If all goes according to plan, New Orleans' citywide meeting and convention schedule should be “in full swing” by fall 2006. That was the recent assessment given by Kitty Ratcliffe, executive vice president, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, during a November Webcast (sponsored by Meeting Professionals International) on the status of New Orleans.

While the convention center will be open for public events such as boat and garden shows by January, the ongoing renovations to the meeting space mean that the first groups using the building for meetings won't arrive until May, and citywides won't resume until June. “By the summer,” said Ratcliffe, “the city will feel normal to most people.”

One of the main issues remains staffing, Ratcliffe says, but as inhabitants return to the city, that problem should ease. “Overall, staffing is at about 50 percent of pre-Katrina levels,” she said. There are 17,000 hotel rooms open and occupied (mostly by relief workers), restaurants are reopening, and basic services such as power, sewer, and water are back on line.

While the Hyatt has canceled all group business until April 1, 2007, 450 of its rooms are housing FEMA staff, the mayor's staff, and construction workers. Several other large hotels — Fairmont, Ritz-Carlton, and the Park Plaza — are closed because they were in a section of Canal Street that took on water in the basements, requiring major rework of the mechanical systems, she explained. All are expected to reopen by September 2006. Most of the other hotels that planners would book are operating, although at less than full capacity. Ratcliffe added that media reports of no available housing are “simply false.” The people who lived in the three hardest-hit areas will have to find alternate housing, but the rest of the areas are fine. And “there is plenty for sale and rent.”

The airport is at about one-third of capacity, Ratcliffe said, with 53 nonstops serving 22 cities. “The airlines are using the convention calendar to gauge future needs.” Bus service is available to all areas where visitors would go, and more than half of the taxis are in service, she added.

Ratcliffe said that groups with commitments beyond next June “have made decisions to stay in New Orleans.” Leads for future meetings are multiplying, and “there are deals to be had.”