Under the steamy New Orleans sun, shuttle buses drop off passengers at regular intervals at Hall F of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Attendees stroll into the chilled air of the center, chatting with each other or on cellphones as they head to the opening session in the newly refurbished hall, its garish orange carpet replaced with one with a soothing blue pattern. The scene is like hundreds of others at convention centers around the country, but there's a difference. “You are pioneers,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin will tell American Library Association convention attendees that night. “You are sending a signal to the world right now that New Orleans is OK.”
It's hard to believe that just 10 months ago television screens around the world showed a very different picture of New Orleans and its convention center, where thousands of desperate refugees from Hurricane Katrina were holed up for days, begging for food, water, and rescue.
The arrival of the ALA — held June 22 to 28, the first citywide convention since Katrina — bringing some 17,000 delegates and 1,600 exhibitors and utilizing some 26 hotels around the city, is a kind of redemption for New Orleans. Once one of the country's top convention destinations, New Orleans was shut down for convention business for nearly a year as the city worked furiously to repair both its damaged infrastructure and its public image after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city last fall and subsequent rescue efforts were bungled. Many groups scheduled to come to New Orleans in 2006 canceled or rescheduled their conventions. The ALA did not. One reason is Deidre Ross.
Ross, director of conference services for the ALA, visited New Orleans in November 2005. “It wasn't as bad as everybody said,” she says, remembering her initial reaction. “What they were saying they could deliver looked doable to us.” So, in December, ALA announced that it was going to New Orleans. Over the next six months, ALA staff visited four more times, and each time they came away more convinced that the decision was a good one. Ross herself visited twice as did the executive director. “I couldn't see any reason that anybody would stay away, neither could the board, neither could upper management,” Ross explains.
But then, the American Library Association is not your average association. This is the group, unlike many others, that did not cancel its 2003 convention in Toronto after an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome broke out in the city just weeks before the its annual convention was to begin. The ALA is a group with a mission, a mission that was clear in New Orleans for several days in June.
Wearing a dark pin-striped suit, Laura Bush receives a standing ovation as she walks on stage in the auditorium at the Morial Convention Center to deliver the ALA's Town Hall address on Monday afternoon. The First Lady, a former librarian, talks about the importance of school libraries. Secret Service personnel stand guard throughout the room. (Earlier an attendee who carried in a protest sign was quickly escorted out of the auditorium.) Another librarian quietly hands out fliers inside the auditorium protesting George Bush's support of the Patriot Act and the Iraq War.
The First Lady had been scheduled to attend the 2007 ALA meeting in Washington D.C., but she expressed interest in attending this meeting in the wake of Katrina, so ALA worked to make it happen on short notice. For Ross, it meant major face time with White House personnel and Secret Service on Sunday and Monday. “There were a lot more meetings than I would have expected,” she says. “Luckily, I have a good staff that can pick up the slack.” (She had her usual staff of 10 for this meeting, plus some volunteers. See “Realtors” sidebar, page 16.)
Accommodating Bush and her entourage (not to mention other VIPs at the meeting such as Madeline Albright, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu), added to the anxiety that Ross was already feeling. If anything went wrong, Ross knew that responsibility would fall, at least in part, on the meeting planning staff. “I'm usually pretty calm,” Ross says. “But I felt a lot of pressure for this meeting.…We can't just sit back and say the city goofed up.'”
That pressure spiked when a week before the ALA meeting headlines around the country reported five murders in New Orleans. Mayor Nagin called in the National Guard to help patrol the streets and restore order in parts of the city. (Troops were deployed in the desolated areas of the city, where the violence had occurred, thus freeing up more police for the rest of the city, including the tourist districts.)
It wasn't the best PR for New Orleans — or for the ALA convention.
“Calling in the National Guard did upset our people when it first happened,” says Ross, who was in the city at the time. “But we got information from the CVB, and our executive director sent out a letter, and that helped calm everybody down and the whole thing became a non-issue.”
Crime had not been a big concern for Ross in the days and months before the convention. Her main concern was whether the city would have enough service personnel and labor to handle the demands of a group the size of the ALA convention. After all, New Orleans has lost nearly half of its population since Katrina. It helped that convention center officials gave ALA an extra week for set-up of its exhibit hall, allowing them to move in June 12 as opposed to June 19, should the general contractor, GES, have problems finding local labor.
When Ross arrived on Monday the 19th, she was pleased to see that the exhibit floor was mostly set up and things were progressing smoothly. GES hired all local labor, Ross says, and they told Ross the labor pool was actually better than before Katrina.
Another area of concern was ground transportation. “I knew the hotels and restaurants would be fine because I had taken site inspections,” Ross says, “but I hadn't experienced the ground transportation, and that was what I was worried about.” In particular, she was concerned that there could be a shortage of bus shuttles to accommodate arrivals at the airport. She also wanted to make sure that there were enough taxis in the city, since many had been destroyed in the floods.
To address these concerns and others, the bureau had set up a transportation task force — one of four created for the ALA meeting. For this meeting, there was no way the New Orleans CVB was going to leave anything to chance.
Ready for Prime Time
As much as ALA had at stake with its convention, Stephen Perry, CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan CVB, and his staff had even more. For a city that derives 35 percent of its income from tourism, failure to perform would carry a hefty price tag. “This was not an exhibition game, this was the real deal,” Perry says. And a lot of people were watching. The media glare, though not as intense as in the days after Katrina, was relentless during the week of the ALA event, both from national and trade media — not to mention nearly two dozen meeting planners who were in town to see how the city handled the ALA convention.
So, the city put on the full court press to make sure it was ready, establishing task forces to oversee the progress in different parts of the hospitality industry, including hotel operations, transportation, city services (trash pick-up, sign-age), and marketing. To deal with the ALA's concerns about ground transportation, for example, the city guaranteed a minimum of 500 taxis on the street, with many brought in from nearby Jefferson Parish. While there was some back-up for shuttles on Saturday morning at the airport, CVB officials were on site helping to coordinate and facilitate, and the volume of arrivals was handled without complaint. Also, there were shuttle buses, sponsored for ALA by publishing company Thomson Gale, running to and from the contracted hotels to the convention center.
(The only transportation snafu was with the airlines. Louis Armstrong International Airport is running about two-thirds of the flights that it had pre-Katrina, which drew some complaints from ALA travelers. Flights were full, so last minute changes were difficult to accommodate. Also, direct flights were expensive, while the cheaper alternative, connecting flights, were inconvenient. Saturday's performer, Mary Chapin Carpenter, was supposed to arrive at 10 a.m. the day of the show, but didn't arrive until 3 p.m.)
The CVB worked with the restaurant community so that they could pump up staffing for big crowds. Most of the 700 in and around the French Quarter are open. The Monday before the ALA convention, the CVB organized a French Quarter clean-up day where 500 hospitality industry employees spent the day sweeping, raking, and tidying up.
Moreover, about 27,300 of the 38,000 hotel rooms in the metropolitan area have opened, and of the 30 hotels in ALA's original block, only four were closed for repairs — the Ritz-Carlton, Omni Crescent, Iberville Suites, and Fairmont. The three anchor properties — the Hilton Riverside, Sheraton, and Marriott — picked up the slack. Hotels also manage the peaks and valleys with smaller staffs by having employees work longer shifts when conventions come. As occupancy levels grow, so will staff levels, says one hotelier.
In addition, about 75 percent of the convention center has been updated with new softgoods, and furniture, with Halls A and B to open in October.
“We're trying to send the message that we're going to have service levels and a welcoming atmosphere that surpasses anything we had before the storm,” says Perry. The CVB unveiled a new campaign called, “We're Jazzed You're Here,” visible on signs and banners throughout the city. “It's become embedded in the consciousness of the citizens and business people here.”
Besides minor grievances related to flights, Ross says she has heard no complaints from attendees — quite the contrary.
It's the final day of the conference, and a giant, red ribbon embraces the newly renovated and reopened Children's Resource Center, part of the New Orleans Library System, whose libraries were largely demolished by Katrina. The air is hot and humid, but for the hundreds in the crowd it couldn't be a better day. ALA volunteers have worked to restore the library and are here at the ribbon-cutting ceremony to present their gift to the city, one of 22 libraries worked on by some 1,000 librarians during the ALA convention. After all, what's a city without its libraries?
The grand reopening of the Children's Resource Center is a highlight for Ross. It was an ambitious project — an extreme makeover in five days. “I can't believe we pulled it off,” she says. A sense of deep satisfaction in having given back to the city, both tangibly and intangibly, is something that permeates the ALA both during the conference and afterwards. For Ross, it was also the culmination of a week that, in the end, went very well.
When she returned to her Chicago office after the meeting, Ross' mailbox was filled with letters from attendees who told her they were so happy they went. “It was a love fest,” Ross says, as residents embraced ALA in the bars, restaurants, and shops throughout the city. “I was in a restaurant and the chef came out to thank me,” recalls Ross. “That's how happy people were that we were there.”
But the love fest did not come without some financial consequences for the ALA. The group expected about 18,000 people for the convention, lowering its pre-Katrina projections from about 20,000. So, it budgeted for 18,000, but wound up with about 17,000. It was the lowest attendance rate in Ross' 10 years at ALA — slightly lower even than the meeting in Toronto during SARS. That's 5,000 lower than the last time ALA was in New Orleans in 1999, and 10,000 less than last year's record-setting attendance in Chicago.
“We knew from our advanced planning that we were going to scale down our expectations and once we did that, we came in pretty close,” says Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of ALA. Fiels doesn't expect any budget shortfalls or spending cuts to make up for any revenue shortfalls. ALA derives only about 15 percent of its revenue from meetings, so they are not the primary revenue generator, he says. Secondly, ALA had built up significant cash reserves and tapped into that surplus for this meeting.
“We set aside a cushion of a couple hundred thousand dollars, and, including cash reserves, that will be more than enough to actually cover any differences,” he says. Thirdly, they could scale back on some meeting costs, such as food and beverage and transportation simply because there were fewer attendees. “We came out in pretty good shape.”
However, the decision to come to New Orleans was not about the money. “It was more about supporting the city,” says Ross. ALA's bold move brought about $20 million in visitor spending to the city. Also, from the most part, they opted not to renegotiate hotel rates, paying the rates (about $160 to $170 per night at the Sheraton) that were agreed upon before Katrina hit. The group was also significantly driven by the opportunity to do some community service repairing the city's libraries.
“We made a statement and came to New Orleans because we wanted to help,” Ross says. “And I think we helped. Because that's what librarians do.”
A Tale of Two Cities
The story of New Orleans since Katrina has been called the tale of two cities. I visited the two “cities” at the American Library Association's annual convention, and was surprised by the condition of each. Strolling through the French Quarter or along the riverfront to the convention center, it was difficult to find evidence of hurricane damage. What was clear was how much the convention meant to residents. I couldn't walk down a street without seeing a placard in the window welcoming ALA. A popular T-shirt in stores featured the slogan, “Librarians Do It by the Book.”
My tour also took me to the “other” New Orleans — the one convention-goers won't see. Driving through the Lakeview and Gentilly neighborhoods near Lake Pontchartrain, the destruction was worse than imagined. I saw block after block of vacant, damaged, or destroyed homes. Many residents are waiting for either insurance money, contractors, or this hurricane season to pass before rebuilding. Some residents were cleaning out their gutted homes, hauling waterlogged debris to the front lawn. Others were living in trailers on their property while renovating. There were many “For Sale” signs. And as hard-hit as these areas were, the Ninth Ward, where most of the 1,500 Katrina-related deaths occurred, is even worse. This tale is far from over. While hotel occupancies will return to normal in a few years, locals say it will take five to 10 years to rebuild these neighborhoods.
Realtors Get an Inside Look
“We wanted to know what we would be headed for in November and if there were any areas that might need to be improved,” says Sue Gourley, vice president of the convention group at the National Association of Realtors, who was among four NAR planners who volunteered to serve on the American Library Association's meeting planning staff during ALA's annual convention in New Orleans.
The verdict? “We were very pleased,” Gourley says. When NAR comes to town, it will be the largest meeting in the city since Katrina. “Our goal is 30,000, but I would be very happy with 25,000, which would be 5,000 more than we had when we came to New Orleans in 2002,” she says. At press time, 8,400 had already registered, well ahead of last year's pace when NAR had record attendance in San Francisco. The rebuilding projects set up through Habitat for Humanity and the city are driving a lot of interest. “People are really excited about helping the community,” Gourley says.
Some areas that NAR planners were watching were air and ground transportation and restaurant service, but no red flags went up, she says.
To show members what the city is like, NAR sent a video crew to the ALA meeting, showing footage of the conference, convention center, French Quarter, and the community projects where NAR has volunteered to help. “If attendees see it, they're not going to have any concerns.”
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