hotel rooms. The lobby is contemporary, and check-in is designed to handle a large number of guests, including self-check and other options. The hotel offers several dining options, including a range of fresh catering options and local sourcing. (I look forward to returning so that I can road test and share more with you how Hyatt Regency New Orleans differentiates itself and serves the meetings industry.)

Dining in New Orleans

New Orleans is certainly known for its great food — 1,300 restaurants. And if you’re not careful, you’ll take a few extra pounds home by the end of your visit. Seafood and steaks are obvious choices for New Orleans, but another local favorite you’ll find everywhere is turtle soup, and that’s one of their delicacies.

Another standout is how this city can serve as an inspiration for sustainability in the U.S. — something that is very difficult given the way food is imported and transported around the country. Many restaurants and hotels source their food locally, and adjust their menus by season. Dickie Brennan, John Besh and Emeril Lagasse are just a few of the celebrity names in New Orleans who are leading the way.

The Brennan family has operated establishments here for generations. Dickie Brennan opened Tableau this year (it’s located  just off the corner of Jackson Square). In a beautifully restored building, Tableau’s interior is a nod to the city’s Spanish heritage and housed on the site of the last Spanish Governor to rule over Louisiana. This distinction is what allowed Brennan to extend the balcony — a gallery — for dining. The menu showcases regional ingredients and classic French Creole dishes with a unique twist.

My meal included a seafood plate and the Rib Steak Bordelaise, a 22 oz. bone-in rye-eye served with an amazing roasted bone marrow and red wine sauce. The atmosphere here is relaxing and you’ll enjoy a pleasant evening. Tableau also has several private event spaces, including the use of an outdoor terrace and its very private wine room for very intimate and memorable gatherings for up to 18 people. (I highly recommend considering this new restaurant for future events.) Dickie Brennan is also the owner of the famous Palace Cafe on Canal Street.

John Besh was a rising star chef in New Orleans who grew to celebrity status after Katrina as a result of his initiative to feed relief workers and others immediately after the disaster. That should certainly catch the attention of meeting planners. Today, Besh has nine restaurants, including August, his flagship restaurant. I had dinner at Besh’s Domenica and Luke restaurants.

Domenica is a dressy casual restaurant with Italian influences that are warm and inviting. The concept captures the essence of a traditional Sunday supper in a rural Italian village, where each beautiful dish is lovingly prepared with the purest ingredients according to age old techniques. Luke is another Besh restaurant. It is also dressy casual,. This authetnic brasserie that combines German and French old world cooking techniques. Surprisingly, it is also recognized as having the best burger and fries, so I decided to try that — and I certainly agree. By the way, Luke has some nice, semi-private event space.

I had breakfast at the Court of Two Sisters Restaurant with Aynsley Fein, director of group sales and party planner for the restaurant, and she is a great resource in New Orleans for meeting professionals (and willing to share her insider tips that will help make your event very special for guests). This is a dressy casual restaurant is the only one in town with a daily Jazz brunch buffet (features more than 80 items) and a Creole a la carte dinner. The Court of Two Sisters has the largest historical courtyard in the French Quarter (frequently used for private special events).

Things to Do in New Orleans

The Mardi Gras City is known for fun, and there are many museums and venues to explore (which are also popular for private events and receptions), including Aquarium of the Americas, Insectarium Museum, Mardi Gras World and Louisiana State Museum, among others. And tours — plantation, garden district, haunted, cemetery, swamp and city tours — are extremely popular.

My visit began with a Harbor Cruise and lunch aboard the Steamboat Natchez, which departs from Toulouse at the Mississippi River. Tickets are at the Gray Line Light House where the cruise also departs. This two-hour cruise from the heart of the French Quarter takes you back when cotton was king and life was as slow and graceful as the current on the Mississippi. During the cruise, I actually met a couple who was visiting New Orleans from Northwest Canada. They told me they were in town for a convention at the Hyatt Regency, and then extended their stay — perfect way to leverage their time when traveling for business.

Another unique activity is a Swamp & Bayou Tour (Gray Line), and it also departs from Toulouse at the Mississippi River. Within a short 30 minute drive, you can experience the timeless beauty of South Louisiana in a custom built swamp boat through part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park – Barataria Preserve. You’ll watch alligators as they swim and sun themselves, and have a chance to meet and hold a baby alligator in your hands along the way. That was one of my favorite memories from the trip.

New Orleans has plenty of nightlife options, but Pat O’Brien’s is a highlight. It has an outdoor patio and a traditional Irish bar. Find a table in the Piano Bar, where you can order a Hurricane and listen to a full range of music. The evening I visited, they played Creedence Clearwater’s Proud Mary, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and many others. Simply write your request on a napkin, tip the talent, wait for your song and sing along. Oh yea, and you’ll make new friends all around you by the end of the night.

If you’re looking for authentic jazz music, check out Frenchman Street (including Snug Harbor, DBA and Spotted Cat). Or head over to Harrah’s New Orleans if you’re searching for gaming and casino entertainment.

For meeting planners considering a very special activity, the French Quarter streets can become a unique venue where corporate and association events take to the streets “Mardi Gras style” as they transfer from one location to another through the city (ask your destination management contact or the New Orleans CVB for more information).

Logistics and Weather in New Orleans

Louis Armstrong International Airport is a quick 15 mile drive to downtown New Orleans. Once you’re in the French Quarter, everything is extremely walkable. Groups have the full range of options to transfer attendees, and taxis are easy to find.

New Orleans has a subtropical climate with pleasant year-round temperatures. Temperatures range from the mid 40s°F in winter to the upper 90s°F in the summer. Rainfall is common in New Orleans, with a monthly average of about five inches of precipitation.

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Rob is editor of Business Travel Destinations. He was voted among the top 10 business travel bloggers by USA TODAY 10Best. Rob reviews international destinations for meetings and events -- where business travelers go, the hotels where they stay and their lifestyle preferences on the road. He spent more than a decade planning hundreds of corporate events throughout the U.S. for a Fortune 50 company, including meetings, conferences, seminars, executive retreats and other special events. Rob was previously the event planning guide for About.com (owned by The New York Times Company) from 2007 - 2011. His articles have appeared in business travel publications and travel sites internationally.